Over time, I’ve become unhappy with the status quo of social media technology. It’s a blessing in the unprecedented access to untold volumes of unrestrained human knowledge and human interaction.
That is also its curse for anyone who wishes to practice restraint. What a lot of proponents of social media’s beautiful and right free speech miss is that reality has restraint built-in naturally. Communities are self-aware macro-organisms that self-censure behavior and speech through common interests, shame, honor, acceptance, and more. Naturally occurring relational boundaries act as a measuring, restraining, and guiding mechanism for speech and behavior.
These naturally occurring boundaries not only do not exist on social media, they are actively prohibited from occurring through both the design of the user interfaces and the algorithms which drive engagement. Everything, from content-length limitations to the flat and disorganized “friends” and “followers” features oppose naturally occurring embodied reality.
This is especially relevant for the faith-practitioner. A follower of Jesus is to practice love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control; they are to love their neighbor and their enemy, to bless their persecutor; and much more that I do not have space for. The point is that a person who wishes to practice their faith in a disembodied medium that has very little reflection of embodied reality will find it difficult to map what works in the real world to that medium.
I believe that the more we willingly engage on social media, without understanding the dissonance between the user interface we’ve been given and the personal interface we have in real space, the more we will mingle and overlap the virtual with the real to disastrous effect. With the good-faith belief that social media has a valuable place in our lives and yet plays an increasing role in our real world, I’m working out the following guidelines for how I engage as a faithful Christian.
- Spread joy
- One thing that all social media has in common is the ability for quick, snappy encounters. Use this as an opportunity to bring joy to yourself and others.
- Consider how your social media content can be used to build up and encourage other people; this often brings joy to people you may not even know.
- Promote peace
- Outrage and other types of attention-seeking is elevated and promoted by the algorithms on every social media site. When outrage is encountered, disengage.
- Create content and messaging which is counter to attention and outrage and instead is peaceful and neighborly, even when the subject matter could be controversial.
- In the real world at real interactions such as church, clubs, and other social gatherings, discuss social media posts and ask personally that others share each others peaceful posts on their platforms.
- Speak in love
- When outrage and controversy are unavoidable, remember your love for the other person.
- Disagreements, no matter how strong, do not create enemies; they create opportunities to love.
- Truth, no matter how important, is no master of love; instead, you must practice love and be willing to give up your desire to be right in order to fulfill your duty of care for your fellow human.
- Wait with patience
- Social media is designed for quick, fast gratification; instead of immediate replies, consider the urgency and wait 12 to 24 hours.
- There is a cultural pull to respond quickly, with outrage sometimes being expressed; someone else’s outrage is not your emergency.
- Prefer meeting in person over extremely heated topics; body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice can go a long way toward mutual benefit and mutual understanding.
- Show goodness
- When encountering the plea of the oppressed, poor, grieving, and orphaned, have solidarity with their experience and seek to understand
- Invite others into the real world for constructive projects that help others, or that give others an opportunity to be a help
- Express a willingness to learn from mistakes, and then admit you have made a mistake and what you have learned when confronted
- Be kind
- Being polite and gracious shows strength to others, not weakness, and will be perceived as a threat; therefore, do not stop when others are base, crass, and demeaning.
- Stop and listen to the oppressed, poor, grieving, and orphaned; when given the opportunity to contribute, speak in a personal, humanizing manner.
- When people are expressing hurt, show kindness through comfort and support.
- Respond gently
- Often, outrage and attention-seeking come from valid places of emotion and experience; write in ways that show appreciation for their experience and understanding for their real hurt and real abuse.
- Harshness and sarcasm, even in good faith, will be picked up by the algorithm and amplified; piling on is easy, understanding is hard and takes time (see also patience).
- Work faithfully
- Consistency is good, but not at the expense of character; a faithful interaction in a social media thread acknowledges personal inconsistency and works at improving.
- Seriously, when encountering ambiguous or vague interactions and the right path is not clear, admit publicly that you do not know the right thing to do and disengage.
- Consider how your interactions on social media give an impression of who you are as a person in real life; do your best to act in a way which reflects you in reality, and not a made up impression of who you are.
- Exercise self-control
- Stop, look, and listen; disengage when what is demanded of you is hate, harshness, inconsistency, destruction, division, hurry, or evil.
- Limit your friends and followers to people you actually know in real life.
- Friendships made online should extend into the real world for the mutual benefit of both people.
User interface thoughts
- Conversations should map to real exchanges, but instead are typically a pile of one-off replies and no real recognition of timing, much like shouting over each other
- Twitter “threads” encourage disconnected isolated readings, generally out-of-context
- Better format would be similar to Discourse, where both the initiation of the conversation, all replies, and the thread as a whole can be traversed in-context
- Even better might be time-stamping and ordering replies at the initiation of the reply rather than when the reply is completed.
- Friends and followers
- Google+ may have actually done something right with their “circles” feature
- Friends should not be flat one-level hierarchies, but instead broken out into levels relative to one’s real life; having very few close friends, some family, some friends, and acquaintances is good as it reduces intimacy fatigue
- Allow followers, but don’t let them engage directly with content; instead, the difference between followers and friends is that friends get to engage closely with the original poster, but followers engaging are broken out into isolated discussions related to their localized friend-tiers (which may not have overlap with the original poster)
- Take lengthy, nuanced content off of social media platforms on to more blog-like settings
- Moderate algorithms to promote more mentally healthy multimedia instead of just engagement
- Break out the concept of a conversation from content creation, as they are two wholly separate and different yet complimentary things