Negotiating the Use of Social Media

John ArmstrongACT 3, Personal, Social Networking

I have become increasingly interested in what we now call “the social media.” You are interested too, at least to some extent, if you are reading this blog. I have expressed both praise and concern for this new media/social form of connecting people and information. I am reading and interacting a great deal more with friends who have made a serious study of this subject. Some of this input is rightly critical. I am reading books that are positive but some of the negative ones are also important to me. I am personally convinced of two things, at least for now.

First, this is a time of real and important change in human history. Such moments of real emergence only come around every 300-500 years, or so it seems, and this is one of those times in the 21st century. Whether we like it or not this new form of learning and communicating has changed the way we all live and it is changing the world in the process. Only a complete Luddite would disagree with this conclusion.

Second, social media is completely out of control in many contexts, especially among Christians. While we benefit from these new technologies immensely we also abuse them in much the same way that we have done with every other new technology. The reasons are not in the technology itself but in the human heart. In this case, however, the technology seems to increase the likelihood for abuse. This is not a reason, however, to reject the medium. It does call us to reflect more deeply, something in too short of supply inside the church, on what is happening and how godly people should use this new form of communication.

This is especially true with regard to Facebook. I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. There are times when I find it downright brilliant. I have reconnected with friends from my past, made new friends in real time and space in the present and even used it to get to know many people much, much better. But there are real problems here as well. Sometimes I want to stop using Facebook completely. Let me explain.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever replace touch and incarnation. We are living in a period of time when community has been broken down by centuries of individualism and rampant me-centered living. At the same time we are trying to use this new technology to, ostensibly, create deep and real relationships. The tensions here are very real. But this medium cannot do all it is expected to do. It is not the next way to utopia, that much I am quite sure about.

I am the kind of person who feels like “being a friend” on Facebook should have something to do with friendship. Yet I have allowed something like 2,300 people to become my “friends.” As I look over this list I do not know more than half of those on my Facebook site. I would say that I actually have met less than 400 of these Facebook friends. The reason for these numbers is more connected to my public persona than anything else. As an author and public leader I am inviting people to interact with me as a person and thus “friending” them. I like this but it has also created some very real problems that I intend to address in the coming weeks.

One example will suffice. People who are my “friends” will take a link or post of mine and then turn it around in a way that treats my comment as a place for “debate” and for publicly challenging me. This is not the way I deal with friends. It doesn’t mean that I cannot handle challenges but there is a time and a place for this to happen and it is not from “friends” on Facebook that I do not know. Many of these people are not a part of my life yet they are talking to others who do know me and acting as if they are a part of my life.

I suppose the easiest solution to this problem is to:

1. Create a Fan page, which changes the whole dynamic. I am inclined to do this but I still loathe the idea of having a “fan” page. The term is offensive to me. I am getting over it by understanding the limitations of this social media tool.

2. Disconnect (“unfriend”) people who repeatedly post comments that I find objectionable are counter to how I understand real friendship. This is what I am going to do even though it might “feel like” some kind of power play on my part. I can handle opposition but I simply do not need to read this kind of content every day on my Facebook “friends” page. I do not know about you but if I put something out there for friends to read I do not care to see a big debate spring up where I am taken to task by some overly aggressive person who loves to type all day on a screen. I sometimes want to scream: “Get a life and turn it off!”

3. If I take option two then I will likely create a “private” Facebook site for my real friends.

My desire is to really give people the opportunity to know me as an author and a Christian man. I do not need people debating with me all the time. If I link to something this is not because I agree with it entirely or because I want to get a debate started. I get enough of that in the right places in my life. As a teacher there is always time for Q & A and a time to teach. Facebook is not where I choose to have that time.

These blogs, which do link to my Facebook page, are more a place for dialog. For this reason I allow most every comment made to be posted, pro or con. I even post some that are rather mean and foolish as far as I am concerned. I think of some who begin with words like, “You have to be kidding, are you that foolish . . .  etc.” But remember, even editors of magazines and newspapers have always exercised wisdom in printing letters to the editor and I am given the same privilege here on the Internet. Some comments are just not worthy of posting so I do moderate these responses personally.

What do you think? How have you handled these same problems if you are using the social media? I would love to get some positive counsel from you as a reader. I want to show courtesy, respect and openness but I am frankly tired of cranky people writing cranky stuff that serves no really good purpose except to give them a place to treat me as anything but a friend. Maybe I am a tad sensitive but I do get tired of the 24/7 debate culture. It feels like a steady drip of social and personal poison to me.