Anyone over 30 will remember a time when the household phone was attached to the wall, when messages between school friends were passed discreetly in class on cleverly folded paper, when updates about family goings-on were sent on greeting cards through the mail, and when photographs had to be developed, printed, paid for, and distributed through the postal service.
The advent of consumer access to the internet and cell phones beginning in the early 1990s dramatically altered how people communicate. Phones are now found in pockets, notes are sent as text messages, family updates appear perpetually on Facebook, and photos are freely shared instantaneously with thousands through Instagram.
Interconnectivity through digital media has amplified our ability to connect and communicate, and it has brought with it both the blessings that come from connections with loved ones and the curses stemming from the manic nature of constant interruption. How is the conscientious user of digital media to use these tools for good and avoid using them for selfish gain to the detriment of their neighbor?
Social media today makes for a head-spinning world. If you are trying to wrap your head around Facebook and Twitter for the first time, you may struggle to know how you (or your church) can best use them—or if you should use them at all. We’ll go through the most popular digital tools, giving a brief description of how they work, and then discuss some encouragements and warnings for using these tools.
Facebook is the most popular form of social media. It is highly interactive and extremely dynamic. Facebook users can comment on virtually everything, post longer text posts as well as pictures and links to web sites and videos. Businesses, organizations, and churches can also create Facebook pages (which are like web sites, but they are usually more interactive than web sites). Facebook used to focus on user account profiles, but over time it has begun to focus more on the newsfeed—a running, “curated” stream of posts, comments, and ads based on your network of Facebook friends.
Twitter plays second fiddle to Facebook for popularity, but it is still a big player in the world of social media. Users exchange tweets—text posts limited to 140 characters—that often turn into short, punchy exchanges. Twitter mostly uses text, but you’ll see plenty of images too.
Instagram is an image-based form of communication used primarily to share photos. It also allows users to cross-post instantly to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. It is owned by Facebook and has some similar features in that short amounts of text can accompany an image, and other users can comment and “like” posted photos.
Snapchat is another image-based platform that began as a way to share images that disappear after being viewed by the intended recipient. Although the messaging feature still exists, the Snapchat platform has recently morphed into something similar to Instagram as a place for a user to acquire followers and share images with all those followers.
YouTube is a social media platform for videos. It hosts everything from videos of sneezing baby pandas to music videos to film trailers to guitar lessons to RPTS student chapel sermons. Anyone can post a video on YouTube. All you have to do is create an account and start recording.
Each of these social media, although unique, shares the same goal: to be a platform on which a user acquires fans and followers to whom the user can push out any content they wish their followers to see.
Whenever you use social media you create a digital footprint. This footprint can be formed from content you intentionally post online, or it can be a less intentional track of your internet usage being picked up and analyzed by web sites, software companies, and browsers. Every step you take online leaves a trace of where you have been and what you have done. Although the less intentional actions can pose something of a security and privacy risk, unless managed properly, we are more concerned here with your intentional digital footprints.
We should add, though, that the term footprint doesn’t adequately convey the permanence of our interactions on social media. A more appropriate descriptor is digital tattoo. A footprint can be washed away, but a tattoo is far more permanent and painful to remove. It may be true that a careless comment or image can be deleted quickly, but we must not confuse that with ephemerality. You have little way of knowing who has already read the comment or who has seen the image. Plus, although you may have deleted the post, any of your followers could have already taken a screenshot of the post you just deleted. Christians and congregations must exercise caution as they decide what to leave as part of their digital tattoo.
Be conscious of how you represent yourself and your church over digital media. It is easy to misrepresent yourself, give yourself a bit of an airbrush treatment (or Instagram filter) to smooth over your wrinkles and spots. Avoid this temptation. Be meticulously careful to present yourself and your church truthfully. It doesn’t go without saying that while we must always tell the truth, merely being truthful is not enough. As Christians, God calls us to speak the truth in love. This requires wisdom to know how to speak the truth and when to refrain from speaking—which admittedly is difficult with these forms of media that beg your fingers to type a comment or status update.
Social Media Use
Before we get too deep into warnings about social media, let’s address its helpful and good uses. The first of these is that digital and social media make it easy for you to present yourself and your church in a way that is accessible to nearly the whole world. They provide a way to distribute information and to communicate with people quickly and over long distances. You can stay connected with your friends and family, both near and far.
They also provide the opportunity to create, not just to consume. If you have a skill or a craft to teach others, YouTube and blogs make it easy for you to pass this to other folks. It could be anything from car repairs to watercolors to guitar lessons to algebra tutorials. However you use social media, find ways that will encourage people to get back into the real world instead of just clicking on the next article or buying another thing.
Even if you don’t have a skill to pass on, you can still use social media to encourage others, to get in touch, to ask how they are doing, perhaps to schedule a phone call or a coffee date. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that social media is all about putting yourself on display.
Social Media Misuse
Now some warnings and suggestions. First and foremost, if you have any social media application on your cell phone, turn off the notifications! One of the fastest ways to get sucked into misuse of social media is to become a slave to it.
The developers of these apps include notifications so you will use their product as much as possible. The business model of social media networks is to sell usage statistics and data to advertisers. In a sense, social media users are the product, not the consumer. Read that again: you are the product.
Let that sink in and reflect on the role of notifications. They are there to get you to use the product more, and they work because they are biochemically addictive. Every time you see or hear a notification and then check your phone, your brain gives you a little dose of dopamine, which is a chemical that makes you feel good. Dopamine is addictive. App developers know this and they use this fact to get you back in. What this means for your usage is that every time you react to a notification, be it a good reaction (saying thank you for a kind comment) or a sinful reaction (posting a hurtful and inappropriate critique of someone), you feel good in a way.
As you dive into the endless stream of digital media, it is worth asking, Do you have a balanced diet? You might be reading plenty of news articles, keeping up on your friends’ Facebook posts, and tracking with your favorite pundit’s Twitter feed, but how are your Bible reading and prayer life? Have you a read a book lately? How often are you having meaningful face-to-face conversations?
Digital media are designed to keep you coming back for more, but more than simply knowing when to stop, you need to be feeding on the healthy stuff. Agree to some internet-free times (and rooms) in your home. Guard that dinner table with a flaming sword. Moses told Israel, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6-7). The Bible, not your phone, should be the first thing you pick up in the morning and the last thing you read at night. Time that you spend online fretting about the world would be much more effectively used in prayer—after all, you can’t even make one of your hairs white or black by worrying!
Digital and social media are powerful tools for communication, but, like other powerful tools, they amplify the good into great as well as the bad into terrible. For yourself and for your church, it is important to know how these tools work and how you can use them for good, while being aware of their pitfalls. As with everything, seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness when you log in.