Both sides of the screen
Social networking on the Internet is a wonderful thing. Dynamic online platforms like Facebook and Twitter have exploded into our lives with absolute abandon, and in doing so, completely and forever revolutionised how we communicate and interact with each other.
Like the sudden springing to life of a supernova within a galaxy, the meteoric growth of social networking has demanded space, attention and awe, and become as real as anything else we can touch and see.
This limitless deluge of information, ideas and beliefs have begun to shape and reshape our world in profound and colourful ways, and lit our imaginations to all the possibilities of future progress, achievement and adventure.
Use of social networking, however, unlike the grand possibilities its vision promises, is much like the falling star of communism: good in theory, but often beset with faults when put into practice, and eventually it crashes to earth.
So what do humanity, the universe, communism and social networking all have in common? Yes, they're all wonderfully made—intricate, creative and full of life—yet also all very natural, and therefore subject to inescapable imperfections.
Social networking was made by men and for men, and therefore, try as it might, it cannot and will not ever escape the natural shortcomings and failings of mankind.
Let's begin by looking at the human problem. This is easy to discern and can be summed up in one word: 'selfishness'.
Most of us would hope that our love for others, whether we are Christians or not, would always dominate our interactions with people while online. Unfortunately, it's often our desire to gain something for ourselves or protect ourselves in some way which becomes our primary motivation for either sharing or not responding to others.
The evidence for this speaks for itself, for who hasn't been burnt by social networking? Who hasn't been ignored or disagreed with? Who hasn't experienced a lack of response to what they've posted or been misinterpreted in some way? Who hasn't experienced a point of contention regarding ideas or perspectives? Or who hasn't come away from the online world feeling lonely or confused?
This selfishness stems from following our fleshly nature instead of the Spirit, and has mostly to do with pride, and a judgmental attitude towards others. It also comes when we start operating in fear as opposed to thinking about how we can encourage, support and caringly engage with each other, just as the Bible directs:
'Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others'
From this scripture we see that with the Holy Spirit, it is possible to social-network in a godly, loving and effective way. Unfortunately, as the reality of online communication often goes the other way, we must always make a concerted effort to interact with others according to the manner and methods of selflessness and the Holy Spirit.
Gaps and silences
The other problem with social networking is entirely out of the user's control, being completely platform-based.
The issue centres on the involuntary and often uncontrollable gaps and silences online communication creates.
If all humans were machines, we would always be able to acknowledge, respond and be aware of every single thing our hundreds or thousands of friends post. Unfortunately, as we're not synthetically wired social cyborgs, this isn't possible. No one has the time, energy or will to respond to every post which pops up online.
As a result of not always being able to respond, gaps and silences are created which often give off unintended messages to our friends and connections. They begin to believe we don't agree with or care for them or their interests, beliefs and lives.
For example, what if an online friend has a baby and posts their pictures online, and yet we haven't been on Facebook for a week or so because life's gotten busy? What will they likely think of us? At the least we'd be labeled lazy, at the most, uncaring or even jealous, which in turn would create a distance or rift in the relationship.
No matter how our gaps or silences are interpreted from whatever our posts' subject matter isn't the point. It's the fact that they are interpreted which creates the problem. We take meaning from replies or responses not being given to our posts, which leads us to believe some kind of distance, disagreement or ill will is going on, when usually none exists.
This isn't only a problem of misinterpretation by absence of response—misunderstanding also surfaces through online posts which lack subject context and the natural benefits of face-to-face communication.
We often know what we're talking about, and the modern issues we address, but take for granted that others might not. The relevance, seriousness or lightheartedness of certain things may therefore be lost on others, which often leads to offence.
Similarly, without the advantages of communication which includes facial queues, tone, intonation, hand gestures, eye contact and body posture, our posts are left to rely on black and white words which don't always adequately convey the intricate nuances of human emotion and feeling which are crucial in meaning making.
Add to this emojis, which are often more humorous than meaningful, and our own interesting uses of the English language, and misinterpretation often becomes the least of our problems.
These issues are created by the inherent faults of social networking platforms themselves. We, however, often fall prey to believing the problem liesin the shortcomings of those we know.
A powerful tool
Again, these problems aren't unsolvable, but are issues which require us to demonstrate good common sense, graciousness, and a willingness to believe the best about others:
'Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres'
Social networking provides an amazing opportunity for mankind to interact with each other in a way which demonstrates the character of Christ, His love and purposes. It's also one modern 'hill' from which we can shine the light of the gospel and Biblical truth to as many people as possible.
If we're aware of its inherent solvable problems, and our own natural tendencies to allow fleshly concerns to overtake spiritual ones, social networking can be a powerful tool for communication, relationships, and for the Lord.
Tim has lived on the Gold Coast in Queensland for most of his life. He has a BA in Journalism and Writing, a Graduate Diploma of Education and an Associate of Theology degree, and has taught in Christian Education for just over six years. He enjoys writing, bodyboarding and watching movies.
Tim Price's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-price.html