As with many people, I live a good portion of my waking moments on social media, engaging, writing, responding—virtually existing. As fruitful as it can be, there’s a toll this all takes, though—a price we are all paying that most of the time we are oblivious to.
We usually just absorb the negativity and the vitriol and we allow it to become part of our normal operating system. If we’re not careful, over time it can rob us of our basic humanity and it can fundamentally alter us in ways that aren’t pretty.
Based on my experiences, both as a pastor and as regular on social media, here’s five ways you can debate and engage with social media without losing your soul:
1. Love the trolls, don’t feed them.
The great beauty of social media is that it gives everyone an equal voice, allowing people who have felt or been silenced to be heard.
This also means that we are all provided with our own potential bully pulpits, and from time to time we all use them simply to express our anger and our outrage at those in our path, whether those things are merited or not. We all take our turns playing the ticked-off contrarian looking for a fight. We are all capable of being reduced to trolling for a negative response and little else.
Spend enough time in the virtual world and you will invariably be the target of someone else’s prior hurt and past experiences and lazy stereotypes. Their agendas will not be pure, their methods not admirable, and their goal not conversation but the cheap high of throwing shade in front of a crowd.
Try to determine when people are seeking understanding and when they are looking for the attention of a hateful response—and refuse to give them the latter, for your health and for theirs. Don’t feed the trolls.
2. Remember who you are.
We are all viewing people from the small, selective window of what they choose to reveal on social media. This means we are all evaluating others with incomplete information, always engaging them without really knowing them but feeling as though we do.
Remember that people are doing this with you too. They will use a limited body of work by which to categorize and summarize you, believing that this is accurate and speaking from this deficit.
The key to not losing your soul on the Internet is in remembering that someone else’s perception of you is not your reality. Just because someone places a label on you, doesn’t mean you have to wear it. You are the only one who knows your truth, so never let those who know less about you, define you.
You know who you are. They don’t.
3. Time is always on your side.
The greatest mistake most people make on social media is allowing the manufactured urgency of Twitter feuds and comment sections to pull them into believing that they must respond immediately. We so readily unleash words simply because they pop into our minds, without considering whether they are helpful or warranted or necessary.
In the middle of the frenetic crossfire of passionate opinions and strong stances that we find ourselves immersed in every day, it almost never occurs to us that we can simply pause. Yet there is almost never an occasion where waiting is not the better option; when slowing down doesn’t let wisdom and dignity catch up with us and offer us a better response—which sometimes is no response.
It’s okay to wait. It’s okay to be silent. There’s goodness there.
4. Social media communication is inferior communication.
I spend a great deal of my life here in the virtual world and love much about it. Yet, although it has allowed me to reach millions of people and to cross paths with more disparate perspectives than would ever be possible otherwise, I know its limitations.
I understand that it is not the ideal. Social media conflict often looks like a conversation, but in the end it can only be at best a series of public monologues. It is the separate ping-ponging of perspectives which does have value, but because it doesn’t allow real time interaction, facial expression recognition, and because it is often done surrounded by an interjecting chorus of ill-informed onlookers, it is always going to be terribly flawed.
Even at its best it will always be inferior to sitting across from someone, seeing their face, listening to them, hearing their story.
We obviously can’t have this with everyone we interact with on social media, but the more we are able to, the more we will build true, bridge-building relationships with those who believe differently than we do.
5. Know when to apologize—and when not to.
Words are wild animals. Despite our best intentions and without much warning, they will damage people. Despite our sincere, laborious efforts to choose our words wisely, they will sometimes be the wrong ones, or they will be received in a manner in which we didn’t at all intend. People will be hurt.
The same words that to some are laced with compassion will to others feel like bitter attack.
When those words do damage we need the compassion to know when our choices have been irresponsible and to own those choices and to seek reconciliation with those who are hurt. Other times though, we will need to accept that our most carefully crafted truth will really make people angry and that this is okay. Often, especially when we are speaking into injustice, the turbulence that our words bring is necessary and quite good. Unrest can be beautifully redemptive.
Sometimes to defend the underdog you have to risk really ticking off the big dog. Check your heart regularly for pure motives for sure, but never be bullied into silence simply because people get angry.
Hopefully these things will help you as speak and engage and live life out here in social media with a bit more compassion, integrity, and humanity. You and I will surely fail miserably at some point today. Do your best, but give yourself a break when you fail and keep going. We’re all trying to figure out who to do this.
Hold on to your soul.
This essay appeared in an original form at johnpavlovitz.com. Used by permission.
is a pastor, writer and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the past four years his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said has reached a diverse worldwide audience. A 20-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside faith communities. He recently released his first book A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.