Article Dec 5, 2016

Leaving the screen: Restoring in-person relationships

As our country continues down an unprecedented and uncertain path, so many of us find our desire to discuss and debate recent events, and their immense significance, growing greatly. Social media conveniently provides a place for such conversations, but it doesn’t come without a cost.

The discourse can quickly become vitriolic when sensitive topics like race and gender, which have filled the headlines in recent weeks, are being debated. I am not here to add another opinion. Instead, I want to humbly propose a suggestion.

I don’t intend to bind anyone’s conscience. The Lord has given each of us a unique stewardship. But recent weeks have led me to take a serious inventory of my social media use. The conclusion: I’ve all but kissed Facebook goodbye. I still have an account, partly for professional reasons, but I’m striving to minimize my usage. I’ve come to believe that posting articles and partaking in debates on this medium is far less profitable than I once thought. I’m seeking a return to more intimate ways to build relationships with friends and family.

I feel foolish devoting an essay to such a trivial decision, but I think it’s merited because of social media’s outsized role in my life, and the lives of many others. This election made me painfully aware of its limitations.

Social media can be a great venue for sharing those vacation photos and pet videos. It’s not the ideal medium for most debates, especially political ones, though. Problems arise when our time spent on social media, regardless of its purpose, comes in lieu of conversation.

The Apostle Paul knew the value of face-to-face conversation. He wasn’t content to simply write letters to his fellow Christians. He expressed his longing to visit the congregations to which he wrote (Rom. 1:11). He sent trusted representatives like Timothy in his absence (1 Cor. 16:10) and encouraged others to visit him (Titus 3:12). He visited both to encourage (Rom. 1:12) and admonish (2 Cor. 13:2).

I’m not calling for complete disengagement from social media. Disengagement is an overreaction the church has been guilty of, and it’s not necessary in this case. Technology, from the printing press to iTunes, has been widely used in the promulgation of the gospel. God’s sovereignty extends to the digital realm, and we’re called to be wise stewards there, as well.

Instead, I am asking people, beginning with myself, to analyze our social media use and determine if we should adjust our habits to make wiser use of the time (Eph. 5:16) in order to better love and serve God and neighbor.

More face-to-face time

The appeal of Facebook is obvious: We can instantly share a photo, article or our own musings with hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Greater numbers do not always mean greater impact, though. A conversation with a handful of people can be exponentially more meaningful than a link posted on our Facebook wall. Marginalized communities need our service, not a self-serving show of support on social media.

Are we engaging more with our online communities than our real-life ones? Would it be wiser to discuss today’s issues over dinner with our co-workers and neighbors, including those with whom we disagree, instead of Facebook friends and Twitter followers? Our Internet use may not impact our church attendance, but does it take away from time that could be spent stirring up one another to love and good works? (Heb. 10:24-25)

I know this isn’t a one-for-one exchange. Less time on Facebook doesn’t guarantee more time in deep conversation. But I think we will be encouraged toward the latter if we slowly begin to disentangle ourselves from the allures of social media. How often do we let social media distract us when friends and family are sitting next to us?

We need conversation more than ever when the discourse becomes complex and emotional, as it has today. Digital conversation reduces our capacity for empathy, an important emotion when engaged in passionate and polarized debate. We can’t see online how our words impact another person. It’s much easier to discern in a face-to-face discussion.

If we are going to make any progress toward healing and act as agents of reconciliation, we need to be able to see the humanity of the other side. The digital screen blocks our view of the Imago Dei in each individual. How easy is it to tear someone down when they are only a picture and words on a screen?

We follow a Savior who, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return. (1 Pet. 2:23).” We are called to affirm the dignity of each person, even those on the other side of the aisle, and to honor everyone (1 Pet. 2:17). We promote righteousness, but we do so humbly as sinners whose only hope is Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to us.

We must be mindful of the potential pratfalls of communicating online. Losing sight of each person’s dignity is one way we can go wrong online. The ways in which we form our online communities also can cause problems.

Breaking out of the echo chamber

We have a tendency online to congregate in tribes of like-minded individuals. It is easy to live an online life that always affirms our views and never challenges them. This can puff us up with pride and make it easier to denigrate our opponents. We can begin to view the other side as a homogenous mob, instead of with nuance. Viewing another group as “those people” is always a dangerous seed to harbor in the heart.

Such behavior is easier behind a screen, but not when you meet the individuals who comprise the other side. G.K. Chesterton recognized this tendency decades before the Internet came into existence. The digital world has only exacerbated it.

“The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world,” Chesterton wrote in In Defense of Sanity (I must credit my wife, Abby, for showing me this quote). “He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

“Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. . . . A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.”

Facebook, which has more than 1.7 billion users, seems to fit that description. We can pick our online friends, and then banish them from our community with the click of a button. Facebook’s algorithms promotes content that appeals to our interests, including our political views. And, in this election in particular, an increasing amount of that content was false information passed off as truth.

In her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle wrote: “Life on our new digital landscape challenges us as citizens. Although the web provides incomparable tools and mobilize for action, when we are faced with a social problem that troubles us, we are tempted to retreat to what I would call the ‘online real.’ There, we can choose to see only the people with whom we agree. And to share only the ideas we think our followers want to hear.”

Our online echo chambers can make us proud of our “right” opinions. Humility means listening to our opponents. We must remember that there is good in every person, even our political opponents, because of God’s common grace. We are all sinners, as well, because of our depravity. We should affirm the good in all people while challenging what is evil. We are called to be both salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16).

These complex times may provide the perfect opportunity to rethink how we engage those closest to us. It may be time for us to move out from behind our computer screens and into deeper relationship with the people God has placed in our proximity.