5 habits for cultivating wisdom online

April 27, 2021

The Internet and social media can help us become wise, but only if we approach them with great care and intention. To that end, here are five habits to consider as you evaluate the place of online media in your life.

1. Go with a purpose. Don’t just “surf”!

“Surfing the Net” was one of the early metaphors for what we do online, bringing to mind a sort of leisurely, “we’ll see where these links take me!” approach to riding the Web’s waves. But it is precisely this posture—going online just to stroll (or should I say “scroll”?) around its wide-open spaces—that leads us to fill every spare moment of our lives with insipid social media debates, mildly amusing cat videos, and other online ephemera. It is precisely this unconscious impulse to hop on our phone and just go somewhere that can lead us to dark places: pornography, toxic subcultures, fruitless comment section battles. Sadly, the ease with which we can jump online in our spare moments (whether 30 seconds at a stop light or 90 seconds in the Chick-fil-A drive-thru line) conditions us to eliminate every last shred of unmediated space in our lives—which is a terrible thing for cultivating wisdom. 

In his helpful book The Common Rule, Justin Earley suggests our spare moments should not be filled with online wandering, but rather “reserved for staring at walls, which is infinitely more useful.” He also suggests avoiding social media in bed and avoiding unplanned scrolling, which “usually means I’m hungry for something to catch my eye—and plenty of strange, dark, and bizarre things are happy to catch the eye on social media.” The digital wanderer is asking for trouble. Don’t go online without a plan. Go with a purpose, and stay online only as long as you need to. 

2. Quality over quantity

Given the glut of options online, and the above point that your online time should be limited only to purposeful activities rather than aimless wandering, it’s important to make the time matter. Consider following Cal Newport’s advice in Digital Minimalism, which he defines as “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

How does one carefully select what to read, watch, listen to, or experience online? First, listen to the recommendations of trusted people in your life. Given the choice between reading an article that just popped into your Twitter feed because an advertiser put it there or reading an article because ten people you trust shared it on Facebook, go with the latter. Check out reviews of books from trusted websites before you decide what to read. Consult the writing of trusted film critics before choosing what to watch. Limit yourself to one podcast or one Netflix show a month, and only the ones enough trustworthy people have recommended. In a world where your time is scarce and everything is vying for your attention, don’t be a passive consumer who clicks on whatever comes your way. Be happy to bypass most of it, trusting that a smaller amount of excellent, curated dishes will be better for your wisdom diet than a vast amount of hit-or-miss, haphazard snacks. 

3. Slow down!

Even if you can’t control the speed of things online, you can control your speed. And a slower pace is almost always more conducive to wisdom. Time is a great filter for wisdom: the longer something lasts, the likelier it is to contain value. Don’t spend your time reading the hottest take or the “trending now” video. Instead, wait a bit and read the (usually better) cold takes. Read the Atlantic article from five years ago that people still reference; watch the “classics” of YouTube before the flavor-of-the-week clip. Once the novelty of something wears off, if people are still recommending it, maybe it’s actually worth your time. Don’t fear missing out on most things online. Most of it is missable and will be quickly forgotten. To slow down—until history’s filter gives you reason to pay attention—is to be a wiser consumer online. 

The same goes for what you contribute online. Speed is treacherous when it comes to posting your opinion on social media or fanning some rapidly spreading flame. We often jump on an online bandwagon before we realize it has a broken axle. Take time to vet the truth and consider the wisdom of something before you share it, to consider the potential impact of your words before you post. Remember Scripture’s “slow to speak” wisdom. 

4. Diversify your exposure

Be intentional about diversifying the voices we listen to. Don’t just read articles from the same bias-confirming sources. Don’t only tune in to the radio shows where your opinions are confirmed. Challenge yourself by actually giving attention to well-articulated versions of the “other side” of arguments. Respect your ideological opponent (and yourself!) by truly seeking to understand the other perspective. 

Try to populate your social media feeds with sources representing a variety of perspectives—politically, culturally, geographically, racially, and so forth. Read international takes on your own nation’s news. Listen to podcasts outside your comfort zone. Watch documentaries on streaming sites that provoke you to think deeply (even if not, in the end, differently) about some issue. Take advantage of the Internet’s platforming of voices you might not otherwise have opportunities to hear. One way to love your digital neighbors is to listen to them, even if what they have to say is hard for you to hear. Remember, you don’t have to fully agree with others online in order to glean some truth from their perspectives. 

5. Share what’s good!

One of the blessings of the Internet and social media is the ability to easily share what we have personally found helpful, good, true, or beautiful. One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes comes from Reflections on the Psalms: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” Don’t feel guilty about posting online about a movie or book you loved, or sharing a photo on Instagram of your spouse, child, backyard, or something else you found delightful. The public praising of these things is a key part of our enjoyment of them. If you love discovering good music, create playlists on Spotify and share them. If you love taking photos of beautiful architecture, post them on an Instagram account. If you loved a restaurant or stayed at an amazing hotel, share a glowing review online that might lead others to discover it. Use the Internet to turn what you love into something that blesses others, rather than turning what you hate into something that angers others. 

What would happen if everyone started to use the Internet more to celebrate the good than to add to the noise with hateful tweets and trigger-happy rants? What would happen if we used our online platforms to praise others rather than for promoting our own views and signaling our own virtue? [And] what if we spent more time online publicly honoring people we do know than publicly shaming people we don’t? 

Content taken from The Wisdom Pyramid by Brett McCracken, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.

Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken is a senior editor for the Gospel Coalition and the author of Uncomfortable; Hipster Christianity; and Gray Matters. He lives with his family in Southern California, where he serves as an elder at Southlands Church. Read More