One of the main limitations of electronic communication is the lack of tone. This means that e-mails between people who are generally unfamiliar with each other have a strong potential to be misread and misinterpreted.
It is no mystery that losing the facial expressions, body language that you get with a face to face conversation. Even the cue of a tone of voice is missing from electronic communication. These make communicating electronically a perpetual danger.
Consider the simple student-professor interaction. A student asks a question via e-mail, which is clearly outlined in the syllabus. The professor has a few choices. The first is to carefully answer the question, eating up valuable time and (perhaps) enabling the inattentiveness that is at the root of the student’s problem.
A second choice is to simply write back, “It’s in the syllabus.” This is exactly the truth, but the e-mail lacks the gracious tone of voice that communicates to the student that, while they are important as a person made in the image of God, they need to demonstrate the life skills of doing due diligence before pestering someone. Instead, this has the strong potential to be received by the student as a harsh message, which is, most of the time, not warranted or intended.
The Dangers of Facebook Debates
E-mail, at least, offers opportunities for expanding and contextualizing responses. So do platforms like Facebook. Still, Facebook has its own dangers.
The prime concern with Facebook debates is that you are essentially holding a conversation across the room. This works when you are telling someone you think their puppy is cute or congratulations on getting married. However, when you are explaining a nuanced political point there will be, inevitably, someone who isn’t aware of the context that is listening and misinterpreting the conversation.
In this manner, pieces of a discussion that are assumed but not spoken may lead someone with a different worldview to draw significant conclusions. If terms are not defined, it may lead someone to believe something about the discussion or its participants that just isn’t true. It may be, too, that the relationship between the readers allows a tone to be assumed, instead of expressed. However, since the debate is being read by those outside the circle, it may misrepresent the nature of the argument. Consider the following:
Person 1: “Aaron Rogers is the best quarterback ever.”
Person 2: “You’re an idiot, Joe Montana is better by a mile, just like I’ve always said.”
This conversation may be nothing but chatter between friends, but to the third person who is unaware of the joviality, this may seem harsh.
Now imagine if the conversation is about an important topic, like an upcoming Supreme Court decision or a theological topic. The public nature of such debates makes them dangerous for maintaining gracious Christian tone.
The Risk of Twitter Exchanges
A greater danger for Christians in the electronic world lies in the abbreviated exchanges that take place on Twitter.
The lack of expressiveness and context in many forums, like e-mail and Facebook, can be overcome by being verbose. Sometimes people overcome it by using emoticons, but I am opposed to those on principle. :-)
On Twitter, however, you get 140 characters. You couldn’t even order a meal in 140 characters. How can you expect to make a convincing argument in that space? More significantly, how can you hope to communicate your point with grace in that short a span?
Here, again, the conversation taking place in a public space without even the protections of various nuanced privacy settings. As the trolling that takes place when a conference uses a hashtag to collect tweets demonstrates, there are a lot of people with too much time on their hands that are more than glad to be nasty to someone else just for fun.
Additionally, once something is posted on Twitter, there are numerous bots that catalog tweets, sometimes just for the purpose of internet shaming. Suddenly a relatively innocuous tweet you made about a marriage conference can be posted on a website, labeled (with your avatar) as hate speech, because you spoke positively about someone’s presentation. Even if you delete the tweet, those sentiments may be available for an internet eternity.
What this latter example illustrates is that Twitter allows the reader to provide his or her own context. This should make use consider what the appropriate use of Twitter really is.
It should also make us think carefully about how we treat other people’s tweets. If we expect a modicum of grace for our tweets, we should grant the same to others, even those with whom we strongly disagree.
There is certainly more to be discussed about the use of social media as Christians. I’m interested in reading your comments below and continuing this very important conversation.
Note: This post (and perhaps some to follow) have been spurred on by an ongoing conversation with my friend, Sam Morris (@samorris8) who is the social media guru for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.