July 8, 2022

Logged In and Checked Out

A Brief Guide to Online Ethics

Seth Pierce

The surge of rage made my fingertips twitch.

I had tweeted an old story about a negative interaction my wife endured with fellow Christian, only to have someone reply in a way that made her out to be just as guilty. One voice among the numerous supportive voices appeared to dissent, and that demanded drawing upon all my training as a minister and a scholar to publicly eviscerate the person. 

I was seconds away from choosing digital violence against someone I didn’t know when I decided to step away from the keyboard. I had learned, too many times, that reactionary responses don’t provide me with “the peace that passeth all understanding.” Rather, hasty countertweets open the abyss of anger and beckon other strangers from the digital hinterlands to join in the fracas.

Instead, I apologized for my lack of clarity and further explained the situation. To my surprise, the person said that their comment was on the side of my wife and that they were completely with me. I had nearly attacked an ally because the medium I was communicating in demanded an immediate reply, not a responsible, reflective, or reflexive one. 

Tools Have Tendencies: The Ecology of Social Media

In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan penned his famous aphorism “The medium is the message.” His premise is that the communication media we use (television, Twitter, and so on) all carry their own message beyond the content we place in them. For example, television is an entertainment medium. This means that no matter how sober the evangelist on the screen, they pick up entertainment barnacles. This is, perhaps, why some Christians will have their favorite media ministers sign their Bibles.

McLuhan’s work inspired others, including Walter Ong (The Presence of the Word) and Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death), and led to the development of a field known as media ecology. Essentially, media ecology suggests that the form of medium we use, more than the content we consume, works on our consciousness in specific ways. This area of study corrects one of our major blind spots when it comes to using communication tools such as social media. 

Be Christlike and creative, not clichéd and “clickbaitive.”

Have you ever heard the statement “It isn’t good or bad, but how you use it, that matters”? It seems practical and self-evident, but it’s an oversimplification that gets us into trouble. Known as the “instrumentalist” view of technology, this idea blinds us to the reality that every tool we use has a tendency to affect us.

For example, owning a car tends to make us walk less, even if we intended only to drive to work. Now we also do late-night taco runs. Owning an Instagram account tends to make us share pictures of other people’s cats and dinner with total strangers—or even “like” them—even if we only opened the account to share family photos. You get the idea. 

What’s more, advanced digital tools use us as we use them—capitalizing on our searches and interactions to enhance businesses’ ability to advertise to us, or to provide us with more content . . . usually the kind that keeps us “doomscrolling” for hours. 

The ecology of the internet and social media is speed and reaction, not thoughtful reflection and response. This means that as soon as you log in, the nature of that environment is working on you, and you need to be aware of that fact so you can engage ethically while online, instead of being checked out. 

Netiquette

I recently returned from a study tour in the United Kingdom. We shared with the students that people in the U.K. use their knives with their forks more than, and in different way than, people in the U.S. In the U.K., just grabbing the food on a fork and cramming into your mouth or forcing your fork through your sustenance without the aid of a knife may garner raised eyebrows from other patrons. 

Books and seminars on etiquette abound. Beyond the ways to handle important business meals with clients, there are cultural differences that, if ignored, can bring shame on everyone and ruin relationships. In my intercultural communication course, we look at everything from proxemics (how people use physical space) to high/low contexts (whether people favor direct or indirect verbal communication). Not understanding these realities can spell doom for what might have been an opportunity to build important friendships across cultures. 

The Internet has its own cultures and etiquette (or “netiquette”) that, if ignored, can destroy reputations and influence. As Christians we seek to represent Jesus online, and it is vital that we understand how we present ourselves, and represent Christ, to the digital world. 

While it is impossible to exhaust the topic in a single article, there are a few common pitfalls that plague everyone. Paying attention to these dynamics demonstrates not only good virtual ethics but also healthy communicative behavior that fosters healthy relationships. 

Of Christ and Clickbait

Clever titles and opening sentences are staples for creative writing. The idea of “clickbait” works like this: a provocative title and/or image triggers the information-seeking part of our brain that gives us a dopamine hit, as well as triggering the fight-or-flight part of the brain on the lookout for danger, especially when it comes to news.

The Internet is saturated with dubious and fearful headlines, often bait and switch, in order to get the almighty “click” and capture attention. Tim Wu points out that we live in an “attention economy,” where our “attentional lives” are constantly experiencing the “commercial exploitation of our attention just about anywhere and anytime.” One tendency of online behavior is for us to post content and engage in ways that bring us more attention.

In the crush of attention harvesting, we can reactively (remember media ecology) pick up terms and ideas that seem to be trending without thinking about how they will be received. 

When titling a sermon or posting about a program or Bible study, we naturally look around for relevant concepts and terminology in the news to capture the eye and draw people to our content. 

When a post makes you angry, pause before you attack.

We run the risk of using clichés or offensive terms when we do this, however. Christian communicators have been labeled “cultural plagiarists” when we rework movie or book titles  too desperately in our quest to be relevant. What’s more, such topics as vaccines, pandemics, school shootings, or even words like “pride” may be a temptation for us to riff on them because they seem relevant. They are historically and emotionally loaded, and appropriating them to simply get attention is one of the worst looks for us as a church. 

Be Christlike and creative, not clichéd and “clickbaitive.” One way to test your content is what I call the giggle/cringe test. Before you launch a major advertisement for an event, or what you feel is a significant post for all your stakeholders, read it in front of middle school, high school, or college students. If they giggle or look incredulous, scrap it and start over.

Talk With the People You Talk About

The level of cringe that church media sometimes produces is legendary. There’s even a website specifically dedicated to preventing it. One consistent problem is waxing eloquent about another group of people or culture using language or information that group wouldn’t recognize, or readers perceive as ignorant, because we’ve never actually spent time with the people we are talking about. 

We may have strong disagreements or opinions, but if we are honest, some of those might have been filtered through sensationalist news content. If someone was planning to post about you online wouldn’t you want them to talk to you first? 

Taking time to have a kind conversation with others will help us refine our positions, disagree in respectful ways, and shape informed and nuanced opinions, preventing us from becoming hurtful propagandists. I have created a helpful resource on how to have these conversations, but for now, remember that the Bible states: “Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established” (Prov. 15:22). 

Inviting a diverse group to weigh in on your content is vital. I have been spared a lot of grief by asking an honest friend help me tweak a response, or warning me of imminent digital death if I proceed with it. I’m grateful for the counsel, even if it axes what I thought was a clever idea.

Sharing Isn’t Always Caring

Imagine being at a party with a gigantic bowl of the world’s best guacamole. You’re hungry. You pick the sturdiest looking tortilla chip you can find and prepare to scoop up at least a quarter of the smooth, green, seasoned perfection. 

All of a sudden, an idiot who has just bitten off half a chip loaded with guac plunges their saliva-ridden Dorito back into the bowl. It’s a crime against humanity. There’s no excuse for that sort of behavior. And double-dipping online has the same effect. 

God creates the material world, and we are given the power to create the social world.

There are at least two forms of double-dipping that violate good online behavior. One is operating an official church account but sharing your personal content on the corporate account you manage in order to grow your private platform. This is parasitic. Occasionally your personal work may overlap with a corporate project and is appropriate to share, but rarely.

Second, it’s important to acknowledge global tragedies with expressions of solidarity. Referencing tragic events while promoting your content or programming in the same post is seen as self-serving. Don’t piggyback commercials on expressions of solidarity.

Last, whatever you repost, please fact-check it—even if you typically trust the source or the person who provided it.

Breathe, Don’t Seethe

When a post makes you angry, pause before you attack. Take a deep breath, go for a walk. Sometimes waiting 24 hours is helpful. The best advice is James 1:19: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” Often you come back with new eyes, calm emotions, and the ability to articulate your perspective in a way that’s helpful instead of destructive.

Digimodern Dialogue

Digimodernism is a fancy word that refers to the fact that our online conversations are always open. Unlike a written letter, text conversations stay open, ready to be picked up again at any time. What’s more, many of our conversations are open to any and all strangers online who may want to weigh in on someone else’s conversation. Even if we restrict our privacy settings, we live in a world of screenshots.

This means you need to be mindful of the myriad of people who likely will see what you say (whether it’s a post or your angry explosion in the comments section), not just the audience you think you are addressing. You may feel that you are rallying the troops by screaming your theology into the online void, but you may alienate people you hope to reach in other posts. 

Good ethics also mean being considerate before jumping onto anyone else’s content, even if it’s public. Tread softly in online discussions with people you don’t know, perhaps starting with gentle questions instead of your strongest opinions. Even if the content isn’t contentious, be careful.  You may think 18-year-old Sally’s senior photos look good, but a strange man in his 50s liking and commenting on those photos may hit differently than a post by one of her classmates. Don’t be creepy. 

Conclusion: Communication Stewards

In Genesis 2:19 we see God giving humanity the power of speech to name the animals in God’s creation. God creates the material world, and we are given the power to create the social world. Ellen White notes, “The talent of speech is to be carefully studied and carefully guarded. This is the most important branch of education, but one which is sadly neglected in all our associations. The power to communicate to our associates may be a great blessing or a great curse.”

Nobody is a perfect communicator, in print, in person, or online. That’s no reason, however, to neglect improving our skills in order to bless those with whom we want to share Jesus. 

Advertisement
Advertisement

RELATED STORIES