Social networks have changed our lives. For more than a billion people, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Skype have become a primary means of interacting. In many respects, the surging popularity of social networks is a positive development. A brave photographer can document evidence of atrocities by the Assad regime in Syria, and then it becomes instantly available around the world. Social media sites have enhanced our democratic system in the United States: many of us follow and participate in online conversations about politics and public policy. The possibilities for churches, synagogues and other religious bodies are also appealing, as members keep abreast of sick persons in their congregation or listen to the latest sermon on a podcast.
Nevertheless, the new platforms have serious pitfalls. Users of social networks, including people of faith, have only begun to lay ground rules for healthy interchange. Careful consideration of the stakes has not accompanied the sudden leap into a new era of social media. We face a daily array of ethical decisions: "Can I push the 'send' button? He was a jerk to me at the meeting yesterday, and he should hear what I have to say while I am still angry." "Is it OK to post this picture on Facebook, even if I have not asked my friend's permission? We look very funny, and my buddies will get a kick out of it." "As long as I am tweeting, can I tell the world what I really think of this person? I have no plans to see her anytime soon, and besides, her politics are very extreme."
These online sites have led to a blurring of the boundaries between our public and private selves, as communication has become so effortless and widespread. The ease and impersonal nature of interaction encourages excessive sharing, so that people frequently reveal far too much about themselves and their peers. Relationships and employment prospects can be threatened or even ruined by inappropriate comments on Facebook. Online political arguments can lead to hard feelings and frayed relationships, since nuance is often lost in online communication.
The possibility of chronic loneliness is yet another pitfall, even as we cultivate an appealing identity on Facebook and Twitter. Social networking sites might provide the high fructose corn syrup of rapid exchange with many different people, but the question remains whether it can ever be an effective substitute for more genuine forms of human interaction. In many cases, Facebook "friendships" can impede careful attention to more immediate family members and friends. As Stephen Marche explained recently in an article for The Atlantic Monthly, Facebook leads to the "illusion of intimacy," as we present a version of ourselves that is not necessarily complete or accurate.
In many cases, social media outlets have also led to a coarsening of communication standards. Some of the material that "goes viral" (an appropriate term) is simply intrusive and mean. Sending around pictures and videos merely for the shock value they bring, no matter the emotional cost to the individual being lampooned: one person's innocent mistake can instantly become fodder for the amusement of millions.
On a more serious level, "cyber-bullying" among teenagers and children has led to tragic consequences in recent years, as many young people now have to navigate vulnerable years through the very public prism of social media. I just bought my daughter a Kindle Fire and had to make tricky decisions about how much to restrict her online access. Fragile egos can shatter through one thoughtless text-message or slanderous Facebook post, leading to permanent damage to a young person's self-esteem. The stinging power of cruel speech is impossible to overestimate.
We live in the age of social media, we are trying to form community in this new landscape, and many individuals are seeking to be people of faith in this context. How do we accomplish these goals, and what is our model for healthy interaction?
Words matter. What we say and how we say it matters, and just because we have new outlets for communication at our disposal, we cannot forget the power of speech to persuade and enrich, but also to denigrate and pierce another's soul. The ability to characterize unfairly when not in the presence of another person is one of our greatest temptations, made even more so by the social networking sites.
Believers throughout the ages have recognized the importance of careful speech, especially in the Bible. We find passionate reflections on whether a figure speaks "the word of God," such as Moses doubting his power of speech in Exodus 4:10. The emphasis on careful speech is also striking in the book of Proverbs, where the power of "the tongue" is a core theme: "Do you see someone who is hasty in speech? There is more hope for a fool than for anyone like that" (29:20). A New Testament passage from the Letter of James (3:1-12) provides a similar message on intemperate speech: "For every species of beast and bird, or reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (3:8). The message in these verses is that human beings have an impressive capacity to do a number of things in life, except control our tongues.
Human beings, all of us, are capable of saying terrible things. Like most parents, I want to send the "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" saying to the trash bin. Cruel speech is perhaps the most potent weapon in human arsenals, far more destructive than any physical blow. These verses from Proverbs and James understand the mercurial nature of the tongue, the unpredictable ways in which our brokenness can rear its ugly head and cause us to utter harmful speech. Yet living in the age of social media makes us even more susceptible to careless and hurtful words, because pushing the send button is so much easier than delivering harsh language to another person's face.
There is an important issue to consider when discussing the unpredictability of the tongue: gossip. In one of his memorable poems, Ogden Nash writes the following: "There are two kinds of people who blow through life like a breeze, And one kind is gossipers, and the other kind is gossipees." Nash was not the first person to acknowledge this aspect of human behavior. Psalm 140 commands, "Do not let the slanderer be established in the land" (v. 11). In the New Testament, there is also an abiding concern with gossip, with how various factions perceive and talk about Jesus, how they might try to trap him with deceitful questioning, and how his reputation is spreading.
Yet all gossip is not evil and counterproductive. Relaying news about an absent third party, which is the essence of gossip, can be beneficial and even faithful to God, if it helps integrate that individual more fully into a particular community. The litmus test is whether the shared information has a compassionate dimension, whether it is said in the interest of building community or whether the gossip is simply meant to amuse bored persons who cannot find something else to talk about. Social networks have made it much easier (and impersonal) to engage in the latter type of destructive gossip.
As we navigate the age of social media, it has become necessary to develop some guiding questions for faithful networking. Among the questions we might ask are the following: How can Facebook be used for healthy interaction, but not overused as a substitute for actual (as opposed to virtual) community? How can social networking be harnessed for lively interchange that stops short of malicious gossip? How can people of faith create an online environment for engaging the central questions of their tradition, as opposed to watching the latest voyeuristic video on YouTube? With all of these questions, the message of the Bible on taming our tongues is a useful guide.
The book of Proverbs declares that "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver" (25:11). One can never doubt the power of words to change the world, from the biblical writers, to the amazing complexity of the rabbinic literature, the theological insights of John Calvin and the prophetic message of more recent figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. In the age of social media, a "word fitly spoken" can have lasting resonance, lifting up friends and strangers, and fostering mutual understanding among people of different backgrounds and beliefs.
As we engage Facebook, Twitter and other avenues for online interaction, the ancient sages and prophets in the Bible can be a voice in our ears, encouraging us to seek community and tame our tongues, to gather our thoughts before we type, to think even more carefully before we post, and to be thoughtful, constructive participants in a world that has been forever changed.