There are plenty of good reasons why behaviour on social media, including Christian behaviour on social media, gets criticised. It can be awful. I don’t even need to count the ways.
Yet for some, the many and manifest problems with social media can lead to a wholesale dismissal of its strengths. For example, in a characteristically insightful article about the response to the Gospel Coalition USA posting an excerpt from Josh Butler’s book Beautiful Union, Kevin DeYoung wrote: “the article was not good. The mob was worse.” At the very least, I believe that assessment is misleading, in that, as a general summary of the controversy, it implied that most of the social media criticism of Butler’s excerpt, and the decisions around its publication, were of the worst kind. From my experience this was not the case, and in my opinion this assessment of the controversy actually deflected attention away from social media critique of a more diverse but united, substantial and sanctified kind.
Therefore, I would like to mount a brief defence of the Christian Twittersphere in its noblest manifestations. A place where I have learned a great deal, and perhaps persuaded some. Where I have built fruitful working collaborations, and made more than a few friends from around the world. A place where ideas are shared and explored, where jokes and encouragement are traded, where we all become smarter and more connected, in good ways, for the glory of God.
Australians, Facebook and Twitter
This article will particularly focus on Twitter, although for Australians, local social media discussion is far more vigorous on Facebook. In my experience, when Australian Christians log into Twitter, we are just as likely to join in on an international discussion as we are a national one.
In part, this is because of how teeny tiny Australian Christianity is. We have a great deal of access, even to those who might be called ‘celebrities’. Chances are they are married to our cousin or used to go to church with our mother-in-law.
This makes the Australian Twitter experience a peculiar one. We find ourselves swept up in controversies that don’t neatly map to local concerns. Of course, to say they do not have the same degree of relevance does not mean we cannot identify traces of the same issues locally. That’s one of the benefits of international communication.
We have our own flashpoints and hot topics, often debated with similar intensity and circularity, but more likely on Facebook than Twitter. Much of what I say here could apply to these discussions, too.
Celebrity Pastors and the Twitter Storm
Yes, there is absolutely such a thing as a Twitter storm. Yes, this vexatious, ferocious, relentless, nasty, sarcastic, sometimes crude or violent, almost always polarised mass phenomenon absolutely exists. There are often multiple storms, with two or more polarised groups locked in verbal conflict, as well as having vile conversations about the other. These storms are distressing enough to just be a witness to. They are very upsetting to be swept up in, even in an outlying skirmish. I can only imagine how deeply traumatic it must be to be at the centre of one of them. And it must be said: they are not the preserve only of the so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ nor only of the ‘alt-right crazies’. There’s enough social media mass psychosis to cut across the spectrum of any number of sub-groups.
Often these storms are triggered by clumsy or thoughtless declarations by high-profile people, such as celebrity pastors. Just as often they are cynically and deliberately incited by posts intentionally framed to spark outrage from opponents and rally counter-outrage from allies. I suspect many Christians on Twitter with followers in the tens or hundreds of thousands (I just checked: on Thursday morning 25th May, Kevin DeYoung had 155 900) experience frequent, low-key storms on their profiles—daily or weekly reminders that there are people out there who are furious about who they think you are and what they think you stand for.
All of this means we should be careful about accepting the assessment of social media that is offered to us by high profile pastors and leaders. Their experience of Twitter is very different from ours. It might be a lot harder for them to see what else is going on. Perhaps from their vantage point it is very often true to say: no matter what else was bad, “the mob was worse”.
However, there are other important and much more valuable Christian interactions taking place on Twitter. Interactions that should be honoured and contributions that should be heeded.
Advocates and Activists
One of the difficult characteristics of a Twitter storm is that it is made up of individuals and groups who might be hard to distinguish at first glance. Harder still, often in a single person there is a complicated mix of motives and complicated muddle of successful, unsuccessful and downright disastrous attempts at criticism and persuasion.
What is the best way to distinguish the worst forms of angry and destructive Twitter activism, from legitimate forms of advocacy? How do we take into account the fact that when people have been deeply hurt, they might express themselves in extreme ways and find it hard to trust others? How do we bear in mind that there are all sorts of factors—emotional intelligence, linguistic skill, neurodiversity and cultural variation—that mean someone might come across as more aggressive than they intend to?
One of the powerful blessings of social media has been the way it has made new forms of advocacy and activism possible. This has led to support, understanding, accountability and change.
There is a difference between an angry victim (or a battered and prickly conservative seeking to nobly hold their ground under unjust pressure) and someone who has settled into a posture of rage-filled hostility and a pattern of coercive and manipulative social media behaviours. But the difference isn’t always easy to spot. And many of us are a mess of both, at times.
It would be a great shame if, in dismissing Twitter storm activists, our ears became deaf to the cries of the oppressed and the courageous.
A Global, Inter-Disciplinary Forum of Christian Experts and Amateurs
I suspect it is especially easy for the casual browser or celebrity pastor to miss another glorious phenomenon. My experience of Twitter, alongside some pretty unpleasant interchanges, has been one of a global, inter-disciplinary forum of experts and amateurs who are there as much to listen as to speak. CEOs, stay-at-home mums, bishops, church planters, theological college professors, PhD candidates, authors, software engineers, artists, those living with chronic illness and unable to work full-time, publishers, parachurch leaders, cross-cultural missionaries, high school teachers, aid workers, sociologists and, yes, political advocates and journalists.
Ideas are explored, articles are shared, different perspectives are floated, resources are crowdsourced, connections are made. Further, conversations with friends and strangers are picked up through private messages.
These positive experiences do not only take place in parallel to the Twitter storm and away from the mob. I would like to suggest that sometimes, in the eye of the Twitter storm, is actually a much calmer forum, where the same issues are being explored constructively. Sometimes the criticisms of the mob are endorsed, with more care and kindness, in the eye of the storm. Christians from different places, with varied ministries and diverse origins stories give each other (virtually) “the right hand of fellowship” when they recognise the grace given to one another, just as Peter, James and John (physically) gave it to Paul and Barnabas (Gal 2:9). In reaching some level of agreement regarding the difficult application of biblical principles, they can perhaps say “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”, albeit with a little less authority than the apostles and elders at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:28). On Twitter, Christians can expand the number of people whom we would seek to greet with our cultural equivalent of “a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16).
It would be a great pity, because of the howling mob the surrounds it, to dismiss this remarkable parachurch phenomenon.