A social fast

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I was all set to write about how I wasn’t giving up Facebook and other social media for Lent. The Internet, I was going to write, is undeniably positive thing, which has led to the democratisation of information and spread of knowledge possibly to the same degree as the printing press. We don’t give up books for Lent, right? Social media has facilitated connections and conversations between friends new and old. It allows those far away from their home country (like me) to maintain friendships and keep connected. We don’t give up friends for Lent, right?

At the same time, I was reflecting for other reasons on the fact that the Internet does facilitate some spectacularly bad behaviour in certain communities; recently I came across examples in the technical and atheist communities of people mistreating each other in ways that would probably not happen were it not for the Internet. But being a technophile, I tended to assume that there was something broken about those communities, not the Internet. The Internet is just a tool. After all, we don’t have problems like that in the Christian world, do we?

So… Rob Bell has a new book out this month, and in what is rapidly becoming a pre-launch tradition, I am now having to wade through (a) posts from people who feel the need to tell others not to be arseholes before reading the book, (b) posts from people being arseholes before reading the book, and (c) posts from people being arseholes about the people being arseholes. (I may find myself in that latter category.) And while Christians are perfectly capable of being arseholes to each other before the widespread uptake of social media (this happened to Steve Chalke too), I have to reluctantly concede that, while the Internet is a tremendously positive thing, it certainly is a force multiplier for arseholery. This isn’t just about people being nasty about Rob Bell; what it is is about recognising that even good things bring temptations. The at-least partial anonymity and the fact that one can forget that one is interacting with people, not just words on a screen, seem to combine to often bring out the worst in people. And I can see those tendencies in myself first of all. I have been tremendously blessed by social media, but I have also been angered and infuriated by it as well. The Internet manages provide both the itchy trigger finger and the loaded gun.

As Christians, we have this thing that we do when something which is tremendously positive also carries the temptation for abuse. We fast; we give up the undeniably good thing for a period of time, in order to reflect, reclaim, and reassert that–for instance—food is for the stomach and not the stomach for food. In other words, we deliberately exercise discipline, even over something which is a positive thing, in order to remind ourselves that we do not need to accept it wholesale, its negative temptations as well; to step away from that world for a while and regain perspective. To see the people, not just the words on the screen.

So I love the Internet. I love social media. I think they’re fantastic things. I’ve benefited from them immeasurably. But I don’t have to have them. And I don’t have to let them own me. So I’ll see you after Easter.