If we are to effectively push back against the darkness of the social internet, we must recognize that pride is integral to so much of the dysfunction we find online. A simple unwillingness to admit wrongdoing undergirds much of the persistent conflict that can make spending time on the social internet emotionally taxing and perpetually discouraging. For all sorts of reasons we’ve explored before in this newsletter, the social internet brings out some of the worst in us.
Antagonism thrives on the social internet more than protagonism. Conflict drives engagement, content with lots of engagement spreads the quickest, and, thus, conflict is ever-present and inescapable.
How much better might our experiences online be if large groups of people committed to value humility?
What if people admitted they were wrong?
What if people didn’t let fear lead them to tear others down?
What if we encouraged others rather than seeking attention for ourselves?
How might we demonstrate that humility is valuable through our engagement online?
Let’s look at a few ways.
1) Let’s admit when we are wrong.
A running joke among those who work in social media, and even among those who don’t, is that no one has ever been convinced to change their mind because of a social media argument. This is likely not true as surely someone has changed their mind at some point because of an interaction they have had with someone else. But the next part of the joke is that if someone has actually changed their mind because of an argument on Twitter or in the Facebook comment section of a news article, they almost certainly never admitted that they changed their mind, doing so secretly and without telling anyone.
I am convinced that pride, generally, and the unwillingness to admit we are wrong, specifically, are at the heart of so much of the “negativity” that has come to define our experiences on the social internet. How radical would it be, then, for you and I to admit we are wrong when we’re engaging with others online?
Imagine the shock when you’re debating a controversial issue in the comment section of a Facebook article and you eventually type, “You’re right. My viewpoint is inconsistent,” or something to that effect? However, it needs to be noted that in order to have the courage it takes to publicly admit you are wrong, you need to actually have the capacity to think you are wrong and sometimes make mistakes.
This is a heart issue that runs deep beneath what we do or do not say on the internet. You’re never going to admit you’re wrong on the internet if you can’t even do it among your family, friends, or coworkers. Pride is difficult to shake, and it starts with recognizing who we are in light of who God is. When you remind yourself that you are a mere human, and not a god among men, it makes it a little bit easier to recognize that you are fallible and can do wrong.
2) Let’s assume the best of others.
This is incredibly difficult to do. As one who has spent most of his career monitoring activity on a wide variety of social media platforms, I am the first one to say that people are often the worst versions of themselves online. I’ve seen too much negativity and nastiness over the years for it to be remotely easy for me to give others the benefit of the doubt and assume the best of them. Numerous times I have been duped by commenters who claim to want help with a problem only to have them use the open line of communication to berate the organization I represent and everything we stand for. All of that is to say: I get it. Assuming the best of others on the social internet is hard because of the point we just discussed: no one admits when they are wrong, always driven by the saving of face and the maintenance of pride.
I am calling you to be different. Let people fail you and hurt you before you assume that their motives are impure. Seek to have peace with others and engage in fruitful dialogue online even if it appears the others are out for virtual violence and digital blood. Assuming the best of others will make you vulnerable and open you up to being hurt. But is that not the price of a life defined by true love for others?
When we assume the best of others we can prevent possible conflict that could arise from a misunderstanding of others’ motives. So much conflict is ignited by assuming someone is engaging with an antagonistic intent rather than a genuine, humble one. If we assume others on the social internet are acting in kindness we may become the victim of many conflicts while starting few ourselves. This is, believe it or not, a good place to be. Conflict will never leave the social internet because conflict has been inherent in the socialization of humans since the beginning of time. But when we assume the best of others and give them the benefit of the doubt, we are doing our part to prevent unnecessary conflict as it is within our power to do so.
3) Let’s forgive others when they wrong us.
When we are inevitably wronged and hurt as we assume the best of others on the internet and get burned, let’s be quick to forgive those who hurt us. Now, I want my writing to be accessible for Christians and non-Christians alike, and I’ve been careful to write so that it is, but this is where I have to speak directly to my brothers and sisters in Christ. You and I, friend, we have no reason not to forgive! We are compelled to forgive because of how God has forgiven us. If Jesus was killed so that we might be forgiven for all of the ways we grieve the God of the universe, how can we deny anyone who hurts our feelings on the internet that same forgiveness! To refrain from dispensing forgiveness would be the height of hypocrisy!
Forgiving others requires a tremendous measure of humility. It requires humility because it requires us to recognize that we are not gods or any higher level of being than our fellow man, and that we are just as capable of committing the wrongdoing to others that has been committed against us. Beyond that, forgiveness requires humility when we are wronged, terrible as it may be, we are given a sort of power.
We have righteous anger and contempt for how we were wronged, and holding onto these feelings gives us a sort of power. There is great power in being offended, holding onto a grudge, and withholding forgiveness. A power to refuse to mend a broken relationship. A power to demand reparation and compensatory action from the offending party. A power that makes us feel just a little more godlike than we do without it. But to forgive is to release that power from our grasp, and to be reminded that we are no more godlike than any other person. For when we forgive we may no longer hold the offenses committed by the other against them, and we lose the power that is present in a withheld forgiveness. This takes humility because it requires us to recognize that we are no better than the one who has grieved us.
Forgiveness is desperately needed in the world of the social internet. Conflict thrives on the social internet, which ought to come at no surprise to you if you read me very often. :-) Conflict is engaging, and that which gets engagement is perpetuated by algorithms engineered to generate virality. Forgiveness is the antithesis of conflict. No algorithm is engineered to promote reconciliation and forgiveness. This means forgiveness requires intentionality and will receive little fanfare. But if we are valuing humility, fanfare is of minimal importance.
We Cannot Do It Alone
Because of inherent brokenness in all of us, our default setting is to “pride” and not “humility.” To be humble anywhere, let alone online, requires tremendous discipline and intentionality. No one coasts into humility. We coast into our default mode, pride, protection, and the promotion of ourselves.
If we hope to value humility in our online (and offline) interactions, we have to choose to be humble. We have to actively ask ourselves, “How can I handle this situation with humility and not pride?” Because this takes otherworldly discipline and intentionality, we have to recognize that we cannot do it alone. For thinking we can shake pride and pursue humility without any help is itself a form of pride, isn’t it?
We need family, friends, and colleagues who exceed us in maturity and their own pursuit of humility to come alongside us, spur us along when we get stuck in the mud, and encourage our hearts when we are discouraged by our repeated failure.