3 Ways to Live Humbly Online
It isn't easy, but it is necessary.
A lot of us misunderstand humility to be self-hatred. A great quote on this misunderstanding from Rick Warren (often misattributed to C. S. Lewis), goes like this: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” When I was in high school, my student pastor taught us, “Humility is understanding who you are in light of who God is.” I’m not sure if he got that from someone or came up with it himself, but I think it’s helpful.
These two maxims about humility have guided my understanding of the principle throughout my adult life. We are not called to self-hatred. In fact, self-hatred can be a form of pride, as the self is the focus of the thought! The point of humility is to recognize who we are in light of who God is—that is to say, feeble, broken humans—and focus on the good of others rather than the good (or flagellation) of ourselves.
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, 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?
What is to stop you and me from being the people who start such a movement? 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 had with someone else online. But the next part of the joke is that if someone has changed their mind because of an argument on Twitter or in the Facebook comment section of a news article, they almost certainly never admit it.
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 me 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 can be 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 becomes a bit easier to recognize that you are fallible and can do wrong.
2) Let’s Assume the Best of Others
In addition to admitting when we’re wrong, we should assume the best of others. But 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 because they’re always driven by their pride and the desire to save face. I am calling you to be different. Let people fail you and hurt you before you assume that their motives are impure. The apostle Paul writes in Romans, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). If you’re reading this as a follower of Christ, be reminded that we are to seek 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 a good deal of conflict—so much of which is ignited when we assume 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 still find ourselves in some conflict, but believe it or not, this is actually a good place to be. Conflict will never leave the social internet because conflict will never leave human society. 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 far 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, let’s be quick to forgive those who hurt us. You and I, Christian, 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 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. 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 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 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. 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. All algorithms are engineered to favor the spread of conflict and argumentation. This means forgiveness requires intentionality and will receive little fanfare. But if we are valuing humility, fanfare is of minimal importance.
Being humble on the internet (or at all, really) isn’t easy. But by the grace of God, and with some hard work, we can do it. Of course there are plenty of ways to live humbly beyond what I have shared here, but this is a good start and gives us plenty to work on.