Like many Catholics, I spend a lot of time on social media. Some of this is for my job: I need to find out what people are talking about. Some of this is for my own entertainment: I want to know what’s up. Some of this is for my own sanity: I need to talk to someone who is not a toddler or a kitten or a parakeet. And some of this … is turning me into a monster.
Over the course of the last year, I’ve been thinking hard about how to stay on social media without losing my humanity. I have had mixed success, but I think my principles are good. Here’s what I try to do:
1. Deliberately cultivate diverse friends, including people who annoy and offend us, so we don’t get frozen in a very narrow point of view without even realizing it. The echo chamber is real, and it’s dangerous because, not only does it feed our egos and our self-righteousness, it doesn’t feel like an echo chamber. It feels like real conversation, and therefore feels useful and honest.
We don’t have to argue with our opponents about our disagreements, but it’s very healthy for sides to engage with each other over things we do agree about, even if it’s just “Your puppy is adorable!” or “Here’s an article you might find funny.” Find the humanity in other people, even if we know very well they harbor wide swaths of inhumanity within themselves. (So do all of us.)
2. But it’s okay to disengage if that person is an actual occasion of sin. Stop interacting with So-and-so, and social media algorithms will soon learn to stop putting So-and-so at the top of our feed. On some platforms, we can disengage without cutting ties entirely; or we can cut ties if the entire relationship yields nothing but strife and bad feeling time and time again. If it’s really necessary, we can obliterate the person’s presence on our pages entirely. (But remember that nothing on the internet is truly private, no matter what your privacy settings are.)
3. But also try taking a break before you choose the nuclear option. Many, many times I’ve had heated, even ugly arguments with someone, and the dearest wish of my heart is to annihilate him, or at least his online presence. His words and behavior are so repugnant to me, there can be no reason I should even have to know he exists.
Instead, I just stay away for a while. Months or sometimes even years later, I often discover that one or the other of us has changed, and it’s now possible to be friends, or at least to exist in peace. Many times, I’m not even sure how it happened, except that I didn’t choose annihilation when I wanted to. (Actually, I am sure how it happened. The Holy Spirit knows about social media; that’s how.) Non-annihilation is always the preferable choice. There is enough alienation, loneliness, and fractures in the world.
4. Try hard not to hate read. I have “friends” on social media that, I confess, I only check out when I’m looking to feed my bad mood. When I realize I’m doing this, I try to stop, just for one day. No “Let’s see what this turd is up to” clicks, just for one day. Keeping in touch with people just for the pleasure of being irritated is a way of dehumanizing them, and it’s bad for our souls, even if they never know it’s happening.
5. Keep a long memory. The internet wants us to believe in the present moment, to forget even the very recent past, and to behave as if there’s no tomorrow. Fight back! If a friend says something really awful and offensive, remember the entire friendship. Is it really plausible that a person whose ideas I’ve enjoyed for many years is suddenly my enemy? Could there be something else going on, in his life, in mine, or in the current cultural atmosphere? Resist the impulse to cast someone into the darkness for a single misstep, even a serious one. Look to the past for reasons to stay friends, rather than for reasons to sever ties.
6. Constantly question why we’re arguing for what we’re arguing. I, for instance, have an overactive reactionary impulse: I tend to kick back against whatever everyone else is saying. This can be a useful corrective to groupthink, but, like anything, it can go too far. It’s a good thing to resist simply going along with the current, but it’s not necessarily a good thing to do nothing but struggle and fuss all the time. So I need to be honest with myself about my motivations. Constant contrarians aren’t any more honest or useful than constant pushovers.
7. Take a Sabbath from our causes. Say what we need to say, and then talk about something else. Make sure we talk about something else. This isn’t a sign of privilege, or evidence that we don’t care about the truly important issues. It’s a sign that we remember we’re human. Anyone — yes, anyone, no matter how urgent the cause they’re immersed in and called to labor for, and no matter how much they are suffering because of indifference to their cause — can and must regularly talk about other things besides the cause. Doesn’t matter if our cause is abortion, or gay marriage, or racism, or heresy in the Church, or sexism, or anything else: We must not sacrifice our own humanity to the cause. We are more than it.
8. Don’t believe everything we hear. If our friends are all angry at Fred for that awful thing Fred said, find out if Fred actually said it, or just something like it, or something that could be skewed to imply it. Or maybe Fred said the opposite, and someone with an axe to grind knows that the internet doesn’t read carefully, and a misleading headline is good enough. Or, maybe it was some totally other guy, also named Fred, and the Fred we know is now holed up in his basement watching a frenzied mob slash his tires for something he didn’t even do.
9. Apologize when we need to. If I said something I shouldn’t have said in public, I need to admit it in public and say I’m sorry in public. Simple as that.
10. Pray for your enemies. Not “Oh Lord, smack this idiot across the face so he will repent and agree with me,” but “Lord, be good to So-and-so today,” the end. Leave it up to Him to decide how to answer that prayer.
If you’ve seen me on social media, you can judge for yourself how well I do! What about you? Do you have rules for yourself on social media? What have you learned the hard way?