“We are living in an upside-down world. Our wild, strong bodies are sedentary. Intimacy is down, and passivity and isolation are up. Our weak, needy hearts are lonely. We are anxious, tired, overwhelmed, and addicted to technologies we don’t fully understand, yet our culture has little to say about something we all feel. We are barreling down the highway of technological “progress,” and no one’s got the playbook; the rules of the road are yet to be written” – Christina Crook, The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World
The beauty of analog conflict
There is a tactile brilliance to analog media. The sound of a hardback novel’s spine cracking for the first time. The soft crackle and pop as the needle glides along a well-worn Simon and Garfunkel LP. Analog media is honest, uninterrupted, and most importantly, it is a physical object with which you engage.
Digital media falls short on a number of fronts. Digital music often compresses sound and obscures the natural equalization of the mastered record. Digital books sometimes omit page numbers, images, and even original aspects of the text.
It should come as no surprise then that in our digital presence and conflict online we miss some of the most important features of an authentic, analog conflict. When we engage online it is not with our whole self. We are after all living breathing creatures with interests, opinions, and histories. We cannot capture this dynamic nature for other people in a profile picture and 140 characters – no matter how descriptive emojis become. Nor can we comprehend someone’s full intentions through their poorly thought out quips on Facebook that were intended primarily for friends and family.
Our relationships and conflicts are mediated through the online world when we participate in social media and comment sections. There are benefits and costs to participating in this system. Obvious benefits are the ability of friends, family, and colleagues to network and share information. Another benefit is giving a voice to those who have long been silenced. The internet is full of stories of the underdog being given a voice and power to advance the cause of equality and justice.
Some of the costs to engaging online are that we may see a lot of information, but only what we want. We also may unwittingly share false truths. However, most importantly I believe we fail to see the person on the other side of conflict. Even though we can see hundreds of pictures of this person and every post they have ever liked, we do not see them as we would in person.
When we engage in a digital conflict we are only engaging with that person’s digital self, disembodied from the person lovingly created in the image of God. Engaging in digital conflicts separates our experience of dialogue with any sense of a person’s story, their attentive eyes, their trembling hands, and their physical presence inviting a peaceful exchange of ideas.
Social media obscures our particularity and frailty. We then replace our deficiencies and hurt with the polished, pristine façade we use to impress the world. Our online conflict revolves around pitting these digital versions of ourselves against one another with an army of secondary parties interjecting, derailing, or refining the argument.
The beauty of analog conflict is that it is between persons- real human persons with faces that smile and eyes that cry. Analog conflict also has risks in the digital age. We risk entering into an argument without the ability to fact check our opponents’ every word. We risk facing one another and revealing our weakness. But we also risk the chance that we will truly listen to one another. Analog conflict gives us the chance to hear without formulating a quick reply that will be posted and skimmed within 30 seconds.
The quote I posted at the top of this article by Christina Crook is about how we hurt ourselves and others through our haphazard use of technology in the digital age. I commend her book to you and suggest you faithfully consider some of her recommendations for how we ration our internet use. I also want to offer a solution to her statement that the “rules are yet to be written.”
My offer to the Christian reader is that we follow a rule of love. That in all that we do, say, like, or share online it should be done with a spirit of love. When we engage in a clash of values, ideas, facts, or opinions, it should be done with a preference for the analog. In this way we honor Jesus’ command that “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt. 18:15). Nothing we do online is just between two people. We do far more harm when we attempt to shame, embarrass, and discredit one another publicly. When we invite friends and enemies to an “analog” conflict, we invite them to the beauty and messiness of life together.
However, not all conflicts will take place through face to face dialogue. So at the end of the day, the main question we must ask ourselves about conflict online is: What differentiates Christians in the way they approach conflict online? What distinguishes our actions and reactions from the those of others?
Grace and Peace,