Sunday, January 5, 2014

My (Failed) Social Media Experiment

I began with the best of intentions. My goal was to create a social media presence in order to share my thoughts on the issues of the day as well as give people a glimpse into a pastor’s life away from the church. Unfortunately, my experiment failed. By “failed” I mean that I did not accomplish my goal in a constructive way. Quite the opposite, actually. Rather than equip believers with the tools necessary to engage in the culture war, they were provided sarcastic, condescending and often unhelpful commentary on the issues and events of the day. Rather than provide a winsome look into the life of their pastor, a one dimensional lens was provided to view their pastor. In short, what they saw (and read) was not what I had hoped or intended. As a result, I have since made some changes in the way I handle social media and I have learned some principles for public leaders that I think are worth sharing.  

The first principle is to not create a Twitter or Facebook presence without a specific set of guidelines for how to use it. That sounds simple and obvious, but it is remarkable how few of us think intentionally about what we are putting into the world of social media. If you have not established a set of guidelines for social media, ask yourself why you think you use it. If you had asked me I would have told you that I had a Facebook presence in order to keep in touch with my family (who live over 900 miles away) and to comment on issues of interest to me. However, in going back through nearly three years of posts, I discovered that very little of the content I posted had anything to do with family. Indeed, most of it appeared to be nothing more than my reaction to and commentary on the events of the day. Thus, what I thought was a way to stay in touch with family was little more than a way to feed my own ego by commenting on the news and events of the day. Once you determine what you think your reason(s) for engaging in social media is, try this, go back through a year’s worth of your posts and evaluate them in light of your guidelines.

After some gut level conversations with good and trusted friends, I have now established a framework for intentional social media interaction. My purpose in engaging in social media is threefold. First, I want to advance the ministry of the church I serve by posting information beneficial to our members. That information may be links to ministry opportunities, updates or details about church events, links to ministry resources, and the like. Second, I do want to give people a glimpse into a pastor’s life outside of the church. I simply want to be more gracious and holistic in how I do that. So I intend to provide more family oriented posts and pictures and less snarky remarks about the outcome of ball games. Third, I want to point people to articles and resources that will help them in their walk with Christ. In the past I would post most anything, now I use this framework to weed out much of what I would have posted in the past.

The second principle is one I owe to my good friend David Prince. During a conversation with David about my (unfortunate) tendency to engage in Facebook debates, he made a remarkable observation. David said, “Rob, you cannot have a meaningful and substantive debate in a medium that is neither meaningful nor substantive.” There is far more truth in that than I would have liked to admit. The truth is, going back and forth with someone in a Facebook thread is not productive. Such an exchange does not allow for an exchange of ideas that may persuade. Instead, it tends to entrench previously held ideas and create animosity toward those advocating other views. Facebook is a great place to share pictures from a family vacation and updates on where you are having lunch, but it is not a forum for engaging in debates that require careful thought or a nuanced exchange of ideas.

Having said that, I know that my tendency is to engage in debate. Indeed, I love to debate. To avoid the temptation to engage in a back and forth, I’ve determined to share status updates via my Twitter feed (which is linked to Facebook). For me, Twitter presents far less of a temptation to engage in a back-and-forth debate than does Facebook. Plus, I am less inclined to post trivial items to Twitter, which provides a higher standard to determine what is worthy of sharing on social media.

My third principle for social media is that social media never presents the whole picture of a person’s life, values, or personality. It is not even possible to determine tone of voice through social media, unless one is using all caps, of course. As a result, we get a skewed picture of what a person believes, what they value, how they think, etc. That is true, by the way, regardless of how much a person posts on social media. For example, we all know the “excessive” poster…..the one who tells you every restaurant they are in, at every meal. Obviously, there is more to the person than where they eat a meal or what they had for lunch. Even when posting on social or political issues, the nature of social media presents a skewed perspective of one’s beliefs and values.

As a Christian leader I have determined that it is not productive to present deeply held – and sometimes controversial – beliefs in sound bytes on social media. The opportunity for misunderstanding is simply too great, particularly in a culture that often views biblical beliefs as bordering on hate speech. Instead I will present my understanding of issues, biblical texts, etc through blogs, articles and books. While it is true that doing so is a more one-dimensional approach, it will allow a more detailed examination of issues than a 140 character tweet or a status update.

My goal here is to help other Christian leaders and believers in general to be more intentional and productive in their social media interaction. Social media can be a great servant when it is accomplishing the purposes for which you intend it. But, it can be a brutal master when it takes on a life of its own. In that regard it is wise to consider Paul’s words from Ephesians 5:16-17: Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

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