Social Media, although a wonderful communication tool, can sometimes emphasize cultural divisions, even among English-speakers. For example, I often find myself having to explain jokes to American friends online. Just as witty American one-liners sometimes fall flat over here, so our dry, allusive irony can lead to incomprehension or even irritation on the other side of the Pond. It becomes even more complicated when one is treading less familiar ground. How often have I managed to misunderstand (or myself been misunderstood) when talking to people in India, Africa or Asia. Even when we share the same religion, the expectations we have of one other can be widely different. Although some people in this country have distinctly odd ideas about others, I haven’t met many who are absolutely sure what everyone else should say or do (unless, of course, they happen to be aggressively non-Christian, in which case they frequently have an alarming tendency to know exactly how one should behave!). It can be a shock, therefore, to find oneself at odds with someone whose cultural background sets a different value on argument/discussion or who has quite different ideas about the place of women in Church/society or simply has a different experience of life. In theory, this should be enriching; in practice, it can be disconcerting.
As Social Media matures, I think we are becoming more aware of both its strengths and weaknesses, but I’d say we need to think more carefully about its potential for harm. Social Media does bring people together in ways that weren’t possible before. It does enable us to share thoughts and ideas quickly and easily. Against that, its rapid response facility means that we all sometimes use Social Media in ways we later regret — and we can’t scrub the record clean, despite Google’s best intentions. It won’t be a popular thing to say, but we can sin using Social Media. We can lie, dissemble, hurt or undermine reputations. We can stir up false arguments. We can also be perfectly horrid to one another. We may not be trolls, but we can be dismissive or rude or sanctimonious idiots. Does that matter? I think it does.
One of the papal titles I love best is pontifex, bridge-builder. I think all Christians are called to be bridge-builders online. We all have an opportunity to cross the cultural divides that exist in the world today, but it can’t be done as instantly as we can send a tweet, post a Facebook status or upload an Instagram update. It takes time and some serious listening, not just to what is going on at a surface level, but also to what is happening at a deeper, more hidden level. We need to bring to our online activity some of the self-restraint and prayerfulness we bring to every other activity of our lives. Sometimes that means we must engage more; sometimes it means we must engage less. It takes wisdom to know the difference — and a generous and humble spirit.