In a recent message on modern means of mass communication, Pope Benedict XVI asked us to “give the Internet a soul”:
Without fear we must set sail on the digital sea facing into the deep with the same passion that has governed the ship of the Church for two thousand years. Rather than for, albeit necessary, technical resources, we want to qualify ourselves by living in the digital world with a believer’s heart, helping to give a soul to the Internet’s incessant flow of communication.
“Giving the Internet a soul” sounds like a romantic notion, but what might that look like in terms of real-life online interaction? I have a few suggestions.
1. Be who you are.
Whether you are blogging, participating in an online forum, or commenting on a column at InsideCatholic, your thoughts and words will be most compelling if they are real. Don’t put on airs or adopt popular opinions in an attempt to impress others. That kind of pretense only builds false relationships.
2. Cultivate silence.
Believe it or not, comments are not required. Deacon Greg Kandra recently became so disenchanted with the tone and content of comments on his popular blog that he decided to enforce a “retreat” of sorts by closing comments for an indefinite period of time. As a consequence, his site has become a small island of peace in a vast ocean of contention online. The previously negative comments there, I came to realize, detracted from his message.
3. Use your name.
I am convinced that what threatens modern civility most is the power of anonymity. “Anonymous” gives voice to some of the meanest, darkest, ugliest things I’ve read online. When people discuss issues in real life, their arguments and comments have context. You can readily spot people with an agenda and generously choose to overlook the occasional unbalanced, bitter person’s vitriol and confusion. On our computer screens, though, all contributors to a conversation appear equal, and not knowing others’ details and circumstances gives us a skewed perspective on the world. If you are unwilling or unable to attach your name to what you have to say, perhaps it needn’t be said at all.
4. Treat people like people.
I’ll never forget the time when a favorite blogger of mine dashed off some flippant remarks about a well-known person’s wife. Imagine his chagrin, then, when the celebrity’s wife showed up in his combox. Celebrities are real people with families, feelings, and access to Google alerts. And so is your neighbor or distant family member whom you might blog about, even without sharing their names. Don’t let technology make you forget others’ humanity. Gossip is sinful and dehumanizing, whether you whisper it behind the back fence or type it anonymously from your laptop.
5. Examine your motives.
Whether you blog, comment, participate in forums, use Facebook, or just read what others share online, it’s important for each of us to step back and examine our motives for doing so on a regular basis. It sounds nice to say that we blog for God or we argue for truth and justice, but jealousy, pride, and anger can be powerful human motivators as well. Examine yourself honestly for the real motives behind your online communications, open your heart to hear the truth, and, when in doubt, keep quiet.
6. Let God in.
One of the greatest challenges to modern Christians is to engage the culture and bring the light of Christ to even the darkest corners, and the Internet provides us with a powerful medium for doing exactly that. Not everything we say or do as Catholics needs to be stamped “Catholic,” but what we say or do should not contradict that label. If our faith is real, it will be a natural part of all of our communications and will shine through all that we do.
7. Turn it off.
Ironically, one important way we can give the Internet a soul is by spending less time online. When we spend too much time attached to screens, we deny our human need for in-the-flesh relationships and develop a warped worldview. We should bring fresh perspective to our online communications — the kind of soul-feeding, real-life perspective that can only come from interacting with real live human beings. Step away from the screen and engage others in your workplace, your community, or your living room.
8. Don’t defend yourself.
This is a tough one. When someone attacks us personally, our natural inclination is to defend ourselves. We need to set the record straight, don’t we? Perhaps not directly. Have you ever read a blog post in which the writer addresses personal attacks with a defensive tone? It rather quickly becomes embarrassing, awkward, and petty. Someone once advised me that when a verbal argument grows ugly, the best way to answer your opponent is to let his own hateful words hang in the air without response. Then everyone, including the speaker, can see them for what they are. Sometimes, the best way to respond to lies and ugly criticism online is not to directly address them, but to continue to present our own positive message of truth.
Instant communication is a wonderfully dangerous thing. We can update a Facebook status and instantly share our passing thoughts with an exponential number of friends, acquaintances, and strangers. The trouble is, not every passing thought merits sharing. We all too often read something online, become angry, and respond . . . all in the same breath. There is too much room for misunderstanding, overreaction, and regret. When you read something that incenses you and find your fingers racing for the keyboard, hit your inner “pause” button instead. Wait 24 hours. Then, if you find that you do need to respond, you will be prepared to do so with less anger and more soul.
10. Be positive.
The most attractive and inspiring things I have ever read, Catholic or not, are words that set a positive example. I’m not saying we need to be Christian Pollyannas, of course. The world is filled with ugliness and sin, and we are called to recognize and address it. But that doesn’t mean wallowing in it. We can call attention to the failings of the world and, at the same time, honestly share a positive way of addressing them. We don’t need to preach, argue, or demand. We can simply share Christ and His message in a way that makes us an attractive force for the good.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily