The Opportunities and Dangers of Twitter

As many are no doubt aware, social networking site and procrastination centre par-excellence Twitter has recently celebrated it’s 5th birthday, which has unleashed a slew of reflections on the Twitter phenomenon and it’s growing influence in culture today. Comparisons with Facebook and the potential rivalry between the two are obvious and it will be interesting to observe how each adapts to get one over on the other in the months (I say months deliberately, such is is the pace of change here) to come.
However, my purpose here is to offer up a few musings of my own on my experience of Twitter so far, particularly looking at it through the lens of how I, as a Christian, am using it and what benefits and pitfalls it may have for God’s people as they get involved in it.

I was particularly prompted to write this post by the furore surrounding the release of the promo video for Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’ back in February, which saw ‘Rob Bell’ trending worldwide and prompted an avalanche of tweets, blogs and reviews that is still rolling along even now. I think what struck me was that it was the first time I’d fully realised, ‘Wow, there’s a whole load of Christians on Twitter.’ Indeed, as Martin Saunders notes in his article on Twitter for Christianity magazine, “For once, Christians have been at the forefront of engaging with Twitter.” So much for the usual line that the church lags about 15 years behind the rest of the culture (this is no doubt true of many churches as regards the internet, but then that’s true of many people outside the church too).  This fact undoubtedly brings with it many opportunities for Christians and Christian organisations, but there are a number of pitfalls as well that we must be wary of.

‘To Tweet or not to Tweet’
Firstly, a bit about my own experience with Twitter.  I joined Twitter on May 12th last year, announcing my arrival with the paradigm-shifting proclamation ‘Have given in and joined Twitter. Fun times ahead projected for all concerned.’ I had been somewhat sceptical about it all before that and it certainly took me a little while to get into it, but since August I’ve been using it more and more, so much so that I would say it is my first port of call for finding out what’s going on in the world.  As someone who was previously been quite active on Facebook, I would definitely say that I spend more time on Twitter than Facebook now, which is quite a shift from this time last year.

I use Twitter for a number of different reasons.  First and foremost for me it’s a news-gathering service.  I currently follow 396 people, many of whom are public figures from the worlds of politics and football, particularly journalists, as well as a number of pastors, theologians and other Christians who tweet.  One of the best things for me is the ease at which I can read through my feed and find articles and posts worth reading to not only keep me informed of what’s going on, but also providing analysis and insight into these events as well, even if I end up with about 20 tabs open in my browser to wade through during my lunch-break.
This marks a key difference for me in the way I use Twitter and Facebook. While a number of friends are on Twitter and I enjoy interacting with them there, that’s probably not Twitter’s greatest strength, as all conversations are public (unless through Direct Message) and it’s not terribly personal, especially as anyone who follows you or them can chip in at any time.  Facebook is much better suited to chat between friends and so most of my interaction with friends who I don’t see or talk to regularly would be on there.  The flip side of Twitter conversations being public is that it gives the opportunity to ‘listen in’ on some really interesting discussions between public figures, on issues ranging from local taxation to the AV referendum to weighty theological issues (admittedly difficult when limited to 140 characters!).

This leads me to one of the dangers of Twitter -that in order to fit within the constraints of a 140-character Tweet, something is lost along the way.  Often, this is nuance – arguments and points that need unpacking and explaining in detail are condensed and reduced to fit into a pithy statement.  I’m a big fan of aphorisms and pithy one-liners, but it’s not always the best way to engage in a constructive dialogue.

One of the most notable examples of this recently was John Piper’s now famous (or infamous?) tweet in response to the promo video for Love Wins, saying ‘Farewell Rob Bell’ and shortlinking to Justin Taylor’s blog post that really kickstarted the whole controversy.  While I would be broadly in agreement with Piper, Taylor et al on their critique of Rob Bell’s book (I hope to unpack this in another post), I am somewhat uneasy about any Christian dismissing their brother in Christ in such a shorthand way.  I don’t know what led Pastor Piper to write that Tweet, but I’d like to think that it was done in a moment of haste and that he would agree that it wasn’t the most constructive way to go about things.  (Although a later Tweet on March 17th said ‘Pretty close.’ in reply to this article)

Christians are always going to disagree about things, whether matters of theology, ecclesiology or otherwise, there are good and bad ways to go about this.  Twitter can play a role here and it doesn’t have to be a negative one.
Positively, it can be used as a way of highlighting a blog post or article that you feel that someone could benefit from reading (provided that said post or article is also born out of a desire to engage constructively and any criticism comes from a desire to speak the truth in love).  Alternatively, you may have a comment that can easily fit into a tweet, however what is unhelpful is trying to condense an in-depth critique of someone’s position into a Twitter dialogue, as this will almost always result in casualties, the foremost of which being charity, clarity and grammar.  While it is undoubtedly noteworthy that Rob Bell/Love Wins trended so prominently on Twitter, it is also lamentable that so much of the content of these Tweets was negative, from both sides.  Many rushed in to condemn Rob Bell and his book, labelling him a universalist, a heretic and worse.  Others rushed to condemn these ‘condemners’, accusing them of ‘hating on’ him and being small-minded, judgmental bigots.  Putting the merits of either side’s arguments aside, this was unseemly behaviour and didn’t cover anyone in glory – it certainly didn’t glorify God that His people were slinging so much mud at each other across the Twittersphere.  I suppose it’s to be expected, but it is also to be lamented and falls short of James 1:19, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…” (alongside many other Scriptures as well).

One positive move I’ve noticed on Twitter is a number of accounts set up in the name of great Christian authors and theologians of the past and present.  My favourite of these is @CSLewisDaily, bringing daily nuggets of wisdom from the ever-quotable Lewis to over 270,000 followers.  There are also accounts for Charles Spurgeon, Francis Schaeffer, JI Packer and others.
(A quick shout-out as well to @Xianity, which is often random, frequently irreverent, but almost always highly amusing.)

Since this post is reaching epic lengths, I’ll leave my reflections there for now, perhaps I’ll revisit this again sometime, do leave me some of your reflections in the comments below if you like!

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One thought on “The Opportunities and Dangers of Twitter

  1. I never really understood the problem with Piper’s tweet. From where I stood (or sat) he wa simply trying to rhyme…which he achieved with great success!

    Honestly though, thoughtful post. As with so much in the Christian life, it’s a heart issue isn’t it. Many use it for shameless self promotion an glory seeking, others (like yourself and myself I might add) primarily use it as a tool to stay ‘up-to-date’ which could still be sinful if done with the wrong motives/desires.

    Your cautions are good, especially highlighting the public nature of it all and the nessicary limitations of 140-characters. Perhaps if you’ve got something to say you should blog it and tweet the link…or would that be shameless self promotion?

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