Social media and my best self

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I never paid much attention to my friends list on Facebook. I accepted every invite I got. Over the years, my newsfeed became this stream of passionate exclamations, many of which were outright offensive and unfair to people like me. (Me and my family, we’re Catholics. We go to Mass regularly and all that.)  My skin is too thin for controversy, but I don’t have enough self-control to stay out of arguments. I don’t like the person I become when I am drawn into fights. So I quit social media for about five years, from 2011 to February of this year.

I came back this year just because it was election season and I thought I should check in and see how things are going. Wow! It’s bad! That stream of passion in my newsfeed has become a regular torrent of bile, especially when anything involving Christian religion comes up. Predictably, there I went again, getting into it with people who passionately hate things that I love. Bleh. That’s not me, that’s not my inner me. “Fighting Ted” is an irrational, threatened child who lacks the composure necessary to make solid points without becoming nasty and hurtful. Somebody needs to make those points, but it isn’t me.

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So I quit again. Kind of. But I reconsidered. Like anyone, I would enjoy the companionship of the internet, if it didn’t constantly offer me a stream of hateful and downright wrong attacks on my beliefs. Complete isolation is tempting, very tempting, but I work in a Media School, not a monastery. I have to figure out how to exist on the net.

New experiment: I tried restricting my social media connections to just a very few people and organizations. I had 400 friends on FB; I unfriended everybody. Unfollowed everyone on Twitter.

Then I sent friend requests to close family, close colleagues, and a couple people who I felt would not only not post things that hurt my heart, but also would not re-post or comment on things like that – thus keeping it out of my newsfeed altogether. And I was pretty strict about it. After the purge, I had just 20 friends on Facebook, and followed about 10 people on Twitter.

It is astounding how rapidly the nature of my social media feed has changed. It turns out that the internet is well-populated with cogent, reasonable discussions of current affairs that are not hateful toward Catholic faith and doctrine. Heck, the Pope is on Instagram. It was all there – but because my newsfeed had been primarily people in the games industry and academia, voices that are tolerant of religion were apparently drowned out by these other, far more vocal, and generally hostile voices. By re-inventing myself as a Catholic first, and a gamer and an academic only distantly second and third, I was able to receive a much more balanced and tolerant message from the online world.

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Since the purge, I have been making a few new friend invites and following new people and organizations. The auto-generated suggestions for links and friends are very interesting. Whereas before it felt like constant pressure to become a pagan again, it now feels like encouragement from fellow-travelers. Where before I felt isolated, now I feel empowered by a community. Hurray! It’s a community of reasonable, thoughtful people, accepting of religion, that I never knew existed on the internet.

(The funniest link suggestion that I got from Facebook’s algorithms was an organization devoted to helping people managing their internet reputation. I imagine that sort of link is triggered whenever anyone does something dramatic to their network, like cutting off 90 percent of it.)

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So far, this experiment is working well. I don’t seem to be disconnected from the points of view of others. They do come up in my newsfeed. But I seem to be getting only the reasonable expression of these views, without the unreasonable anger and hatred toward Christianity. By keeping my connections to people whom I know really well, and trust, I am able to rely on them as filters of the madness. People on my friends list disagree with me on all kinds of issues. But they are not mad about it. They are quiet, kind, hopeful, indeed loving. I am grateful for the filtering they do.

And yet, there’s nothing to proud of here, not for me personally. I think I have found some good strategies for my internet self: Make friends with people who have a known track record of being kind, understanding, and tolerant. But this isn’t all that great a thing. It is a crutch for a weak guy. Sure: By limiting my association to netizens who don’t ruffle my feathers, it becomes possible for me to be kind and warm-hearted myself. But that’s only because I am too weak to remain kind and loving when the chips are really down. I’m afraid I have to retreat into a safe environment, where there is no anger at all, to be the best person I am called to be.

Sorry world! But I this is the best I can do.

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