Over the summer of 2020, my Instagram has become a very different place. In a season that typically brought meticulously curated beach and vacation photos to my feed, a raging pandemic and the murder of George Floyd had turned the world upside down. My social media feed was suddenly inundated with infographics, reading recommendations, and suggestions for organizations to donate to.
And I loved it so much better than the pre-pandemic Instagram my scrolling eyes had once been glued to.
It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t comfortable. But it also changed a platform that tended to be superficial and appearance-focused into something deeper. What was once self-promotion has become communal.
Along with calls to action and educational posts, many accounts I’ve followed have issued warnings: Don’t let things go back to the way they were, including on this site.
When a major event hits the news cycle these days, everyone I follow seems to have a compulsive need to respond with a statement or comment as quickly as possible.
Although the edited beach photos eventually came back here and there, I don’t think my social media feeds are back to how they used to be. That streak of activism has stuck, but over the past two years I’ve seen it transform — in many cases, not for the better.
When a major event hits the news cycle these days, everyone I follow seems to have a compulsive need to respond with a statement or comment as quickly as possible. From pop culture feuds to Supreme Court leaks to televised court cases, I feel like our new social media culture has created a group of new armchair experts for everything.
This is no longer the community effort I observed at the start of the pandemic. We have returned to the old self-promotional tools of social media in our efforts to respond to current events in our world that have real and life-altering consequences. As well intentioned as it often is, it is misguided and may be more performative than authentic.
I’m certainly not saying that it’s never fruitful to post the day’s events on social media, or that we should stop using Twitter or Facebook or Instagram as a tool to have conversations with each other. I say, however, that there is a way to do it with care and sensitivity. If we don’t spend time and effort finding out what that might look like, our conversations won’t just be unproductive; they will also hurt people.
Perhaps these few minutes of reflection will help us make what can sometimes seem like a treacherous decision – to publish or not to publish? – carefully and intentionally.
In the spirit of a better way, I think we can each do some kind of soul-searching the next time we feel pressured to respond instantly to our thousands of followers. Perhaps these few minutes of reflection will help us make what can sometimes seem like a treacherous decision – to publish or not to publish? – carefully and intentionally.
Here are some things to keep in mind in your own discernment:
Thinking about the people we reach on social media can draw us out and remind us that our contributions are about much more than ourselves. While the validation that can come from likes and reactions to a post is appealing, a sarcastic viral post isn’t worth the hurt it can cause to those personally affected by a tragic situation.
So ask yourself: who is actually likely to see this? The answer is not the president or the celebrity whose personal life you are commenting on. They are your family members, your colleagues, your neighbors. If in doubt, contact them. Unlike the public figures you see online but never meet, you’ll need to respond to your family and friends for the compassion (or lack thereof) that comes through in what you say.
Ask yourself: who is actually likely to see this? The answer is not the president or the celebrity whose personal life you are commenting on. They are your family members, your colleagues, your neighbors.
This is one of our biggest challenges. Our cultural conversation seems to be moving faster than ever, so there’s this feeling that if we don’t say anything now, the time to do so will have passed tomorrow because everyone will already be talking about the next big deal. How often do we see instant responses that age badly, that need to be retracted, even days later, when new information comes to light? When something really, deeply matters, when has it ever made sense to rush the answer? If a problem is big, nuanced, and hard to solve, shouldn’t it make sense that finding an answer that does justice to the problem might take a while?
It is absolutely crucial that when we speak, we take the time to ensure that what we are saying is accurate and fair. Making social media activism a race to see who can speak first will never let our speech last long enough to effect change.
Is there a better place to process what you’re about to say? Social media is a tool that can be useful when what we have to say needs to reach a large number of people. However, not all conversations are best when they potentially involve hundreds of people or more.
How often do we see instant responses that age badly, that need to be retracted, even days later, when new information comes to light?
Maybe there’s a close friend you can talk to one-on-one, or someone who knows this topic better than you and can answer your questions without judgment. For some of us, writing can help us organize our thoughts and uncover ideas we weren’t even aware of. A journal can be your best friend when you need to sort out complicated thoughts and feelings. And of course, for believers, prayer and meditation allow us to ask for what we need and to listen for insight. While some conversations go well with as many voices as possible, others only need two: yours and God’s.
4. Identity and power.
To understand our personal responsibility for a given cause, it helps to look to the past. How have people who look like me historically behaved in the face of different injustices? And did it help or hurt the cause?
For example, I am a white woman. By my identity, I hold a certain power. I am part of a bloodline that has sometimes hurt and excluded those in need. My responsibility now is to avoid those same mistakes. Some things I can do include being careful not to center myself in conversations that aren’t about me and trying not to get defensive when someone calls me into my blind spots.
If you feel responsible for getting involved online and if the cause you’re speaking about will gain traction, your efforts are also needed elsewhere.
5. Do more.
Our activism cannot begin and end with a social media post. If you feel responsible for getting involved online and if the cause you’re speaking about will gain traction, your efforts are also needed elsewhere. Link your social media posts to real conversations, donations, votes and more.
Sometimes it’s the virtuous choice to take to social media and speak out loud and clear for a cause that simply can’t be ignored. Sometimes, however, it’s the virtuous choice to let someone else lead the conversation or ask a question instead of making a flippant statement or waiting to say something until tomorrow when you’ve listened. others and you will know more.
I believe that social media can be a place of real engagement because I have seen it happen, if only for a fleeting moment. If we are to bring this vision back to life, we must let go of the bad habits that keep us from being in community with each other online and instead embrace the kind of loving intentionality that lets us know when it’s time to talk – and when it’s time to step aside to make way for someone else.