In defence of Twitter and online discussion

I have seen a load of comments bemoaning Twitter of late and the reality of online discussion in general. Truth be told, I do get it. Many have experienced the very worst of online trolls (I’ve been fortunate enough – or more accurately not popular enough – to have faced limited trolling issues). We’ve certainly all had discussions that we thought were worth continuing that suddenly took a dark turn. It’s not uncommon for people to respond to innocuous comments with the most vile abuse. Given all of that, I entirely understand those who decide they’ve simply had enough.

But I want to offer a quick defence of Twitter as well as online argument and discussion in general. Whilst most of the criticisms are legitimate, I think the good outweighs the bad. I belong (and have belonged) to plenty of organisations that do and say things that infuriate. But there are no perfect organisations and it is the easiest thing in the world to sit out altogether and fault find. It has generally been my view that most of these things are better to be in than not. The good that they do or the benefit that they bring far outweigh their sub-optimal elements. Twitter, dear friends, falls into this bracket.

I have – and thus our church has – hugely benefited from Twitter. Were it not for that platform there are plenty of people I would never have come across. By God’s grace, some of the folk I know only by their online presence have blessed us enormously with prayer, finances and a desire to help us find workers. These are kingdom-minded people who love the Lord enough to give away funds and resources because a bloke they’ve never met, running a church they’re unlikely to have ever noticed, said we needed support. I am not much more than pixels on a screen to some of them and yet, out of gospel concern, they chose to help. I attribute that first to the sovereignty of God, second to the gospel-heartedness of those individuals and third to Twitter.

Through Twitter, I have made links with people working in similar communities to us. We have been able to discuss – sometimes even meet – and talk about how we can best reach our communities. I have learnt some really helpful things from such people on Twitter. Some of them tell me I’ve taught them things too (people we shall charitably label, ‘flatterers’; a group eminently preferable to trolls). Nonetheless, we’ve certainly been able to share experience, outreach ideas and bat around some of the unique problems faced by churches in our communities.

I even want to make a defence here for those times when we disagree. I have, more often than not, found most discussions-cum-arguments at least interesting. I have, would you believe it, even changed my mind on certain things based of stuff people have said in discussions on Facebook and Twitter. Again, I am reliably told that some people have changed their views on certain things based on stuff I have said in these forums too. I have even altered my thinking on certain issues based on long threads with back and forth that I wasn’t even involved in, I was just a third-party spectator. But all of these things have helped to sharpen my own views in certain areas. Those discussions have either helped me formulate my views more fully or given me cause to think through my conclusions a bit further. Otherwise, I have stated a position, found that my views weren’t as solid as I first thought and have subsequently changed my mind. In all these things, I have found Twitter and Facebook to be – believe it or not – genuinely helpful in both prompting my thoughts and probing into my conclusions.

Combined with other media, particularly blogs and news articles, Twitter and Facebook provide useful platforms on which to load thoughts that can be discussed. I have found them both to be valuable in disseminating my blog and I have – more often than not – found the ensuing discussions helpful, interesting and sometimes so challenging that my position has changed as a result. I appreciate not everybody learns this way. But as somebody who tests ideas by trying to pull them apart, adopting them as most credible when (so far as my limited capacity can see) they stand up to scrutiny, I find even the more vociferous criticism genuinely quite helpful. People sometimes assume a rigorous response is a desire to get into an argument, but for me it is all part of the process of testing ideas. Just as my thoughts should stand up to your scrutiny, so your criticisms also ought to stand up to mine in response. Done well, this is eminently valuable even on Twitter and Facebook.

So, for those reasons, let me encourage you to press on. I understand the calls to get off and avoid the haters. And, in truth, though I believe many bandy around the labels’ ‘hater’ and ‘troll’ far too readily, some stuff on Twitter particularly can be just awful. But when it’s good and helpful, it’s really good and helpful. So if you are considering getting out, know that I find your input useful, even the aggressively critical bits. Honestly.

Even so, lots of people manage to tread the fine line between rigorous criticism and abuse pretty well. Of course, if you don’t call me nasty names, I am that much more likely to hear your argument, however critical of mine it may be.