03 March 2010

Young Adults Online, Part 2: "Worth & Dignity": Facebook As A Spiritual Practice

Last week, as part of our series on young adults online, we discussed whether the internet is an asset or a distraction in the lives of people in their 20s and 30s. (That post can be found here.)

This week, and on each of the next six Wednesdays, we'll be examining how to use technology to deepen one's spiritual practice and whether it's possible to live out the seven principles on the web.

Principle I: We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Young adults now in their late 20s and early 30s came of age using an internet that encouraged anonymity. It was run and inhabited not by people but by personas: when we interacted online, it was with a stranger we were likely to know only as BlackCat789 or user 35612.

Communicating via pseudonym was exhilarating, but it had consequences: to be known by only one's number, and to interact with others who are known by only their numbers, is fundamentally and mutually dehumanizing: unable to conceive of the person on the other side of the screen as REAL, with real emotional responses, and lacking any evidence that their actions have consequences, people are apt to abandon the "real life" guidelines that usually govern etiquette and self-expression and are apt to behave in a way that they otherwise wouldn't, which leads to trolling, flaming, and bullying behavior.

Even now, in the age of social networking, when anonymity is passe and---because every blog post, status update, and tweet is part of a narrative, is a piece of someone's real and particular life---it has become nearly impossible to forget that the person you're interacting with is a person, we have a tendency to be thoughtless, insincere, and dismissive with each other. This keeps the relationships we form online superficial and inauthentic.

There is, however, an alternative: acting in accordance with the first principle of Unitarian Universalism---which challenges us to relate to other people with integrity even when (especially when) it is most difficult, respecting another person's selfhood even when we don't necessarily like her and recognizing our irrevocable kinship even when we very much want to deny that we have anything at all in common---can allow us to deepen our engagement with our friends and acquaintances and improve the way we socialize out in the world as well as online.


1. Do no harm. The goal of social networking is to connect with people, not to alienate, belittle, or humiliate them.  If you find yourself interacting with people online in a way that is hostile or malicious, it's probably best to take a break for awhile.

2. Think before you type; practice "right (or wise) speech." Before sharing something---or responding to something someone else has shared---ask yourself : is this true? Is this kind? Is this necessary?

3. Be mindful of tone (and watch out for typos.) It is surprisingly---but notoriously---difficult, online, to know in precisely what spirit a writer intended you to take his or her comment. This is complicated in the case of sarcasm, or when something is misspelled or ungrammatical; be aware that it's possible your message, whatever it is---could be misinterpreted.

4. Tell your own story. Share things only about your own life or experience; speak for no one but yourself. (This goes for posting/tagging photos of other people, too.)

5. Friend wisely. Use your discretion when accepting someone's request to connect with you; hitting "ignore"  might be preferable to being in conflict with them.

Do you think it's possible and practical to interact on Facebook and other social networking sites in a responsible and ethical way? Are there guidelines you follow to ensure that you do this?

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