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Playing with fire

Am I using social media in ways that affirm people's inherent worth and strengthen the interdependent web?
By Heather Christensen
Fall 2013 8.15.13

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Preaching at the 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix, the Rev. John Crestwell said, “I am a First and Seventh Principle preacher.” The Rev. James Ishmael Ford responded in a sermon of his own, “I heard those words and I heard my own heart, and my voice and my life. I heard our message, our good news. . . . Ours is an electric, dancing middle way between the two poles of our precious individuality and our intimate connection.”

The words of these two preachers echo in my mind as I think about how social media enhances my faith. They become a rubric, a guideline for participation in online community: I want to be a First and Seventh Principle social media user.

Brené Brown, best known for her TED talks about shame and vulnerability, recently posted this Facebook status: “I guess technology is like fire—you can keep yourself warm or you can burn down the barn. It’s all in how you use it (or how you let it use you).”

So how do I know when I’m keeping myself warm and when I’m burning down the barn?

As a Unitarian Universalist, I can ask myself, “Am I using social media in a way that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person—including myself? Am I participating in online community in a way that strengthens the interdependent web? Am I dancing the electric middle way between individuality and intimate connection?”

Part of honoring the First Principle is acknowledging that social media is wildly diverse and rapidly evolving. Each of us uses social media in our own way, choosing different platforms and different levels of involvement—or none. I find Twitter’s fire hose of 140-character tweets overwhelming, but occasionally helpful; when late pregnancy kept me from attending the inaugural Pacific Western Regional Assembly, tweeting attendees provided a taste of the excitement. I’ve used Instagram, and a practice of almost-daily photo sharing, as a way to remind myself to see the world around me. I have played with Pinterest as a way of exploring our cultural shift from word to image. I’m working to create a collegial small group for “free-range” UU ministers using Google Hangouts. But Facebook is my preferred form of social media, so I’ll focus on my experiences there.

When my partner Liesl and I moved to Alaska in 2005, I began attending the Anchorage UU Fellowship. As a shy introvert, I found Sunday mornings an ordeal. Joining a small group helped, but the real transformation occurred when I joined Facebook. In-person conversations were easier to start when I already knew from Facebook that one person’s golden retriever had died, that another person was turning fifty, that a third person was thinking about buying a new Toyota.

Several years later, UU media and ministry consultant Peter Bowden launched the UU Growth Lab on Facebook, a forum for UUs interested in promoting denominational and congregational growth. I had accumulated a few UU Facebook friends outside of Alaska, but that number jumped exponentially once I joined the Growth Lab. Now my online UU friends far outnumber the UU friends I have met in person. These virtual connections give me a window into Unitarian Universalism across the United States and in Canada. Sometimes I smile, recognizing a common struggle, and sometimes a creative idea in a faraway congregation makes my heart race with possibility.

Over time, Facebook has become fully integrated into my daily life. It teaches me about myself, about others, about living in community—both online and in person. The joys and sorrows shared in status updates have taught me that we all live an undulating rhythm of struggle and celebration. It is impossible, given the long view, to measure the exact proportion of joy or sorrow in anyone’s life. Envy makes no sense; guilt about our own happiness makes no sense. All we can do is rejoice with friends who rejoice, and weep with friends who weep.

I’ve been grateful that Facebook helps me practice a pause before reaction. Reading words on a page, composing a response, and hitting return slows down a heated exchange, delays a thoughtless or hurtful comment. It is a middle way between the almost-lost art of letter writing and a fast-paced, in-person conversation.

Facebook has also become a source for counsel. Several weeks ago, I was invited to preach at the Anchorage fellowship—four weeks after I was due to deliver my daughter. My Facebook colleagues gave me this advice: “You could probably do it, if you wrote the sermon now, before the baby’s born. But you might be miserable. Why not just enjoy your first weeks with your baby?” Wise words.


From what I’ve said so far, it may seem that I see Facebook and other forms of social media as an unqualified good. This is not true. Social media satisfies many of our needs for interaction, without asking much of us. We spend most of our waking hours with our attention glued to our screens—and not because we’re making progress on any worthwhile project. We neglect in-person contact, because we believe our social needs are met online. We forget to be in the physical world, because we are caught up in the excitement of the virtual world.

Social media can also divide the world into many webs, rather than strengthening the all-inclusive, interdependent web of our Seventh Principle. We can surround ourselves with like-minded people, “unfriending” anyone who disturbs our comfortable ways of thinking. Most of my Facebook friends share my views, but I have intentionally chosen some with whom I disagree. On Facebook we work to find common ground, despite significant differences in belief.

Finally, social media lulls us into thinking we are doing real work. It has been hard to write this article—it would be so much easier to write a snappy status update, to share an article from the New York Times, to comment on a friend’s post. All of these are worthwhile contributions. They are tiny stitches in the interdependent web. But longer-form writing is also important, as are the skills and discipline to create it. Social media tempts us to choose the easy over the difficult, the fast over the slow, the lazy over the disciplined.

We need ways to evaluate our use of social media. For me, that need brings me back to the First and Seventh Principles. Am I treating others and myself with respect? Am I making and maintaining a wide variety of connections with others, both in person and online? And am I remembering that the interdependent web isn’t only the faces of friends in a coffee shop or onscreen—that it is also the trees, the mountains, and the fresh air?


This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of UU World (pages 50-51). Illustration (above) © Robert Neubecker. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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