What every parent should know about the Internet (3)
The social network revolution
In February 2009, the Daily Telegraph reported that Kimberly Swann, a 16-year-old from Clacton, posted on Facebook that she thought her job was boring. She was called into her manager’s office and handed a letter that cited her Facebook comments as the reason for dismissal: ‘Following your comments made on Facebook about your job and the company, we feel it is better that, as you are not happy and do not enjoy your work, we end your employment with immediate effect’.
Stacy Snyder wanted to be a teacher. By the spring of 2006, the 25-year-old single mother had completed her course and was looking forward to her future career. Then her dream died.
Summoned by university officials, she was told she would not be a teacher, because she had posted a photo on the Internet showing her in costume wearing a pirate’s hat and drinking from a plastic cup. This was deemed to be behaviour unbecoming of a teacher.1
Stacy considered taking the photo offline. But the damage was done. Her web page had been catalogued by search engines, and her photo archived by web crawlers. The Internet remembered what Stacy wanted to have forgotten.
Even President Obama, in a September 2009 televised address to American schools, advised them to ‘be careful what you post on Facebook. Whatever you do, it will be pulled up later in your life’.2
Nonetheless, social networks have emerged as one of the most popular recent web phenomena. The best known social network is Facebook, though there are many others, including MySpace and specialist networks such as LinkedIn for business users, or even GovLoop for US government employees.
For most people, who started talking to one another on the Internet using Instant Messaging (IM), social networks provide a much richer set of capabilities. Not only can you ‘chat’ to your friends online, you can also see messages they post about what they are doing, pictures, events, birthdays; or even play games together.
A network is made up of people who have applied to ‘join’ up with you and become ‘your friend’. It is possible to set up a network so that only ‘friends’ can view your pictures or see what you write on your ‘wall’ etc.
Should you choose, you can remove people from your social network at any time. To remove someone is to ‘unfriend’ them, a word that, as reported in the Independent newspaper, was adopted as the new 2009 ‘Word of the year’ by the Oxford Dictionary.
Social networks are useful for making contact with people you may have lost touch with, such as school or university friends. It helps keep family and friends abreast of what they are doing, without having to write, email or call.
However, there are also dangers with social networks. It is not always clear whether or not others outside the approved network of friends can see what is posted, if security levels are not set correctly. In any case, messages posted on a social network can easily be passed on to other in a kind of electronic ‘Chinese whispers’.
These networks can also be addictive. Because women outnumber men on Facebook (57 per cent to 43 per cent, according to the Wall Street Journal3) the term ‘Facebook widower’ has been coined!4
Not only can social networks be addictive, but they can also lead to the creation of unhealthy relationships (something we will look at in more detail in another article), the projection of unrealistic persona, and the feeling that we have relationships that don’t exist in real life.
The problems come to the fore particularly when looking at a special kind of social network, the ‘online church’. This kind of church is not simply a web site or way of downloading sermons (whether audio or video), or even simply live streaming of a church message. It is far more than this, and is intended to replace conventional churches with online equivalents.
Online church web sites provide social networks so that those listening or viewing on their computers can ‘chat to one another’ during the service, share thoughts or ideas, or receive support from a pastoral assistant at any time.
In a blog post for ChristianityToday.com5, Bob Hyatt, a pastor who leads a brick-and-mortar Evergreen Community Church in Portland, Oregon, writes that calling an online church a virtual church ‘gives people the idea that everything they need is available here’.
This is precisely what Craig Groeschel, senior pastor at LifeChurch.tv – an online church – says in a CNN interview: ‘we were blown away at how people could actually worship along [online],’ he says.
‘The whole family will gather around the computer, and they’ll sing and they’ll worship together. Instead of trying to get people to come to a church, we feel like we can take a church to them’.6
In a book entitled SimChurch, just published by Zondervan, author Douglas Estes says that ‘today a new community of the people of God has begun … A change is occurring in the Christian church the likes of which has not happened in centuries … This type of church is unlike any church the world has ever seen.
‘It has the power to break down social barriers, unite believers from all over the world, and build the kingdom of God with a widow’s mite of financing. It is a completely different type of church from any the world has ever seen’.
What does the Bible say?
We can imagine the benefits of such an arrangement for some – for example, the lonely Christian in an Islamic country, or a missionary isolated from any other believers.
However, there are significant dangers for those who could otherwise attend a Bible-believing church.
As with other social media, relationships are not real, but based on the comments and persona that each online user projects.
How can elders ‘shepherd the flock of God’7, if they effectively know nothing about them and could never meet with them? How can church discipline be applied, or encouraging words be given?
It is only after the Thessalonians had spent time with Paul, Silas and Timothy that they could became ‘followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit’, and so also become ‘examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe’.8
The other dangers with social networks are those of addiction and lack of self-control. There are clear Christian principles here, including self-control, and avoidance if necessary.
There are simple steps which everyone should take, such as making sure that security settings on social network sites are such that only friends can access information. Similarly you should always ‘think before you type’.
In general, if you would not say what you are planning to write to someone face to face, you should not post it. Remember that the Internet never forgets!
With respect to online churches, it is difficult to see how replacing a local church with an online one is ever justifiable. Perhaps we need to examine ourselves to see what kind of local church we belong to? It is all too possible to have the same problems locally as exist online – barely knowing one another, even when we meet together every week.
Rather, a local church must remain first a place where Christ is central and worshipped, and also one in which the gospel is communicated clearly and in a way that can be understood.
The church is to recognise that the world is changing. As the sixteenth-century reformers put it: ‘Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda’ (‘the church reformed, always reforming’). Reformation was their strategy, all in accord with the plumb line of God’s infallible Word and for the glory of the triune God.
The next article will look at the dark side of the Internet, particularly at online pornography, concluding with practical, helpful and positive advice.
© David Clark
1. Quoted in Delete: the virtue of forgetting in the digital age, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger.
2. Quoted in the WashingtonTimes, 8 September 2009.
4. The Urban Dictionary defines a Facebook widower as: ‘a man who is neglected because his wife or partner spends so much time, addictively, on Facebook’; see: www.urbandictionary.com/define.php? term=Facebook%20widower
7. 1Peter 5:2.
8. 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7.