Photo credit: Alan O’Rourke of audiencestack.com
On the podcast that John Green (yes, that one, author of delightfully pretentious and delightfully weepy YA novels) hosts with his brother Hank Green, there’s a perennial disagreement between the brothers about the ability of social media to enact good in the world. Hank is an optimist, and while he admits that some terrible stuff happens on Twitter, he’s argued that the platform will slowly get better as the people who care about it stick around and learn to use it more effectively and more respectfully. John, however, has what I might call a Calvinist outlook on social media—that it’s a bit of a dumpster fire and there’s little hope for it to become drastically healthier and more gracious because people don’t really become drastically healthier and more gracious.
Worldview-wise, I’m usually more of a John than a Hank. This makes sense, since he’s the literary Episcopalian while Hank’s a non-religious science educator—I have some built-in John affinity. But I’m beginning to come around to Hank’s view of Twitter, or at least to something a little more hopeful than John’s pessimism. Here’s why.
I’ve only re-immersed myself in Twitter recently. Several years ago I created an account and followed a bunch of people I admired back then, but I was never regular user. Then, when I was working for Professor Kristin Du Mez (who’s great at Twitter), I realized the role Twitter could play as a venue for public academic discourse. It could be a place to have scholarly debates and discussions in public rather than hidden behind journal paywalls and department doors. I love that vision of outward-facing scholarship, and as a grad student and scholarly hopeful, I wanted to stick my feet into the water.
I think one secret to a healthy Twitter experience is carefully crafting the list of people you follow. Much of what we see online is determined by algorithms, but you still have the power to click “Follow” or not. I see two extremes to avoid: following too many people you agree with 100% and following too many people you disagree with vehemently. If you do the former, you’ll end up in the same kind of echo chambers that plague our online discourse everywhere else. If you do the latter, you’ll have a direct line to the thrill-inducing but ultimately pretty destructive drug of indignation.
I’ve willfully crafted my follow list in a few categories: academics (mostly medievalists), artists whose work I follow, journalists, a very few politicians, and people whose words heal my soul (aka the Fleming Rutledge category). I agree with many of these people politically and theologically, but not all of them, and certainly not all in the same ways. I’ve found that being careful who I follow is a good way to keep my experience encouraging, interesting, and educational rather than tiring, exasperating, or—worse—addicting.
But I was further convinced of the potential goodness of Twitter on Sunday, when my Twitter feed was filled to the brim with two conversations:
First was the outpouring of sorrow, grief, and love from those mourning the death of Rachel Held Evans. Shortly after news broke that she was gone, thousands of people began using the hashtag #becauseofRHE to share how she had changed their lives. I scrolled and scrolled with tears in my eyes, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who said unequivocally that they would not be Christians if they hadn’t read RHE’s work.
To see screen after infinite screen of people who had been loved, welcomed, encouraged, challenged, confronted, saved, and inspired by this woman was both heartbreaking and soul-cleansing. As I tweeted myself, “#BecauseOfRHE I have hope that God can heal the world with words.” And as Jamie Lee Finch tweeted, “Reading through all of the #BecauseOfRHE tweets today I’m struck with the awareness that the greatest thing Rachel may have given all of us was each other.” Twitter allowed this community of brokenhearted people not only to share their sorrow but to spread hope like a wildfire.
And then the rest of my feed on Sunday was full of the denizens of #medievaltwitter discussing this New York Times article about the current conflict over white supremacy in medieval studies. One quote in particular became the target of pushback from many scholars—especially young scholars, feminist scholars, and scholars of color. In the article, a medievalist named Richard Utz claimed that “People don’t become medievalists because they want to be political. Most are monkish creatures who just want to live in their cells and write their manuscripts.”
#medievaltwitter responded in fine form. Tweeting with the hashtag #NotAMonk, hundreds insisted that academic work is by nature political and that pretending it isn’t will only protect those who benefit from the status quo. And, of course, another contingent from the wondrous land of monastic studies reminded the rest of Twitter that monks have always been political.
Without Twitter, all of this crucial critique might’ve happened in emails or 1990s-style faculty listservs or department meetings. But because it happened publicly, on Twitter, someone like me can look at the people who are calling out white supremacy and both-sides-ism and active or passive exclusion in this field and say, “I want to be like that.” And someone with less privilege than me, someone whose gender or race or class sets them up to be excluded from this bias-ridden field, can see that there are hundreds of people working to welcome them.
Twitter’s biggest challenge, like much of the rest of Internet, is that its radical democratization of information and communication allows large portions of it to be filled with hate, deception, and propaganda. It hands total depravity a megaphone. But for those of us (including John Green, I think) who believe not only in total depravity but also in the imago dei, it can amplify our words of grace and truth.