Friday, January 24, 2014

Don't Be a Troll

If you think a troll is a creature from a fairy tale who lives under a bridge ready to eat goats who pass by, you are not hip to what the kids are doing these days on that there interwebthingy.  In today's networked world, the word troll has a different meaning.  A good definition is found at the web site Internet Archive:

If you ever scroll down to the bottom of a web page--say a YouTube video or an article--you will see a place where comments can be posted, and if you dare to read those comments you will most likely find some really crude and hateful stuff.  This is the work of internet trolls.

It's not clear where the term originally came from or who coined it, but it is fitting.  There is just something about the internet that seems to allow a person's inner monster to come out.  There's been a wealth of stuff written about the false sense of anonymity that surfing the internet seems to foster.  Since people are most likely alone when they use the internet and since they are interacting with a two-dimensional screen filled with words or images, they seem to forget that at the other end of this amazing network of computer wires sit real people.  This illusion of privacy tends to lead people to do and say things they would never do or say in a face-to-face encounter.

The internet is only a tool--granted a super-complex ever-evolving one--so it is neither inherently good nor inherently bad.  The use the internet is put to by human beings is what can become--okay I'll say it--evil.  A lot of what people write, post, say and do on the internet is evil stuff, and I think people carry out that evil largely because they really don't remember they are interacting with other human beings.

I listen to a number of podcasts (for those who don't know the term think radio programs downloaded from the internet).  The ones I enjoy most are by comedians.  Although they are rarely free of curse words and sexual innuendos, they are often filled with brilliant observations.  For these comedians who create content for the internet, trolls are a hazard of the profession.  Although most of these comedians are used to dealing with hecklers in a comedy club and come with thick skin, they often cop to feelings of anger towards the internet trolls.  One comedian I listened to this week (for those keeping score it was Chris Hardwick on Andy Greenwald's Grantland podcast) described how he posted a message about his father's recent death only to watch as the trolls filled the comment sections on his web site with cruel jokes about his dead father.  He was surprised at how hurt and angry he felt. 

That same comedian went on to talk about how in our culture it is utterly common to be snarky, cynical and even cruel about the work others do.  He stated that it is now a real act of character to actually publicly declare you like something or someone, because you will have to deal with all the trolls who do nothing but spew negativity.  I thought to myself, "Wow.  that'll preach."

For all the benefits that the internet and social media offer us, like any other form of communication including face-to-face conversation such tools can be misused.  If we are to follow Jesus and be people of integrity, our actions need to be the same whether we are having a face-to-face interaction or a virtual one.  Jesus' words on this subject are tough to hear: "Everything that is secret will be brought out into the open. Everything that is hidden will be uncovered.  What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops."  (Luke 12:2-3 NIrV)  The idea that what we put out on the internet (or put out there in a real world conversation) doesn't matter is a delusion.  We get to decide whether we will merely spew more negativity out into an already overly negative culture or whether we will dare to put ourselves out there in a positive, life-giving way. 

(Just in case you were wondering, keeping my inner troll on a tight leash is at times a struggle for a minister too.  Jesus' words are hard for me to hear.)

Around the office, at the coffee shop and yes, even at church, it is easy to slip into a pattern of cynical criticism that only tears down others and their work.  A way to find cheap community is to join in with others' complaints.  True community means joining with others to celebrate, rejoice and aspire to better things.  It means supporting others as they deal with life's struggles rather than kicking them when they are down. 

Let's seek true community as we follow Jesus together. 
Grace and Peace,

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