Some would argue that Twitter hit the big leagues long ago, but the cover of TIME magazine is the ultimate sign that Twitter has arrived at the forefront of our cultural conversation. As TIME managing editor Richard Stengel commented, Twitter and other social networks “are changing the way we communicate and live.”
According to recent reports, Twitter may have over 12 million users by year-end. Facebook, by contrast, has almost 200 million users. But, like some earlier technologies and platforms, Twitter seems to have reached a transformational moment. The question seems to have shifted from “Why do you use Twitter?” to “Why not?.”
Most commentary about social media looks like cheerleading. There is no shortage of voices ready to predict that this or that technology will rule the world and that those who opt out will be — to use a phrase evangelicals will recognize — left behind.
Believe it or not, there are faithful Christians who do not even use a computer. There are pastors who are still using nothing but books, pencils, pens, and paper. God love them, they are probably not as distracted as the rest of us. Hold on, I need to post a Tweet.
Ok, back. We need to be very careful that we do not become overly enamored with any technology. As observers like Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman reminded us, our technologies shape our lives perhaps more than we realize. As followers of Christ, Christians have a special stake in this, for everything must come down to what most honors God and serves the Kingdom.
Can Twitter serve the Kingdom? Can a technology that limits users to 140 characters be used for anything meaningful? Is my time well spent reading about what someone had for breakfast? Is all this an exercise in communal narcissism? Well, my answer is evident in my own use of Twitter. I find the advantages to outweigh the dangers by far.
Let’s admit the obvious — much of what we read in Twitter is useless, at least from an informational point of view. It is not the place to find the deepest moral, theological, and spiritual reflection. On the other hand, it can be used to point to more substantial offerings on the Web. Like any medium, it is only as worthy as its users. There is the potential to do great harm and the responsibility to do great good, but this is true of almost any technology. The potential to do good or evil did not appear only with the Internet.
Is Twitter just a fad? The specific platform may change, but TIME’s Steven B. Johnson answers that question quite well:
Social networks are notoriously vulnerable to the fickle tastes of teens and 20-somethings (remember Friendster?), so it’s entirely possible that three or four years from now, we’ll have moved on to some Twitter successor. But the key elements of the Twitter platform — the follower structure, link-sharing, real-time searching — will persevere regardless of Twitter’s fortunes, just as Web conventions like links, posts and feeds have endured over the past decade. In fact, every major channel of information will be Twitterfied in one way or another in the coming years.
We can see this happening already. In one sense, anyone who can say something meaningful in 140 characters on Twitter can probably learn to use that skill elsewhere.
I use Twitter because I find it to be a powerful (if sometimes perplexing) means of connecting. I am able to pass things along and make some points to people who I would otherwise never reach. I hope this makes a Great Commission impact and serves a wholesome Kingdom purpose. I’ll quickly admit something else — Twitter can be fun. In a life of serious endeavor, that is no small gift. I like how technology writer Clive Thompson defines the experience of Twitter — “ambient awareness.”
Twitter has changed my prayer life. More than any development in years, Twitter helps me to know what is going on in the lives of many friends and people far beyond. I have known how to pray in many specific ways. I have rejoiced with friends and have grieved with others. Priceless.
I also let folks know what I am doing and thinking as I can. When I see something interesting that is tweet-worthy, I pass it along. I appreciate when others do the same. I can let my friends, students, and board members know what is going on in my life and ministry, if they care to follow on Twitter. Facebook limits that reach to 5,000 — and I struggle with the decisions that forces. Twitter relieves me of that burden. Anyone can follow. All are welcome.
I do not believe that Twitter belongs in worship, but it does belong among the people of God. Tweet before and after a service of worship. Every once in a while, take a break. You really can share a great deal in a tweet. On the other hand, some things cannot be reduced to 140 characters of text. So don’t try. Tweet on.