Tuesday, September 21, 2010

That Time I Quit the Internet

Several times, I have thought about quitting the internet. A couple times I actually did for a while.

1997 was the year I really began using it, and it started innocently enough. I'd never had regular access to it until then. But suddenly, this vast network of information (and misinformation), this ability to connect with people and places all over the world, was at my fingertips. I didn't really know what to do with it all at first, so I checked my e-mail, downloaded a couple songs, looked at a few favorite bands' websites, and that was about it.

Eventually, I realized that the website for the United Church of Christ had a discussion forum, and this is when I began my descent into addiction. I use the word "addiction" playfully, but sometimes I wonder.

I got off to a good start when posting there. There's a space called "UCC Cafe" where you can get to know other posters. I talked to a member of Old First Reformed Church in Philadelphia, at which I've stayed several times for mission trips. I asked UCC pastors questions about ordination and what they love about ministry, seeking insight into my own preparations for that calling. I was inquisitive, yet also still in a more conservative place than many of them theologically at the time. This wasn't an issue for a while. And then it was.

The forums eventually added a few theological discussion topics. I can't recall exactly what they were. One was something about the person of Christ, related to his two natures or how his death on the cross contributes to our salvation. Being younger and more naive about the trappings of internet discussion, I jumped in with both feet, allowing myself to get riled up by a few other much more liberal posters who'd belittle and demean anyone a whiff more conservative than themselves. You think I'm exaggerating, don't you? At one point, several posters referred to a focus on Jesus' death as part of atonement as "necrophilia." At another point, I was outright told that if I'd gone before one poster's Church and Ministry committee, she'd deny me ordination. This passes for reasonable internet discourse.

This discussion became so heated that I basically had no choice but to step away. Eventual-Coffeewife had a hand in that as well. Apparently, arguments with faceless people who are hundreds of miles away can affect one's mood and interactions with people immediately around you, including friends and loved ones. She didn't seem to like that I 1) would sit on the computer, scowling while awaiting the next reply, or 2) would sit around scowling while not on the computer, thinking about somebody's most recent reply. Yeah, it was time to let the internet go for a while.

I wish I could tell you that that was the last time something like that ever happened, but it wasn't. Years later, I was in an online argument with a high Calvinist who questioned whether I was even a Christian due to my questioning parts of the Reformed system of belief. My main sticky point in that discussion was the argument that everything that happens is willed by God, including wonderful awesome acts of sovereignty like tornadoes and earthquakes. I pushed back, and before too long I was typing epic replies that took at least half an hour to compose. Once again, Coffeewife was the one who brought me back to my senses with her subtle profundity: "What the hell are you doing, and why are you so angry?" Maybe she didn't exactly say those words, but the tone was there. I once again quit the internet for a while.

There have been lesser cyberarguments that have stirred me up as well, but these stand out to me. From time to time, quitting the internet has been the right and good thing to do.

There is, of course, a common theme to the above discussions: civility didn't last long in either instance. There was a rapid descent into personal attacks, ad hominems, making the discussion about the poster rather than the idea. This is an easy thing to do in a medium with barely any repercussions. If you need to blow off some steam, create an alternative persona, call somebody something that you wouldn't have the cajones to do in real life, you sure can on the internet, and what's anybody really going to do about it?

One of the best observations made to this effect was by a now-former moderator of the UCC forums. In reference to one of the posters I had many back-and-forths with, he said, "If you were having this discussion with him over coffee [OMG LIKE THE BLOG TITLE~!], you probably wouldn't want to throttle him." The reason, he said, was because the tone may not have been what it was to begin with.

Thankfully, I take the internet a lot less seriously than I used to. Sure, Facebook is fun, as is this blog, but I'm not even much of a blog reader any more, and haven't regularly participated in forums in years. Priorities shift, family has grown, ministry keeps me busy, and I just have more preferable hobbies. I get frustrated at learning a hard riff on my bass, I get mad at what I read in books sometimes. There are enough news stories that come out every day for me to be angry about without arguing with people online. Of course, sometimes I vent my spleen on here, but I've regretted some of the worst cases because they seemed pretty counterproductive afterwards.

Nowadays when it comes to the internet, I have a better sense of when to chip in my $.02 to a conversation, and when to walk away entirely. There are more worthwhile things to be concerned about, let alone get upset about. And so do you.

So keep reading. And if I make you mad or if you just disagree, feel free to say so. But let's keep it civil, and make this one of those rare places where respectful internet discourse happens.