Giving up for Lent

It’s Ash Wednesday. Last night, a flurry of status updates marked the annual Exodus of Christians from Twitter and Facebook. And I was cross.

Give up chocolate, give up TV, give up reading the comments sections below Daily Mail articles, but don’t give up social media.

Because we consume those things, but we don’t consume twitter. Other people’s lives and our interaction with them isn’t a commodity to be cast aside when we deem that they take up too much of our time. It is, or should be, mutually giving, a place where we share something of ourselves, and influence the online culture around us. During Lent, Facebook gets markedly more mean. The self-righteousness with which Christians are happy to say “all that time I’ve been supporting people whose statuses send up warning flags, act as an arbiter in hurtful wall discussions, or just say something kind about the kids of a struggling young mum, that was all a waste – I’m off to do significant and holy things now.” The fragrance of Jesus is notable by its absence, and in its place, profile photos are changed to crosses.

One of my most supportive friends is a lady I know only through twitter. Her child is profoundly disabled, so she gets the frustrations of daily life, the pain, the drugs, the attitude of doctors, and I like to think I understand her too. It’s not an intense friendship, but the constant stream of two-way support and affirmation every day or so makes our lives more bearable. On this, the first housebound day when I know she’s not on twitter to listen, I feel a sense of loss.

Social media is a virtual space, but the human interactions are real. The relationships are real. The impression that people give, when you see them throughout their day, shows a picture of their character that is different from what you’d see in conventional, face-to-face interaction, but is nevertheless a window into their character and aspirations. Through twitter I’ve met friends across the globe, some with whom I share very little in common, and others who have surprised me with our similarity in outlook. It takes the power of storytelling away from corporate mass media, and puts it in the voices of ordinary people.

If anything, we should, in Lent, look to be more present to our online community, pray for it, look to serve it, and be present and authentic in a new way. It’s not a corrupt and oppressive Egypt we’re fleeing for a promised land of digital isolation.