COMMENTARY: The Twitter General Conference and the “Snark” factor

In 2008, with the last General Conference in Ft. Worth, Twitter was barely 2 years old, and while it was starting to gain some traction among early technology adopters, it really wasn’t at the forefront of modern communications. The hashtag (a means of categorizing tweets around a common theme or event) didn’t really become prevalent until 2010. In 2012, the situation is much different. Twitter has 140 million followers and processes some 340 million messages a day. It is probably pretty safe to suggest that this is the first “Twitter General Conference.”

As is normal with these new technologies, there are always growing pains. There have been a number of comments and blog posts suggesting that the tone of the conversation on Twitter is decidedly negative, sarcastic, and . . . well . . . snarky. Several bloggers have articulately called for toning down the Twitter rhetoric. Adam Hamilton, in his conversation with young clergy (many of whom are active twitter users),cautioned against taking the cheap shot. “This is the challenge of Twitter, I find,” said Rev. Hamilton. “You can take a one-liner and make somebody look really stupid . . . you can mischaracterize or you can or you can characterize what YOU felt, but but not necessarily report accurately what was happening there . . . “

Hamilton wasn’t alone in feeling the heat of the Twitterverse, and one of the main themes for bloggers in these early days has been the call to tone down the rhetoric:

Words have power – let us monitor our words so that we don’t lose the love we have for one another in Christ Jesus. The word I would have for Adam Hamilton is “Thank You.” You have been a leader in this church and I thank you for the love you have for the people of the United Methodist Church. The other word I would have for him is this: can we be in conversation?

The tweets I read last night were damaging. If I had read them as a person to whom they were directed, I think I would have been devastated to think that my message was so misread. As we go into committees, please be in prayer for all those delegates who will be debating if our “shalls” should turn into “mays” or if our “mays” be turned into “shalls.” Words have power.

–Theresa Coleman

Conversations that were once limited to the floor or to the side rooms of General Conference are now done publicly on Twitter. Complaints that once could only be heard by those nearest to you can now be aired publicly on Twitter and Facebook for everyone to see. This has created some problems. Some of this year’s legislation, as most of you well know, is very controversial and has stirred up quite a conversation on Twitter. Some have released their frustrations through sarcasm and snark and some have responded to that sarcasm and snark with criticism and a hint of condemnation. I will admit that sarcasm is not always a constructive way of communication, but I would add that sometimes people need an outlet and sometimes we need to blow off steam and sometimes we need to know that there are others who feel like we do. Sometimes sarcasm and snark are healthy. There is wisdom in the sarcasm. There is pain in the snark, but there is love for our Church in all of it. No one, not one person, wants to see the UMC fail. We all want to see the Church grow, reach out to more people, and proclaim the Gospel to the world. Let’s not confuse sarcasm with indifference or inciting division.

–Brad Smith

As for the drive-by Twitterers– it’s best for you to put up your weapon and not confirm your irrelevance. As Mark Twain once said, “It is better to keep your phone off and let people think you’re a fool than to Tweet and remove all doubt.”… Well, he said something like that.

I confess that while I am tweeting occasionally, I’m juggling so many computer windows that I really haven’t been paying close attention. I also confess that I am limiting my tweet intake to two hashtags: #gc2012and #gcyp(the latter being focused on young people at GC2012). So I by no means have any great insight into the overall tone of the stream (a stream that is moving so fast that it times it resembles a car odometer). And yet, in the glancing at the screen to my right I haven’t seen anything that is out of the ordinary for Twitter.

From its verybeginning, Twitter has been used for backchannelconversation. It has been a place for commentary by a variety of folks – both positive and negative. Snarkiness has always been a part of that culture, and while it can be a great tool for reporting, there is no vetting, and there are many, many times when folks allow their emotions to get the best of them.

And yet I wonder if the ultimate issue is part of the same divide that makes ministry with younger generations so difficult. Dr. Roger Olsen, in ablog post this morningcontrasting the differences and similarities between the Jesus People movement of the baby boomers and the Emerging Church movement of younger generations, notes that while the Jesus People movement critiqued the church through direct confrontation (“…The JPM was raucous, flamboyant, “in your face,” noisy and at times intentionally offensive. It bordered on fanaticism and sometimes fell headlong into it…”), the emerging church “…demonstrates its disdain for traditional Christianity (in terms of mainstream church life) with irony…” This bent toward the ironic can easily be interpreted as cynical and negative. However, for those engaged in that conversation, their posts are simply part of the belief in transparency that is likewise part of who they are.

As a guy who likes to think of himself as on the cutting edge and open about my beliefs, I continue to watch with wonder at the openness and lack of filters of my 17 year old daughter and her friends. They post EVERYTHING about there lives, often on a minute to minute basis, in a very public fashion. I caution, yell, cajole, and all the other things a parent does, reminding her that stuff on the Internet will follow her around and that she doesn’t have to document EVERY emotion. “I’m just being honest Dad,” she replies, “I’m just being myself . . . and didn’t you teach me to be myself?”


So I agree with those who call for restraint in the Twitter conversation. Yes, we should guard our speech, and accountability should always be offered in love, not cynicism.

And those of us bomb throwing, wild eyed, radicals of the 1950’s and ‘60’s must also understand that it’s a brave new world out there, with different rules of relationship. Maybe we have to temper the snark not by scolding, but by engaging in the conversation, being honest and vulnerable in our speech as a means of leading to a more holy conversation.

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