Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Never just a username.

Good afternoon God,
I've spent a significant amount of time online this week, engaged in various forms of ministry: prayer support by email, fellowship via blogger, twitter and facebook, bible-study via the, theological education via moodle, pastoral care and evangelism in second life. I have to be honest, I really enjoy this ministry. I 'meet' people from all over the world, am challenged by what I encounter and am frequently supported in my own ministry by the general grace of the online community.

Thank you - for making the digital world such a means of grace sometimes.

But of course, there is another side to all this: there are the abusive emails, the offensive tweets, the lurkers and spammers with their malicious viruses and trojans.. The digital world can be every bit as unpleasant a place to minister or just spend time in, as the 'real' world can be.

Perhaps it has something to do with the anonymity of the internet. It is easy to forget that there are 'real' people behind the usernames.

People often 'say' things in emails, blogs and tweets that they would never say face to face, and can behave in the most inappropriate manner. I have known friends whose careers have been ruined by being tagged in edited facebook photos and by having bad references posted about them in Linkedin & Plaxo.  Internet bullying is a significant problem which effectively results in the victim being too scared to go online to see what else has been blogged/tweeted/Digged about them. This is more common than many realise: Half the people surveyed by BeatBullying last year, for example, had heard of people setting up a fake profile pretending to be another person; one in five had seen hate sites or groups set up to bully someone online.

Much as I love this digital world - especially the always on variety - and the ways in which it can be a means of grace, I am bothered about the level of fraud, abuse, deceit and manipulation that I encounter online these days. And even more concerned about the less obvious, but just as harmful snide remarks, cutting comments, thoughtless tweets and breaches of confidentiality.

I may not set out to scam or phish or defraud - but as part of my own ministry, I need to keep checking - am I as considerate as I can be, as thoughtful and as sensitive to the fact that behind each username lies a real person, with real feelings, who can be hurt deeply?

I believe those of us who are logged on and online could help by practicing 'ministry' more effectively and deliberately in the virtual world. The online community can be an amazing place for people to learn of you, to study your Word, to witness to your grace, to proclaim your gospel, to minister genuine care and compassion, as well as to campaign against racism, violence and abuse wherever these are found.

But all this requires each of us who aspire to such a ministry to remember that people are not just a username - they are never just a username - YOU have called each and everyone logged in, by name, they are REAL and they are YOURS - no matter how crazy their avatar or icon is!

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