The Internet Is A Coffee Shop
By Pastor JJ
This blog post is part one of a three part series on how we engage in ministry and life, using technology. Today I want to talk about how we think about the digital space. Next time, we will dive into troll farms and something called “Christian Cringe” – and how Christians are uniquely affected by scams and the promoting of fake content. Then we will wrap up in part three which outlines how the digital world is the mission field of the future. As a pastor, I spend a lot of time working on my laptop in public spaces. I love going to my local hangout, getting a cup of delicious coffee, opening the laptop, opening my bible and getting to work. Years ago there was a big push for pastors to “get out of the office” and “get into the community” – aaaand since coffee shops were basically the study hang out of my college days, it was a fairly easy shift to start writing sermons in coffee shops too. One time, I was sitting in a coffee shop working on my sermon, and there were a few folks around me – and I figured I should do the “social” pastor thing and introduce myself and perhaps invite a few folks to come join us for worship on Sunday. I leaned over and started chatting with the lady on her laptop at the next table. After a few minutes I realized she was ALSO a pastor (children’s minister from the church up the road). In our efforts to “get into the community” all the pastors had gone to the same place and tried to invite each other to one another’s churches. I laugh every time I think about that. We used to see Coffee Shops as the hub of social activity, and now I’m half convinced that Pastors and busy college students are about the only people who still use them. Another time, I had booked a conference room at my favorite Coffee shop – and when I showed up, a buddy of mine (pastor from another church in town) he had gotten there early and STOLEN my conference room. He knew it was me and we had a good laugh about it. We think of Coffee Shops as a place to connect, a place to meet people, to people watch, to overhear conversations and just have a relaxing atmosphere to sit and enjoy good conversation. And we still do all those things – but not in the coffee shop. We do it in the digital world.
Overheard, but with a transcript.
Perhaps it’s a bit strange, but one of my favorite things to do in public spaces is people watch. It’s even more fun with a friend. We are a fascinating and bizarre bunch, we humans. It’s great to sit down with a cup of coffee and a friend and just watch the masses go by. “wow, look at that guys awesome hat”, “aw, that little girl helped that old man cross the street”, “what a cool shirt, I’m going to look for one of those.” It’s fun to see snippets of people’s lives.
I have become convinced that for many of us, the impulse to scroll through social media is the same as impulse to people watch. Social Media is basically just digital people watching. We scroll down the feed, catching snippets of people’s lives – approving or disapproving from a distance. We feel connected, despite the fact that we are isolated and alone.
One of the best (or worst) parts about people watching is when you overhear a conversation. Sometimes you overhear something really beautiful, and sometimes it’s… uh, deeply uncomfortable. For example, one time when I was in a coffee shop I overheard some folks saying something nice about the hat I was wearing. (that was lovely), but then another time I overheard a young woman describing in detail the things she did not like about her sexual encounter from her date the night before. When you are speaking in a coffee shop – it’s well known, your conversation is never 100% private. Snippets will be overheard, as with any discussion in a public place.
Which leads me to what is really my only point for this post – the internet is a coffee shop. Particularly social media – it is a coffee shop and we should treat it as such. People can HEAR you. People can SEE you. Even if you are posting a comment on a friend’s picture – everyone can see what you’ve posted. In fact, it’s worse than being overheard in a coffee shop. The internet is like being overheard in a coffee shop and then printing out a transcript of the conversation for everyone to read.
A good rule of thumb for engagement is to think of social media, and the internet in general, as if you were speaking in a coffee shop. If what you want to post or comment or share is NOT something you would actually say in a physical coffee shop – maybe don’t post or comment or share that thing. There is a temptation to think of the internet as somehow less real – because it’s on a screen, and we feel there is a degree of separation. But for many people, especially since the COVID pandemic began, it is the MOST real place for them. For some it’s the only human interaction they receive. It’s how they go to church. It’s how they stay in touch with the grand-kids. It’s how they tell the world that they just had a baby or that they are going through a hard time and need some support. The internet is here to stay, and it’s time for us to lay some ground rules on how we conduct ourselves through digital connection.
Social Media is a giant, beautiful coffee shop. People watching is still super fun, and the people of this world are still so fascinating and still so weird. There’s a lot of see, a lot to hear, and a whole lot you can say. But just like we wouldn’t go running through a coffee shop in our underwear, screaming vulgar things – so too should our standards for the social media platforms be higher.