Friendship has always had different levels of meaning. My wife has made fun of me throughout our marriage for defining many different friends as a “good friend” or one of my “best friends”. Part of this comes from my more extroverted personality. She, like most good introverts, treats terms like these as precious and rarely bestows them on a few choice people. Today, the term has less meaning than ever. The decisions by various social media platforms to use the term “friend” has likely contributed to this. Facebook is the most well-known playground for this type of being a friend.
Friend in this context can now mean any of the following: friend, family member, acquaintance, business associate, people who go to the same church/school/group that I go to, people I think I met once, friends of friends that seem interesting, people who like the same things I like, and even pets that are cute/interesting. That is a pretty diverse list and I’m sure I missed something. If all of these people are now our friends, what does it even mean to be a friend? (Proverbs 12:26) Here are a few principles I want to share that I hope will help you better assess what it means to be a friend on social media and how we should treat one another.
- Friends don’t discuss in public what is better talked about in private or not spoken of at all. On social media, it is easy to have both public and private discussions. This is a big change from the way community was structured in previous times. Private discussions have always been possible, but in the past, few people had access to a broad public forum to talk about things. Social media has provided a platform for people to bring things into the public discussion which would never have been possible in the past. If something only concerns us personally, we can make the choice about when to publicly discuss it on our own, but if it involves our family, friends or others in our community, we have no right to discuss private issues in a public forum without their permission. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to them about it privately, you definitely shouldn’t discuss it publicly. (Romans 12:10)
- Friends are not responsible for changing their friends minds about everything. There is an issue that I’m sure you are right on. You have the whole truth and are an evangelist for this position. That doesn’t mean you personally have to beat your friends over the head with this position until you have battered them into submission. This is not only a good way to lose a friend, but human nature has shown us that it is not an effective way to change people’s mind. These kind of assaults tend to cause people to respond in kind, put their armor on or walk away. Friendly discussions about issues are great, but when someone indicates that they have a different perspective, the weight of convincing them otherwise is not your responsibility as a friend. (Proverbs 19:20)
- Friends don’t attack friends personally when talking about an issue. A public forum is the perfect place to share ideas and to have a give and take about the content of the ideas. This is a tradition that dates back throughout all of human discourse. Offering counterpoints and noting the flaws with ideas is not a problem, but this should never degenerate into personal attacks. Personal attacks and name calling not only demonstrate that you don’t really consider the person a friend, but they often also show that you don’t have an intelligent response to offer. Friends should conduct their conversations on posts in a way that the person you are engaging with will never question your friendship. (Proverbs 18:24)
- Friends don’t talk about other friends behind their back. An oldy, but a goody. Gossip spreads even faster in the digital age and a true friend does not engage in gossip in either a public or private forum. If you hear something about a friend that is concerning, you can pray for them, talk to them about it directly, or choose to ignore it. You are not free to run to other friends and start talking about it or even share it as a prayer request with other friends without the person’s permission. (Proverbs 16:28, 17:9)
- Friends see their friends as more than their position on one issue. People are complex and to label and write people off for one issue that you disagree with them on is not true friendship. We used to live in a world where most people’s views and opinions were held in private. That is no longer true for many. Social media has given people the opportunity to express these things without restraint. If you choose to call someone friend and they express an opinion that you disagree with, you should practice empathy first and give them the benefit of the doubt. Think about what would lead them or even yourself to hold a similar view. Value their friendship by making sure they are fully heard. If necessary, engage them in loving, honest debate to learn more and share your difference of opinion in a way that doesn’t belittle or demean them. (Proverbs 27:9)
- When your friend has a legitimate problem, online is not the answer. Some problems are very real and very serious and require you to stand up and try to help in whatever way possible. This is difficult to do well from a distance, online or in a public forum. It requires personal connection. If you care enough to call someone your friend, care enough to engage with them personally either face to face in person, or on a video call. Pray for them above all else. God solves problems, man is incapable of solving. (Ecclesiastes 4:10, Proverbs 27:5-6)
I may add to this list later, but I think this is enough for now. Maybe after looking at this list, you realize that you have many online friends who are not really your friends. They are people you don’t care enough about to treat them in the way a real friend should. If that is the case, you are probably better off removing them from your friends’ list altogether. It is also possible that in reading through this list, you have realized that you have been a really bad friend to someone who could probably use a good friend. Going to them, apologizing and moving forward is a great way to deepen a friendship. A true friend will forgive you as they should. (Colossians 3:13)