Loving Our Neighbors: Email, Forums, and Comment Sections

By Michael Mendis

This is the third article in a three-part series discussing our interactions with people online, which is a huge part of our modern culture and a critical aspect of our ministry to gamers.  Our goal in this series is for you, our readers, to be better equipped to interact with others online in a Christ-like manner.

In the first article, Jacob (G&G Lead Missionary) and Michael (G&G Content Director) each tackled several questions relating to social media sites, specifically Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The second article, written by Jacob, focuses on gaming-centric interactions (over programs like Teamspeak, Xbox Live, or PlayStation Network).

This third article, written by Michael, focuses on email, as well as on the wider marketplace of ideas, namely forums and comment sections.

 

In wrapping up our discussion on how we interact with people online, we wanted to hit on a couple different types of interaction; email, which is one of the most personal forms of written communication online, and forums and comment sections, which are some of the least personal, most anonymous methods of communication.

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Let’s start with email, which is one of the most widely used forms of communication in today’s world.  Like with social media, individuals use email for personal correspondence with friends and family, and businesses use it to communicate with customers and other businesses everyday.  Unlike social media, however, emails are private messages that are only received by those the sender specifies (private messages can be sent on social media as well, but most people use social media to share their lives with the public, or at least a wide group of friends and acquaintances).  This allows people the freedom to discuss more sensitive information than they normally do on sites like Facebook or Twitter.  Email also offers more flexibility than social media, in that you can attach a wide variety of documents and other types of media to an email, whereas on social media you can only link to videos or articles from other websites.

Emails are essentially the electronic version of a common letter; the sender and receiver are well aware of who each other are, and the correspondence between them is private and confidential (rather than open for the whole public to see).  As such, using email doesn’t entail  much more in the way of moral challenges that we as Christians need to be aware of than when we write a handwritten letter to a loved one, or prepare letters for our company to be sent out to a large number of people. There are a couple of takeaways for us to keep in mind, though.  It is important that we choose our words carefully, as they are the only means of conveying our message; things like tone of voice and body language are not present.  This may seem like just common sense (which it is), but the care with which we craft our emails reflects the care we put into the relationships we have with the people to whom we send them.  When we send a sloppy or poorly written message to a friend or to a customer, we are also sending the message that that person is not worth the time and effort to create a proper email.

We also need to practice common courtesy, such as not spamming and cluttering people’s inboxes with heaps of emails about trivial matters, or attempts to pressure a person to do something for us; it’s not very respectful of the people you are corresponding with, and it’s a quick way to get them to ignore you, or otherwise become upset with you.  Remember, social media sites like Facebook are a great place where you can post about your passions, no matter how big or small, to your heart’s content.

Now, let’s shift gears and talk about forums (including sites like Reddit and NeoGaf) and comment sections (particularly on YouTube).  First, let’s start with the positives.  On forums, the users who sign up to participate in discussion are often quite passionate and knowledgeable about the material covered in the forum.  In my time spent on forums (either directly participating as I did for a time on VGChartz, or simply browsing discussions on NeoGaf and Reddit), I’ve witnessed many interesting discussions about a wide range of gaming topics, discussions that have greatly expanded my understanding of games and the game industry.  People talk about everything from sales numbers to storytelling, from the intricacies of a game’s mechanics to the social and cultural themes it touches.

Comment sections are a great place for people to provide feedback to articles or videos.  In the gaming world, people love to comment on gaming-related YouTube videos, such as Let’s Plays (videos were the person who created the video, often referred to as a YouTuber, will record his/her commentary and reactions as they play a newly released game).  YouTubers can get great feedback from their fans through their comment sections, such as praise for something that people like, constructive criticism on how to make their videos more engaging, and suggestions for future games to be played on the channel.

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Having talked about all the positives, it’s time to hit the big negative of forums and comment sections, namely that these places are often host to some of the most toxic interactions online.  Anonymity is common on these sites, as people create their own usernames, just as they do when they sign up for something like Xbox Live.  Unlike Xbox Live (or the other gaming-centric communication programs that Jacob discussed in an earlier article), communication in forums and comment sections does not usually occur quickly in real time; people will often post to the site, and then wait until later to come back and see how others responded.  Because of these two factors (anonymity and slow response time), it is sadly common for people to “troll” the forum thread or comments page (writing a negative post intended to aggravate other people and stir the pot), and take delight in the ensuing arguments and angry responses from the rest of the community.  Even when one sits down to write a genuine criticism, it can be hard to exercise restraint, knowing that the personal consequences of writing a long, vicious diatribe are low.

For a YouTuber trying to get productive feedback from his/her video’s comments, or for those on a forum who want to have a genuine discussion, this unproductive negativity really hampers what could be a lively or even enlightening discussion.  Forums often have moderators who monitor the various threads and try to keep discussion in line (even banning users if necessary), but they can’t catch everything.  YouTubers don’t have moderators to police the comment sections on their videos, and it can be a challenge for a YouTuber to sift through the mass of negative comments and spam on his/her page to find the posts that are constructive.  Some YouTubers have even shut down comments on their videos entirely, because the negativity they find completely drowns out everything else.

So how then do we as Christians approach these communities, which are so full of potential but also so full of toxicity?  In the first part of this three-part series, I connected a Christian’s use of social media to Jesus’ call in Matthew 5 to be light, and a city on a hill.  For the much more anonymous world of forums and comment sections, I believe Jesus’ analogy of salt in that same passage is very helpful.  When salt is put into meat, it doesn’t stand out on its own, but it preserves the meat and enhances the meat’s natural flavors.  In the same way, we as Christians may not stand out in the anonymous environment of a forum, but the way we conduct ourselves in these settings - speaking with grace and kindness, building others up rather than tearing them down, encouraging productive discussion and criticism - goes a long way in making these virtual spaces welcoming, places where people can share their passions and grow in their understanding of the things they enjoy.