Written by: Joseph Koh (Photo by: Ronald Lim)
Our speech in social media spaces
“Press until shiok”, proclaimed a sticker pasted on a traffic light button; I still remember how amused and intrigued I was when I first came across this cheeky statement near Bugis MRT station. It was an emblematic response to the incessantly impatient, Type-A Singaporean who is ever in the need for speed. This particular sticker was one of a gamut of witty Singaporean stickers created and pasted at various public spaces by Samantha Lo (also known as SKL0 or Sticker Lady, whichever you might prefer). In an interview with TODAY, Samantha’s intention for these uniquely Singaporean labels was to reclaim spaces — a spirited project to “make Singapore feel like Singapore again”.
Her comment struck a chord with me as I got reminded of the time where I first learnt about graffiti and its diverse forms whilst on a ‘subculture tour’ in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Germany’s capital has been been hailed by art critic, Emilie Trice, as “the graffiti Mecca of the urban art world”. At the core of this street art nexus lays the district of Kreuzberg, whose multi-ethnic composition and bohemian personality make it one of the distinctive neighbourhoods to discover omnifarious forms of graffiti in the city. As the tour progressed (it was three hours long), I came to know that the heart of graffiti has always centred on challenging existing property borders and normative space. Walls etched with graffiti therefore morph into a counter-space and project a counter-voice. One significant art piece in Kreuzberg would be prominent street artist Blu’s mural of two men attempting to rip each other’s masks off: symbolising Berlin’s estrangement in the embryonic stages of German reunification. Many graffiti artists advanced into East Germany after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, with many of the former military areas now serving as a canvas for their commentary on freedom.
In our digital age today, physical walls for an individual’s expression have been replaced by pervasive social media “walls” — virtual canvases for your ‘ideal self’. Facebook is a platform to showcase your adventurous life, while Tumblr has become a site for exhibiting your superior “taste” in curating dreamy, heavily-filtered images. Yet, what perturbs me the most have been the swarm of arguments, judgement, condescension and vulgarities in social media spaces. I believe that you will be able to recall at least one particular incident that verges on such vilification. Today, it is (sadly) impossible for me to scroll through my Twitter timeline and not encounter one disparaging comment.
I believe that graffiti’s intention to reclaim physical territory could be drawn parallel to our social media spaces today. While the proliferation of new media has empowered everyone to share their original content, opinions and feelings without challenge; Christians could reclaim social media spaces by filling them with grace and hope. Much like the areas in Singapore and Kreuzberg which have experienced thoughtful attempts in reclaiming physical spaces, I feel that our newsfeeds and timelines do need some recovery of their own. We seem to have lost all traces of speech purity as loose language has assumed the ‘new normal’; we seem to have lost the plenitude of gratitude in our everyday living; we seem to have missed out the value of edification in our daily exchanges.
In Ephesians 4:29, it presciently encapsulates the arena of speech in our lives, fitting even for the virtual world: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” This does not mean that we stray away from honesty. Instead we should think more deeply about our feelings, thoughts and situations before choosing to express ourselves. The words which emerge from our tongues reflect the manner in which we perceive and analyse our situations. It is nowhere wrong to develop strong opinions reinforced by vast knowledge, however, we need to consider whether the time and place is right for our expression. Our tongues could be carpets of poisonous vines or carpets of cherry blossoms. There is a pressing need for Christians to handle our situations in a mature and honourable manner.
May you come to see your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds as forts of potential counter-spaces, brimming with the possibility of your Christ-inspired counter-voice. As Paul would put it, let us throng these spaces with words that are “true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling and gracious” (Philippians 4:8, MSG). Even as the platforms for personal expression have drastically been altered over the years, let us not waver in pursuing love and wisdom in our speech.