By now, most of us now take the Internet for granted. We read the news by computer. We send e-mails, shop online and look up information. Some of us, for better or worse, occasionally wonder how we lived prior to the Internet becoming an ordinary part of life.
My first encounter with the strange entity known as the “World Wide Web” was in 1996, on the cusp of the “dot com” furor that produced both unrealistic expectations and greater access to life online. I was dismissive of the grandiose notions of cyber visionaries who prophesied that man would, in the near future, essentially live on his computer, rendering obsolete ordinary mail (“snail mail”), shopping in brick-and-mortar stores and three-dimensional books.
Even though I had a nearly unhealthy affection for my Mac, the latter was especially offensive. The thought of reading entire books online or on some sort of handheld device was repulsive. In fact, it still is.
Two factors played a decisive role in my reluctant journey into the world of the Web. The first was livelihood. Ten years ago, as the creative director for a department store, I was given the task of developing the company’s first website. Embarking on down that confusing path, I stumbled on a surprising fact: There were Catholics on the Internet and they were eager to talk about their faith. That was especially fortuitous since my wife and I were in the process of entering the Church, and I was bursting with all sorts of thoughts and questions about Catholicism.
I joined an e-mail-based apologetics forum. Soon enough I found myself engaged in very lively and helpful discussions about numerous topics — Church history, Scripture, justification, the sacraments. It was an invaluable experience, giving me a good sense of what Catholics from different walks of life were dealing with personally and intellectually. Just as important, it taught me a few things about communicating on the Internet and about writing in a way that was, hopefully, accessible and helpful to a wide readership.
But, as is often the case, my biggest learning experience came by making mistakes. Asked by a friend if I would be part of an e-mail exchange with a former Catholic, I eagerly agreed. Here was my chance to demonstrate my apologetics chops and perhaps bring someone back to the Church. Long, intense e-mail exchanges ensued. Soon I was trading polemical body blows with Margaret, a staunch Calvinist. It was clear to me that Margaret was being illogical, even hysterical, in her attacks on the Church — and on me, personally. Never mind that we’d never met.
In a fit of cyber rage, I unloaded my own torrent of angry, hurtful remarks onto the screen before me. Then I pushed “Send.” Almost immediately, I realized I had made a dreadful mistake. My intense combativeness, combined with the sense of impersonal detachment common to the Internet, had gotten the best of me. It didn’t matter if Margaret thought I was “unsaved” — I had slandered a fellow Christian. With an audience, at that.
I wrote an apology, which Margaret accepted. The conversation was over, but the learning experience was just beginning. Now, nearly a decade later, the vast majority of my work is either on or related to the Internet. I’ve made more mistakes, but have also learned when to take a break from the keyboard and when to politely end disagreeable conversations.
I’ve also gone back and read — online — Pope John Paul II’s 2002 World Communications Day message. That’s the one in which he focused on the Internet as a forum for proclaiming the Gospel.
“The Internet can offer magnificent opportunities for evangelization,” he said, “if used with competence and a clear awareness of its strengths and weaknesses.”
Truer words were never spoken on the Internet.
Carl E. Olson is editor of