Thursday, 6 October 2011

From the Church Times Vaults: The Unavoidability of Social Media

Several folk who have no access to The Church Times have asked for this to be made available on the blog - so here it is!

‘Social Media’ has come a long way since a certain German monk, furious with abuses within the Church, nailed a list of complaints to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. One supposes that a modern-day Martin Luther might choose a blog or Facebook or Twitter as a means of dissemination and public connection. And there are, indeed, an increasing number of clerics, theologians and would-be opinion formers – me included – who are embracing modern, high-speed means of communication. And some of the best of those – Bishop Alan Wilson, Lesley Crawley, David Cloake and Hayley Matthews – are both exploring what it means to be a Christian, a human and what the future shape of the church might be.

Martin was less than pleased when his tweet to the Pope (@pope I is just fighting da corruption, innit? megalolz) was met with stony silence.

Nonetheless, the Church – or at least sections of it - is not renowned for being what is known in modern technological jargon as an ‘early adopter’. Indeed, the Church – for all its radical beginnings – has often been seen as a key agent of conservatism.  At the risk of overstretching the point, if ‘paper’ represented cutting edge communication technology, one would expect many in the church to be arguing for the advantages of papyrus or parchment.

This is understandable. Many perceive the Media – in its various forms, including social – to be hostile towards Christianity. Equally, our Episcopal leaders (and those who manage their media profiles), recognizing the way media can go global at the click of a button, are understandably afraid of misrepresentation and parody. Perhaps, then, it is safer for the church to pursue the routes that it has become comfortable with: books, monographs, sermons, and letters. Basically anything that is commonly committed to paper.

But, love it or loathe it, Social Media will not be going away any time soon. As the recent film about Facebook, ‘The Social Network’, demonstrates, in a few years Facebook has gone from being a resource for Harvard students to one of the largest companies in the world and a central means that people use to communicate and organise their lives. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen the dark side of that as two misguided men tried to use Facebook to incite riots and have received custodial sentences. The micro-blogging site, Twitter – in which users are limited to messages of 140 characters – has become a key place for news to break and where super-injunctions are challenged. It too – in the febrile moral environment which followed the riots – has been criticized as a focal point for organizing violence. And then there are countless bloggers: individuals who express opinions, more or less well-informed, on myriad topics and whose presence has, in some cases, been taken as superceding the work of traditional print journalism. Their success is reflected in the fact that almost all traditional print media now have blogs, many of which use bloggers’ work to supplement their own output.

Clearly, given that Social Media is a human creation, it cannot be considered either cultural and ethically neutral or logically good in and of itself: Human artifacts are always compromised by the simple fact that we make them. They reflect our limitations and interests. However, one sometimes suspects that the church is excessively sceptical about them. The critique of Social Media is usually based on it being destructive towards proper relationships and communication. Thus, we end up sitting with our laptops sending each other messages and tweets rather than actually speaking to people face to face or via the telephone. We sit in isolated worlds.

There is no doubt that people use Social Media to be mean, banal, exhibitionist, self-important and to avoid face-to-face contact; equally, given that a medium like Twitter constrains its users’ word count there is a sense in which many tweets are mere cocktail party chatter. However, surely all of the above actually reflects the nature of human beings rather than anything necessarily pernicious. If we dismiss Social Media on the grounds that it generates a high proportion of nonsense and banality we shall, in effect, be dismissing some of the things which are simply part of being human.

Twitter is just one of many ways I use to meet girls
Aside from the high levels of throwaway nonsense – to which I, as a fun-loving human being, am an avid contributor – Social Media represents a remarkable Christian and human opportunity. The way in which this has been most explored is as an evangelistic or missionary tool. Given the almost global reach of Social Media, propagators of the faith have been quick to see the opportunities to place the Gospel message before new audiences. Intriguing as this effort may be it is not what most interests me.

Part of the fascination of Social Media lies in its role in societies which are increasingly ‘post-religious’ in any conventional sense; not only are church attendances declining but many folk are increasingly vocal in their disbelief in God. However, what is clear is that social media gives people a sense of participating in something much greater than themselves – one of the classic roles of traditional religion. Facebook enables folk to be friends with and communicate with people who they may never even have met. Twitter enables communication on another level: people are able to engage in conversation with not only like-minded others, but people they may traditionally have been very distant from – senior politicians, celebrities, musicians and so on. How deep this conversation goes is moot; however, many people are finding they have expanded rather than diminished senses of their identity – where their identity has cyber dimensions as well as conventional ones. I use Twitter as key networking tool, whether to discuss my journalistic, poetic or theological writing, a process made more difficult without its immediacy. Being a vicar and a woman ordinarily means that people have expectations about how I act and what matters to me; social media enables others to respond to me without making judgments based on my appearance, accent and profession. Clearly this has dangers: social media presents opportunities for fraudsters and the malicious to present false personalities, but (accepting that one must not be naive about who people claim to be) the simple fact remains: social media reflects an expansion of many people’s worlds rather than their diminishment.

The truth is that for very many of us – perhaps most – we will continue to live great swathes of our lives in conventional ways: we will still have the demands of ensuring that we pay the bills, the joy of going out with friends and so on. And thank goodness for that: Social Media can be addictive and placing it in its proper perspective is important. But the fact that many of us have a sense of reality which transcends the established patterns of our lives is genuinely exciting: Even if many people have abandoned religiously endorsed senses of the Transcendent, it is evident that in social media people are experiencing a world which takes them beyond traditional expectations and possibilities. This isn’t simply about ‘ordinary’ folk being able to talk to so-called celebrities. Nor is it simply about the ill, disabled or house-bound being able to connect, although this is significant to many, including myself. There is another possibility: In a society which many have suggested is increasingly divided and privatized, social media offers one way of helping people to connect. Clearly, it cannot offer the deep solutions to social malaise many are searching for, but I, for one, have been struck by the way social media has pushed my social networks. It can be uncomfortable to engage in fierce and immediate conversation with people from very different theological, political and cultural expectations to oneself, but it is both stretching and often rewarding.

Christian mission not only needs to come to terms with a social world less limited by location and cultural background, but – in its inclination to talk of the Transcendent – to find language which connects with people’s very practical, immanent experience of it. Even if that experience is tentative and fragile it is real. As lives are organised around the Internet, we find projects like ‘I-Church’ (a virtual church community), the Twurch of England (the Church of England on twitter) and Unvirtuous Abbey (internet monks wittily praying for a technologically complex world) which seeks to engage with it.

There is also, as I see it, something rather beautiful and striking about Social Media. This perception is drawn from the fact that social media is simultaneously ephemeral and permanent. Consider Twitter. Tweets are tiny parcels of words, thrown into cyberspace. Most get immediately lost and ignored. They are ephemera. And yet, because they are in cyberspace, they also have an odd permanence – they simply float in cyberspace for all time, like a tiny chip of an asteroid in space. And sometimes someone tweets something snappy, brilliant and clever. And, you see it for a moment. If you like it perhaps you ‘retweet’ it to your followers, and then it's gone into cyberspace. This odd combination of the permanent and the insubstantial mirrors key truths of our lives and of God. We are, as Shakespeare puts it, ‘such stuff as dreams are made on and our little lives are rounded with a sleep’ and yet, our fragile lives, are the stage for actions which potentially alter the world. This very fragility and solidity lies at the heart of God: in the fragile existence God chose to embrace in Jesus and in the permanence that extends that love across all time. The beauty lies in the interaction of both.

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