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The World Wide Web has become a tangled skein indeed. No longer is it just a matter of e-mail and websites. Many parishes not only have to contend with keeping a web page up to date or managing an e-mail list for newsletter distribution — now they must also manage a social media presence and try to keep it informative, engaging, and current. And for many of us, we now live in a world of notifications and friend requests, Twitter feeds, and Facebook likes. It can seem a lot to manage, and what was once just a means of keeping up with cousins and school friends and enjoying the photos from Maris and Julie's trip to Hawaii has for many morphed into an entertaining, distracting, and occasionally maddening stream of words, videos, news articles, information (some true and some not true), and catchy "memes" that manage to convey the angst of the day.
Facebook today has nearly 1.8 billion users. That is as large as the largest of countries — a nation unto itself. Twitter has about 328 million active users a month ... as large as the population of the United States. A proliferation of apps, micro-blogging platforms, and social media tools for mobile devices means that we are almost always connected to a steady flow of information and updates from those near and far — those we know well and those we barely know but for a friend request or a follow on Twitter.
With the click of a button, we can upload a photo to Instagram or a video to YouTube or Vimeo; share our thoughts on the news of the day on Twitter; or share a prayer, an inspirational quote, or a righteous rant about the next door neighbor's howling dog. Likewise, with a quick click we can share with our friends something posted by someone else, share our opinion regarding another person's dinner choices or politics, and contribute to the viral explosion of a news story that has been proven false. As I am usually prone to say when a celebrity death is incorrectly announced sometimes long after their actual death, "I hear it's often easier the second time around." Even worse is when they haven't died at all — we get caught up in another celebrity hoax only to be told an hour later that Boris Karloff is in fact alive and well and just vacationing in Palm Springs.
For all of this, the complicated landscape of social media is as true a means of fostering community as any other. And for those of us that experience social media as another "location" in which to live our lives in Christian discipleship, there are some unique benefits. There are also some unique problems. And it is to both of these that we now turn.
On January 12, 2010, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3 struck the island nation of Haiti. It killed nearly a quarter of a million people. Episcopal Relief and Development was one of the first NGOs to begin raising money and relief for the devastated nation. The outpouring of prayer and the fundraising efforts quickly began to proliferate within Episcopal circles on social media. The response was like lightning, and the Christian witness to care for our neighbors was startling. The American Red Cross raised nearly half a billion dollars online, and the total amount raised through fundraising and donations globally reached $13.5 billion for the aid of the Haitian people. Episcopal Relief and Development raised several millions of dollars. It was a staggering response. There are countless other instances in recent years where social media has been used as a platform to coordinate our response as people of faith in the context of the Episcopal Church.
As events unfold across the world — whether terrorist attacks overseas or in our own backyard, protest movements, close elections in contested races, or the latest gaffe by a celebrity — social networks seem to be one of the first places we check to see what folks are saying or to share our own thoughts. We can instantly express solidarity with people across the globe, share in the sorrows of friends and neighbors, and increasingly (on platforms like Facebook) donate money to help someone with medical expenses or support political and social causes dear to our hearts.
In today's digital landscape, we can engage in real-time conversations with someone literally on the other side of the world. In my years on social media, I have made "friends" with individuals across Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Africa. Whether during the mass rallies against the former President of Brazil, the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Istanbul or Manchester, or attacks against Christians in Pakistan, I have followed the wisdom and work of clergy, aid workers, and activists in real time as they minister and work among the suffering, the wounded, and the fearful. I can lend my encouragement, my network, and my own social media presence to aid in disseminating information, raising money, and expressing solidarity. The massive web of interconnections made possible in social media means that its power often rivals or bests traditional news media. The global nature of social media platforms flies in the face of populists and demagogues who would divide us from one another. We become acutely aware of the power of this capacity for exchange only when we learn that some social media platforms have been banned and walled off from certain repressive nations for whom this kind of access to free ideas poses a real threat. The manipulation of news media on social platforms has proven a powerful tool for repressive governments to sway public opinion in very localized ways. Hack-tivists, dissidents, extremists, and resistance workers have used social networks for both good and ill because of the ease of transmitting information quickly and directly.
If Facebook or Twitter were a nation, it would be one of the most diverse, globally oriented, and probably neurotic nations on earth. Yet in the midst of this great swirl of information and connection, we bring our Christian selves. Much like in the nondigital world, we can be as private or as public about our faith as we dare. Aside from bringing our day-to-day lives and experiences, our sense of humor, and our opinions, we can and often do bring our prayer requests and testimonies. Many of us find, read, and share sermons from our preaching friends, and we type (or not) a thousand "amens" in agreement with memes that proclaim God's goodness. We, in fact, evangelize. We accumulate followers and friends, and we send friend requests to those whose faith we admire — who share our values and interests in matters of following Jesus as authentically we can.
Yet, we can just as easily unfollow and unfriend those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement, especially in these partisan and polarizing times. After the agonizing animosity of the 2016 electoral season, there are likely many more of us than we would like to admit who have conflated social media connections with actual relationships and too easily discarded the former to the detriment of the latter. Some of the damage is still being repaired. And some of that damage is likely lasting.
But, like it or not, social media networks are here to stay, and the capacity for sharing in good works and the Good News is profoundly magnified by an increasing global network that allows for the quick and easy exchange of ideas and inspiration. So how do we, as Christian people, engage with others on social media in a way that honors both our faith and witness to the teachings of Christ and the promises made in baptism — especially when the ease of social media interactions brings with it a number of pitfalls that can quickly challenge us to live up to our best intentions as people of faith?
The Challenges — and the Opportunities
Reason #1 to be an Episcopalian ... no matter what you believe there's bound to be at least one Episcopalian who agrees with you.
Aside from all of the benefits of social media, there are a number of profound issues associated with the nature and quality of our interactions in a digital space that can leave us profoundly unsettled. We've all experienced them, and they can be maddening. Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms for social connection are technologies that we love and we hate — and that we sometimes love to hate and hate to love. Who among us hasn't contemplated taking time away or quitting altogether, only to return some time later because we miss the interaction, the ease with which we stay in touch with friends and family, and the sometimes marvelous capacity for distraction and connection? Some of the difficulties in the social media landscape are obvious, but I want to explore them a bit deeper than just listing the frustrations that we've all experienced.
The first issue is a question about the nature of relationships. What distinguishes a purely social network–oriented relationship from a real-world one? When the word "friend" is used less as an indicator of friendship than as a game-ification strategy by a social media platform to foster connections that are used to make money for a company, it muddies the waters for the individual about just what constitutes "friendship," and gives an impression of authentic relationship by hiding the transactional profit motive that underlies the exchange between two or more people using the platform. I want to explore this idea of game-ification a bit because many social media platforms have adopted this model to grow their businesses and attract users. What this literally means is that social media networks are constructed to work like a game that rewards players for accumulating "friends" and "followers" and "likes." Like a competitive sport or a board game, "likes" and "shares" occupy the same mental space as "points" — and the resulting feeling of reward for gathering them act on the brain in much the same way winning a competition does. They provide us with stimuli that mimic the ways that reward and punishment affect the pleasure centers of our brain.
The result of this game strategy produces something new. We end up with a wide variety of "friends" on social media who we don't actually know in real life. The sum of what we know about them is controlled by profiles, privacy settings, and an affirming collection of clicks, likes, and comments. Whether there is the possibility of developing real friendships with many of the "friends" or "followers" we have collected is unknown because there is no basis for actual relationship beyond that which is enabled (or inhibited) by the social media network that connects us. How many times have we seen a post by a friend or colleague who has publicly stated their intention to "unfriend" a great number of people in order to make their social network more manageable?
"If you're reading this, then congratulations! You made the cut." There's that game strategy again. "Whew ... I'm glad I wasn't unfriended!" The hit to my serotonin levels feels so good. But the mere fact is that words like "unfriending" have become a part of our modern lexicon, giving rise to the question, What is the nature of social media friendship? Are these people or are they just points?
What of those people with whom we are both real-life friends and also social media "friends?" Where are the boundaries between those two ways of being in relationship with one another? It may seem like an easy question, but it can be quite complex in the digital space we inhabit. Why does it hurt when someone we don't know "unfriends" us? And when someone we know in real life "unfriends" us on social media, why do we suddenly feel as though our relationship with them outside of social media is somehow irreparably harmed? There is no clearer picture of the hurts and bruises made possible by this cavalier treatment of "friendship" that defies the truths of friendship that we already know. There is something quite disturbing and also quite amusing when we speak of "unfriending" our family ... as though it were that simple to discard relationships based on the perspectives we glean only from social media. We have been tricked into thinking that the product truly represents the person. This speaks volumes about our radically changed perspective created by our participation in this new digital landscape. If the world is not the Kingdom we await, then how much less so is the digital world of social media and its algorithms that let us see each other only in the way that serves a business' profit margin? And who are we in this new world, as Christians and as individuals committed to demonstrating the love of God ... especially in an arena that sometimes sorely tests our patience?
Social media networks encourage us to speak out and assert ourselves and our opinions. It gives us a platform for saying what we think or feel and for sharing the minutia of our days, our visceral reactions to events of note, and our faith, should we choose. Social media gives us license to share ourselves thoughtfully or impulsively, emotionally, or in ways that can seem detached. It leaves us at the mercy of interpretation by those who don't know us well enough to understand what we're thinking or what informs our thinking. It's difficult to be clear and articulate on complex issues in 140 characters or less. And yet, there are many of us who have convinced ourselves that such is possible. But this is caricature, not character.
The game-ification of reaction and response on social media convinces us that our opinions matter. Or that they should matter to both those who know us and to those who do not. And that others' opinions should, likewise, matter to us. When response is based on reaction rather than thought, conversation, and relationship, then the possibility of misrepresentation of who we are is vastly increased. And so is the prospect of argument and dissatisfaction.
I say this often, and sometimes it makes people upset. Other times it makes people curious, and every once in a while, someone will say "OH! Of course!" But the truth of the matter is that our opinions matter to really very few people. Especially in the social media landscape. Why should a relative stranger on social media care if I disagree with something they've posted? They may love that I enjoy cooking or that we share a fondness for a particular YouTube singer, but when someone posts their opinion on an issue of the day, why should they care that I disagree? Especially if they haven't asked for my opinion?
This is important. Not every expression of an opinion on social media is an invitation for my disagreement — or even for my agreement for that matter. And it isn't just because they may not care. It may be that the decision to express my feelings on social media was just that — a desire to express. Not an attempt at conversation, not an invitation to debate. In fact, it may be nothing more than an opportunity to vent my frustration, to express my surprise, or just because I was bored and had nothing better to do than say what I felt about something I just read.
The opportunity for millions upon millions of people to express themselves and their thoughts via social media is a delightful innovation. It gives us an opportunity to understand the breadth of human feeling and even different interpretations of an event that are culturally based and sometimes religiously informed. The dark side of this is that when we become convinced that our opinions matter too much, we take uninvited opportunities to express disagreement where our input wasn't asked for.
Don't be tempted to say "if you post publicly, then I have every right to express my thoughts." That's simply not true. Nor is it our responsibility to begin with the assumption that our social media friends haven't rationally and reasonably come to their opinions and therefore need our correction when they haven't even asked for it.
For example, most people don't really understand the nature of privacy on a platform like Facebook, such as what is shared publicly versus what is shared with "friends" versus "close friends" or even how to share a post that is only seen by a few people that we have selected — these ways of managing privacy are barely understood, not widely used well to manage who sees what we've posted, and change frequently. So also is the distinction between one's "wall" and one's "news feed." If someone posts on my wall, then I see that as equivalent to someone coming into my living room for a chat. The newsfeed, on the other hand, is the equivalent of the public square or town hall. And often it is indiscriminate — except to the Face-book algorithm — in what is shown there. This is largely because we haven't gone to the effort to categorize the numerous connections we have, and the algorithms involved don't follow any logic that we understand, presenting us with whatever the platform thinks will be most likely to engender a reaction.
Excerpted from "How To Be A Disciple And Digital"
Copyright © 2018 Karekin M. Yarian.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
About the Author,
1 The Landscape,
2 The Challenges — and the Opportunities,
3 The Dark Side,
4 A Beginning Framework for Digital Discipleship,
5 So, Now What?,