Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Social Media and The Church - A Critique

Hold on a moment Cloakey; what's this? Aren't you an author of the case in favour?

People in my position (which is to say a public minister of religion with a care to express a view to a wider audience) should always know where the failings are with those things that they would otherwise gladly extol. I will always write warmly about social media, especially blogging - but I would be acting in an imbalanced way if I were not to devote some time and effort reflecting on the weaknesses that exist within it, of which there are many. I don't think that there is a more effective way of undermining my own position than to ignore its pitfalls. I believe, too, that I have a basic duty to balance. 

I spoke in a recent post about how social media can work for a church, and how a gulf is broadening between those who are conversant with all of this, and those who are not. To be sure, social media is of profound value in attracting people to our doors and to the Gospel. Of that there is less and less doubt. Attracting people to the doors of our churches only deals with one section of our society however, and is in danger of ignoring that other section - the ones already within them. 

Accessibility - social media attracts and enters many people's lives in the space and time where they are. However, it is also as true to say that social media is a considerable obstacle to the majority of practicing Christians. If everyone reading this now thought honestly about the parish community of which they are part (if they are part), they would not perceive a population well blessed with the gadgets of our age or their means of communicating. Statistically, ours is a community of those of advanced years on average and of that number only single numbers of percents of them would, for example, have a Facebook account, let alone be able to do something with it. What is normal for our 'average' Christians (please forgive the term) are books, penned letters and telephone calls. How so many people can communicate meaningfully in 140 characters or less, Twitter-style, is a mystery to most of humankind, let alone my parish nonagenarians. In our quest to further the cause of social media, we need to be absolutely clear who is included and who is excluded by this development.

Infection - An important thing in my own missiological thinking, it is something with which we need to exercise care. Taking bloggers as an example, and as I have said before, among its joys are the freedom to write ones thoughts, engage in dialogue, and to learn new things through the widely acknowledged 'community' of blogging. That is great in the good times, but perilous in the bad. Blogs have, for many, a kind of mystique which is neither earned nor warranted. That it is written means that it must be true - or so some think. The danger is, that any whacko can write a blog (you are reading the words of one such person now). I am free, in absolute terms, to peddle any twaddle I like - dodgy notions, ropey theology, skewed personal prejudices, plain simple heresies. That I would do so wearing a dog-collar means that some could, and would, be seduced by my words. I see it in other places. Collusion in the blogger-reader-commenter relationship is considerable and in my opinion, dangerous. Infection is great when it the right virus that gets passed on. Social media at its least potent is a happy process of leaning on doors that are already ajar; preaching to the converted. 

Potential for harm - fortunately, in most civilised societies, it is still not acceptable to insult people to their faces simply for having a view different to our own. Name calling is still mostly found on the asphalt of school playgrounds. Invective is typically moderated by being in polite company who can challenge and moderate a good old rant. Except for social media. The playground for the passive-aggressive, the front-row seat for the name caller and the soap-box for the ranter - social media provides the 'behind the glass' phenomenon that allows civilised people to regress to a reduced base place! Only since I have ventured into the world of social media have I been insulted so aggressively, been called names that would shock most people, and witnessed the aggrandising withering of the perpetual victim (none of which would have ever happened had I been standing there with them, all 6' of me). This stuff I can handle. I know people who have also been subject to this stuff who could not, and were hurt by it. Social media allows a freedom that can promote growth and the best of encounters, but is also a gladiator's pit where the lions will, and do, bite hard

Community - Church is, and the Body of Christ is - community. Community, until the last two or three years, has been made up of people talking to and with other people, in proximity. Social media allows people at the opposite ends of the world to converse in real-time, and that is where it is at its best - but also friends and even married couples who have begun to rely on social media perhaps more than a chat over breakfast. I can, if I so chose, communicate with an entire world of people over an entire day - without speaking a word or moving from my seat. I have long been a supporter of 'e-churches' and was associated with i-church in its early days - yet I wondered how such a disparate gathering of eclectic folk (all wonderful, some still firm friends) could be regarded as community. It had a sense of the diaspora about it, yes, but also the feeling of a hidy-hole for the disaffected. Anything that stops people being in physical proximity with other people has the potential to erode communities if left unchecked. As a means of communicating with real-people, social media is priceless, but it needs to have a heart to galvanise people in the temporal arena too. In other words, social media should be a means, never the end. 

These are just some thoughts that, in the spirit of honestly and transparency, I express here. These thoughts have always been there and so you may be reassured that I am not having a change of heart. However, we are in the early days of social media, so it remains deliciously edgy and experimental at times. That is fine, until we use it as a potent tool among those who don't understand it. 


  1. "who is included and who is excluded"

    Excellent point, except that often it is the already-very-powerful who are excluded, simply because they can't see the point in actually interacting in social media right up until it's almost too late for them. Or in other words, the new social media redresses power imbalances.

    The very excluded of society, the very ill, the very poor, the mentally ill and so on, are not excluded from social media except by cost. In India, there are many succesful initiatives to get Dalits, the very poor of villagers and so on, online, and it often really helps them in their lives (real cases I have noticed: watre transport for villagers organized online, local government accessible online for remote villagers and so on).

    "Anything that stops people being in physical proximity with other people has the potential to erode communities if left unchecked.

    There are a couple of new studies showing those very active in social media also tend to be very active in face-to-face social life.

  2. Tim, I agree with you on the matter of exclusion - and as with all these things, it becomes inverted and re-inverted for good or ill very quickly. The great joy of all of this is, potentially, its peril. The freedom that it affords those with no 'voice' is limitless - though presently, it is the considerably voiced that are in the ascendancy, or so it seems. This is partly why I am taking to promoting new blogs - I want new bloggers to come forward.

    I am interested by your note about studies, and I too am one such extrovert. I know, IRL, those for whom this does not apply but nonetheless am pleased to hear what you say!

  3. Re: the potential for harm, I have just heard this morning on Facebook someone referred to as "that creature", which I think is one of the big dangers: people behind one screen dehumanising those with whom they disagree, in a way which rarely happens in real life (at least, amongst reasonable people).

    As for the elderly parishioners, they're not afraid to make their voices heard about how much they despise new-fangled technology, and if it had been left to them, my church would still be without a website! This is, in part, because they're worried about being left out, but I think that they are also guilty of not noticing that their way of "doing church" also may not have universal appeal. I did try to remedy this by loaning a netbook to the more switched-on of the older generation, but she complained that the screen and keyboard were too small, so didn't use it. She was supposed to be buying a cheap laptop, but I've heard no more, and time is running out before she'll have to get someone else to configure it!

  4. Some of this fits really well with the discussion I've been having on my blog (see on principles for social media

  5. Thanks for the link, Pete. Shame on me for not having seen, noticed or read your work before venturing here. I shan't make that mistake a second time :)

    Fractal, good to see you back, and thanks too for your comment. I am with you all the way.

  6. The problem I have with social media is how it is impacting our youth. We olders seem to balance our time in cyberspace, but the youngers appear to be losing their ability to escape it. It's become all-consuming, with texting (in a language that puts the King's English on it's tail) enabling them to live a one sentence existence.

    I believe the benefits far outweigh the blights of social media, but I'd sure like to see some way to inhibit the dangers.



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