Having spent a considerable proportion of my life online, the nature and influence of online media upon our modes of thinking and relating are subjects upon which I have frequently reflected. Within this post I wanted to raise a few discussion points as a conversation starter on the subject of online, and particularly social, media upon Church life and Christian identity. The following are fairly rough and unsystematized thoughts. I welcome your thoughts in the comments.
The Church already has particular established ‘social media’ at the heart of its life. Whatever new social media are introduced, the sufficiency, necessity, centrality, and authority of these particular media must be acknowledged and maintained.
The unusual character of the dominical ‘media’ that form our identity as the Church, whereby Christ communicates himself to us and we communicate ourselves to each other, merits closer attention and reflection. Our primary forms of communication are found in the ritual washing of bodies with water, in a shared eating of bread and drinking of wine, and in the gathered assembly to hear a spoken word. The strangeness of these things should give us occasion for pause.
Against those who would reduce communication merely to the sharing of ideological content, or emotional presence to each other, and instrumentalize bodies and forms of mediation to one or both of these ends, the dominically established forms of communication in the Church render bodies themselves as content of communication, and integral to the enacting of that communication in their wholeness and indivisibility. In the ritual of baptism, our bodies themselves become the site of gift and the inscription of Christ and the community. In baptism we present our bodies as living sacrifices, our bodies have the story of the community enacted upon them, and we are included within a larger ‘body’. In the Eucharist, we symbolically effect our identity as one body and take Christ and his body into our physical bodies in the acts of eating and drinking.
Within these ‘media’, the community recognizes itself – recognizing ourselves and each other – and recognizes its Lord. These are rites of symbolic exchange, within which the community re-members itself. In the preaching of the gospel we see ourselves for what we are, our neighbour for what he is, and we hear the voice of Christ. In the celebration of baptism and the Eucharist we recognize Christ and our inclusion into, continuance and participation within the community of his Life.
Alongside the recognition appropriate to the symbolic media of our identity, there is a communication that occurs. This communication is not primarily a communication of ideas or emotions, but of subjects. Through these ‘means of grace’, Christ is communicated to us, we are given to him, and we are rendered to each other within him.
Both within this recognition and this communication, no division within the being of the human subject is sustained. In baptism, the assembled hearing of the gospel, and the sharing of the Eucharist, our Christian brother or sister is given to us and recognized by us not merely as an intellectual or emotional presence and relation, but also as a bodily presence.
The body is a site of obstinacy and resistance. While it provides us with means of communication, it also renders us the object of the communication of others.
The body resists our desire to autonomy and pure self-determination. While an avatar could in theory be entirely customized to the desires of its owner, our physical bodies are largely unchosen. Even as the site of our speaking, our physical bodies are themselves spoken – spoken by culture, nature, and tradition. Our bodies are the site where subject and object, self and other, internal and external, identity and difference, humanity and world are bound together. The body renders pure self-possession impossible, ensuring that even in our speaking, we are spoken.
A preference for online over offline communication may spring from a desire to be liberated from our bodies as sites of the other’s determination. The body is the primary site of unchosen, given identities. The marginalization of the objectivity of the body in online interactions could in many ways be regarded as a resistance to the role of the other, most particularly the social third party, in the determination of our identities. The online self is primarily a self-created persona, rather than the individuating response to the prior summons of others who first name us. The online self can be a resistance to the determination of being spoken.
Many of the buzz words of the online world are words that refer to the overcoming of the resistance of the body. The world of online interactions is immediate, fluid, frictionless, overcoming all distance or separation.
The body intermediates between us and others. While it facilitates connection, by virtue of its objective character, its resistance to autonomous self-determination, and its rootedness, it also can be felt to obstruct communication, to stand between us and others, preventing us from relating to people immediately and on our own terms. The online persona can be an attempt to dispense with intermediation through the erasure of the body.
The body distinguishes and separates us from others: it sustains distance and alterity. This is most clearly apparent in the case of rootedness and physical separation. The body roots us in a certain location, in one particular place and set of family relationships, rather than any others. The body ruthlessly particularizes our identities and largely in terms of unchosen givens. The online persona is not limited by or bound to locality, but is free to pursue an identity that transcends this.
As such, the online world can facilitate the liberal valorization of individual choice over all else in the determination of identity (the liberalism that I am speaking of here is not something exclusive to those commonly identified by such a name, but is common to people across the contemporary political spectrum). The online self is without location or ancestry. The online self resists being object to any other party that can determine its identity and consequently make claims upon it. For the online self, belonging can never precede or exceed choice.
With its focus upon the ritual articulation of the bodies of worshippers within a new narrative, the ‘communication media’ that Christ established prevent us from reducing Christian community to a purely voluntaristic realm of emotional presence or ideological union, where the Christian might speak before or apart from being spoken. Perhaps our primary concern when engaging with online media should be that the body as this site of resistance, intermediation, and the meeting of objectivity and subjectivity should never be erased.
The body puts us in the hands of others in a manner that online interaction cannot. It renders us vulnerable and empowers others in making claims upon our identities. While it denies us the self-possession that we may so often desire, it can help us to recognize ourselves as the gift of the other and foster a deeper sense of belonging.
One of the things that I have noticed about online media over the years is that they tend to be better at facilitating certain forms of interactions over others. In particular, the Internet can be very good at enabling direct and immediate relationships, bringing two parties into an interaction uninterrupted, troubled by, or directed by any third party. What the Internet tends to be less effective at is the establishment of strongly mediated relationships, within which two parties relate to each other through the visible mediation of a third party or pole. At this point it should be stated that there is always a third party or pole of some sort. However, the Internet tends to weaken this third pole, rendering it invisible, exchangeable, or marginal. Even our access to the Internet tends to create a direct relationship with ourselves and the contents of our screens in a manner that places offline third parties firmly in the background.
Let me clarify what I mean by a ‘third pole’. A third pole can be an individual, a community, a subject of conversation, an institution, a context, an activity, an identity, a relationship, an attachment, an object of desire or worship, a cause, a symbolic or legal order, a narrative, or anything else of such a kind that mediates the relationship between two parties. On the Internet, the third pole of relationships is minimized, the first and second poles being placed in far more direct connection. The third pole is changeable, seldom if ever dominating in the interaction, and completely subject to choice.
This has been brought home to me by how hard it can be to do something with someone online. In doing something with someone else, you are both giving yourself over to some third – in this case an activity – through which mediation you indirectly relate to each other. There is a form of relationship that can arise from such a shared activity that is quite distinct from more immediate and direct forms of relating.
This is not to say that such forms of relationship can’t be formed. Social gaming and hobby sites are two good examples: persons are brought into relationship as they give themselves completely to the performance of a shared activity. Watching DVDs with someone on the other side of the world using Skype screenshare is another form of interaction heavily mediated by a third pole that I have engaged in over the years.
With a weakened third pole, it is difficult truly to belong to another person. Even the examples given above are of fairly weak forms of third poles. When all identities, communities, forms of belonging, and modes of interaction are largely chosen in character, the third pole is reduced to a mere shadow of its regular functioning in human societies and relationships tend to be characterized by a greater susceptibility to the instability of dual polarity.
When you only have two parties in relation, apart from the mediation of a third pole, there is a constant pull in the direction of a loss of differentiation or objectification. I suspect that this is one reason why the Internet can be a place where extreme rudeness and exaggerated forms of intimacy can exist.
When one does not belong to a social third, one’s relationship with other parties is not mediated by such things as reputation, and the presence of the other is not mediated to you by their place within a community and by the objective presence of a body and a face. In such a context it is easy to treat the other in a deeply impersonal, cruel, and rude manner.
On the other hand, for some people the absence of such mediation leads to an exaggerated intimacy. People will reveal things about themselves online that they would never reveal in person and can form far more immediate and intense connections with other persons. I submit that this is largely on account of the removal of intermediation and of the third pole. Without the objectivity of bodies and the mediation of social and other third poles, it is easy to collapse the distance between the other and ourselves, expanding through self-revelation a narcissistic posture, inviting the other party into our love affair with ourselves. The ‘other’ in this scenario is, of course, often little more than an idealistic projection of our own consciousness.
None of this is deny both the possibility and reality of third poles online and of non-narcissistic and non-objectifying relationships. However, it is to point out that the Internet has a peculiar tendency to produce such interactions, a tendency related to its downplaying of the body and the individual’s choice of persona, relationship, and belonging.
This downplaying of the third pole in online interactions contrasts sharply with the way in which the established media of the Christ’s communication mentioned above maintain a strong third pole. The preacher, the baptizer, or the celebrant all serve in the position of the third pole, as do the wide communities with and within which and in relation to which we celebrate. Rather than direct and immediate relationships with God or with each other, our relationships are always mediated by robust third parties. There are always a number of parties to the principal forms of communication media that lie at the heart of the Church’s life.
As we speak of the media by which we are communicated to and by which we communicate to ourselves and to others, we should also speak of the interface with which we do so. The body is not merely a communicative symbol, nor that which is communicated, but is also the interface with which we communicate. 1 Corinthians 12 speaks of the human body – as a metaphor for the Church as the body of Christ – as an ordered interface, a site where functions of seeing, hearing, smelling, and handling are held together in interdependent relationships. Within this interface no one function is abstracted from, divided from, or elevated over all of the others.
In evaluating new media, we need to assess the manner in which they express and value the functions of the divinely created bodily interface.
Our different senses and bodily functions relate us to our world and to each other in different ways. They have inbuilt biases, strengths and weaknesses. An over-dependence upon particular senses and functions to the exclusion of others carries dangers. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? While it is right to challenge the simplistic and fundamentally misleading opposition between embodied (offline) interactions and disembodied (online) interactions, we need to ask more searching questions about the sort of embodiment that our interactions represent.
I believe that the Internet encourages just such an over-reliance upon one sense to the exclusion or neglect of others. The Internet and online media are primarily accessed and experienced through the eye. They are visual, with all of the strengths and weaknesses that this involves.
As I commented in my recent article on pornography and mediation, the West has tended to elevate the sight over other senses and functions within our bodily interface and sensorium.
The eye has particular weaknesses, of which we need to take cognizance. The eye is an organ that lends itself to detached judgment. It primarily relates to the objective aspects of reality and does not lend itself to intersubjectivity as much as the ear. In contrast to the ear, the eye is less intimately related to time. Media that downplay the ear and focus on the eye can encourage spatializing forms of knowledge, forms of thought that lead us to think in terms of our controlling gaze in relation to the object of knowledge, rather than in terms of the object of knowledge as something uncircumscribable by our consciousness, which retreats or arrives in time as a gift.
The Internet and online media empower the ‘specializing’ of life, rendering reality as image under the control of the eye. The Internet gives the eye unprecedented scope and power, enabling us to control, manipulate, and access images on command and at will. The eye is elevated within the sensorium and with the elevation of the eye comes the rendering of all life as image. Reality is engaged with in a matter that is increasingly reduced to the aspect of the image or spectacle.
While empowering us as viewers/voyeurs, social media can train us to project ourselves as images to be viewed, rendering us subject to the judgment of others. The average Facebook profile is a good example of how people project and curate an image of themselves. As the eye dominates our perception of and engagement with reality, reality as Image comes to efface other aspects. We come to realize our identities through the mediation of the Image. The Facebook profile does not merely present an aspect of our identity to others, it comes to mediate our identities to ourselves.
As Neil Postman and others have observed, technology has a tendency to become ‘mythic’, to blend into the background and become invisible to us. Technology can be like a lens through whose mediation we relate to the world. In some respects, the more effective the technology the less visible it is to us. Only when our technology malfunctions, obstructs us, becomes difficult to use, or breaks down – becoming unready-to-hand or even only present-to-hand, to employ Heideggerian categories – can it and our dependency upon it become visible to us. On such unusual moments we can catch a glimpse of the degree to which we have become dependent upon it, and the degree to which it has shaped our understanding.
In a fascinating article, Venkatesh Rao reflects upon the manner in which profound technological change renders itself invisible to us through a ‘manufactured normalcy field’. New technology is related to in terms of elastic metaphors and the extension of existing modes of interaction. Facebook extends the metaphor of the school yearbook. The Internet has extended and developed the metaphor of the text or document. Through these extended metaphors a sense of familiarity, which covers over the fundamental strangeness of the new technologies and their modes of interaction, is maintained. On occasions, such a normalcy field cannot be created or maintained and we have a sense of the profound and threatening strangeness of the new technology.
On account of the mythic character of technology and this manufactured normalcy field, we fail to perceive the scale of the profound changes that are occurring beneath our feet. In assessing the place of online media in our lives as Christians and as the Church, we must learn to step outside of the normalcy field in which we live and appreciate the future in which we live unknowingly in all of its existentially disorienting strangeness, as a place profoundly disturbing and unfamiliar to us.
Rather than assessing new technology in terms of its conformability to a manufactured normalcy field, we must rather assess it in terms of its more objective reconfiguration of our interface with our world and each other, and the modes and contents of our relations. I submit that such an approach will encourage a far less sanguine approach to new technologies and a greater measure of suspicion, even though we might find much within them that is of merit and worthy of use.
As reality is increasingly related to under the aspect of the Image, reality can be effaced by and atrophy beneath an image that takes its place. This simulated reality usurps engagement in actual reality and substitutes for it.
One thing that has struck me over the years is the degree to which the Internet and social media can encourage a quest for ersatz communities, communities that overcome the ‘resistance’ characteristic of actual bodily communities. These communities are communities of extreme emotional connection and intimacy, of complete ideological alignment, where locality is a matter of indifference, and where we don’t have to experience the discomforting mutuality of presence with people who are radically different from us.
It seems to me that the ‘resistance’ of offline communities and bodies is much of the point. The limitations and givenness of the body encourage a focus and attentiveness upon this particular time and place and these particular people. As intermediaries between self and world, our bodies enable a more pronounced bidirectional movement of influence. The rootedness of the body enables us to be confronted and claimed by the other. The body, as the meeting place of objective and subject, self and world, is not merely an interface through which we can control, manipulate, and act upon and towards our world and those within it, but is also a means by which other persons and our world can act upon us. In rendering us more vulnerable it raises the levels of genuine connection that can be achieved.
Without such ‘resistance’ our sense of connection can be enhanced, but what is really achieved may be little more than a shared narcissism, relationships that are seemingly intimate, but which are not truly transformative. It is in the inescapable friction of the body and of offline community that we are more likely to be changed and enriched as persons. For many, the facilitation of frictionless relating online has produced a dissatisfaction with offline communities and relationships and a closing off of the self to the demands and the friction that come with genuine otherness. Frictionless relating is confounded with genuine fellowship.
One of my particular concerns with the celebration of the ‘online church’ is the place of the poor within such a new world. Many of poor are locked out of this world from the very outset. Very few poor people in the world have private access to the Internet. The Internet is not a place where we can fulfil our calling of being present to the poor, and experiencing the resistance inherent in their presence to us.
The online church is peculiarly at risk of cultural narcissism. Sure, we may ‘like’ the latest charitable cause publicized on Facebook, but such actions can serve little greater purpose than that of signalling to ourselves and to others like us our charitable intent, an intent that all too often substitutes for genuine action. The online world can dull a profound existential sense of the friction of reality, a reality that shakes us up and unsettles us, breaking into our narcissistic bubbles and summoning us to actions spurred by a deep realization of the suffering of the other.
Social media does not merely reflect and enhance existing social forms. It can also simulate and replace existing forms. It creates new social forms and facilitates new forms of relationship. It alters the guiding metaphors within which we negotiate our existing relationships and create new ones.
For instance, one of the interesting features of a site such as Facebook is the manner in which it has progressively reconfigured the relationship between public and private. Within the world of Facebook, relationships that were formally negotiated in a public realm are brought into a private one. The subsuming of relationships that were previously more formal and public into the realm of the intimate and private has not been without difficulty, but over the course of Facebook’s history it has increasingly publicized our private identities, and initimatized our more public and formal relationships. This does not merely mirror existing relationships, but transforms them and creates new and unprecedented modes of connection.
Rather than presenting Facebook merely as a mirror or intensification of existing relationships, or even as a tool for enriching them, I believe that we need to appreciate the ways in which Facebook transforms the ecology of our relating, shifting the way that we regard private and public identities, friendship, interaction, etc. The engagements that occur online on sites such as Facebook are real engagements and should not simplistically be opposed to some putative ‘real life’. However, these engagements have new and distinct forms, forms to which we should attend, forms which shape and change our modes of relating.
Recognizing the permeability of offline and online life to each other, we should appreciate that new forms of life online will not leave our offline lives unaffected. Our online modes of interaction and identity are constantly affecting our lives offline and our face-to-face interactions. Facebook’s publicization of our privacy and intimatizing of our more formal and less immediate relationships has changed the way that we relate to work colleagues, fellow students, parents and bosses, and even romantic partners and spouses.
New technologies can dramatically transform our relationship to things that are central to our lives. I have argued this about Scripture and the printing press in the past. While I would significantly alter that particular argument were I to revisit it, I stand by its fundamental point: new ‘technology’ had substantial effects upon our conception of and relationship with the Scriptures. Were you to ask a modern Christian to identify the Scriptures, they would most likely point you to a mass-produced, privately owned, printed and bound Bible, with all books in a set order, with an index, chapters and verses, navigational tools, a book primarily engaged with in the act of private reading. Had you asked the same question several hundred years earlier, you would probably have received a surprisingly different answer. Few people, however, have taken the time to reflect upon what such a change means for our conception of Scripture and engagement with it.
The far-reaching effect of new social media may prove no less dramatic in our generation and may pass just as unnoticed by most. While we may celebrate the new possibilities afforded to us by the new technology, we may fail to appreciate the manner in which it radically shifts our conceptions of such things as community, textuality, relationship, presence, the body, reality, space, and privacy.
We should beware of speaking of social media as if they were homogeneous. Different social media lend themselves to different modes of relating. For instance, a site such as Google+ is primarily characterized by ‘broad networking’, the discussion of ideas, talking about objective things, sharing less personal items, and the formation of large, loose, and less intimate networks. Most of one’s interactions on Google+ can be with complete strangers. It does this very well, but isn’t so effective for close networking, the sharing of personal things and passions, and the formation of intimate friendships and relationships.
In many respects, sites such as Facebook and Pinterest take their starting point in close networking and seek to extend such close networking out into realms where it previously did not exist, intimatizing relationships that would previously have been less personal. Sites such as Twitter and Google+ are more effective in broad networking.
We should beware of falling into the trap of technological determinism. While a ‘technology’ such as a site’s UI will definitely influence the manner in which it is used, it need not determine it. Other factors have an effect here. For instance, the metaphors in terms of which we engage with new technologies can be very powerful. If Facebook had initially been approached under the metaphor of the ‘yellow pages’, rather than the metaphor of the school year-book, one wonders whether it would have been so successful. One of the constant weaknesses of Google is its failure to establish compelling metaphors for its social media (Google Buzz, Google Wave, and Google+ are all examples here).
The seed communities for a social networking site can be particularly influential in determining the shape of its later development. Not only do they have particular influence in setting the key metaphors, they also represent the core community and form of relating to which new users are attracted.
Lest it be thought that I am arguing against the value of online relationships and social media, I should make clear that I greatly appreciate the new possibilities opened up by them, and have benefited immensely from them. I have been a participant in online fora for almost a decade and a half, blogged for nearly ten years, and have used Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, Google+, and a host of other such sites. I send over fifty e-mails on the average day and follow dozens of RSS feeds.
I have formed quite literally hundreds of friendships and acquaintances online, and many of these friendships have become very important to me. Some have lasted for over a decade. I have met over thirty online friends in person on dozens of occasions. I plan to meet several more this summer alone.
However, despite my appreciation for online media, I have become aware of some of its limitations, unhealthy tendencies, and dangers, and have become more self-conscious and critical in my use of it. I have become more cautious when considering the value of new social media.
There is no reason why we must adopt new media.
This does not mean that we should not adopt new media. However, we should beware of presuming that we have an onus or responsibility to do so. New media brings new potential for good and for ill. Such potential is dangerous unless approached in terms of a clear understanding of our fundamental ends and values. There might be occasions where we come to believe that certain new media do not promote the healthy growth of our communities.
I believe that assessment of new media must begin with an appreciation of the fundamental media and interface established by God – the centrality and authority of the Word and the sacraments, and the primacy of the body, within which God has set each of the members, just as he pleased (1 Corinthians 12:18). The first test that any new technology or medium and our proposed use of them must face is whether they displace the centrality and authority of these appointed media in the life of the Church and the Christian, or the primacy of our created interfaces. The second test that they must face is whether they value and serve the order and balance of the functions and senses of the body, or whether they lead to a schism within our bodies or an unhealthy hierarchy.
As Christians, rather than being driven by new technologies and media, we should pursue technologies and media that serve a theological understanding of the order of the body, and which naturally flow out from the central media of the Church. This should be the driving principle. To be effective in this, it is important to protect the clarity of the rule. For this to be protected, we need to preserve the simplicity of our core engagement. Introducing new technologies into the heart of our worship should be resisted unless the most compelling reasons exist for doing so.