This term I have been toying with active engagement in social media to see if it could create additional dialog outside of the classroom. So far the results have been marginal. But that is another post. At present I want to put forth what I have seen as I have delved into the dark underworld that is the Twitterverse. I want to then suggest what this may mean for the future. As usual, critical feedback is invited.
First, I want to affirm the value that many find in social media. Twitter allows for the rapid sharing of ideas. You can learn a whole lot from many different perspectives very quickly. On both Twitter and Facebook you can find like-minded people and build an online community. Following a continuous stream of ideas and interactions can be intoxicating. The snark is unmatched. In spite of these strengths, I want to draw attention to some of the weaknesses I have observed in my short time breaking in.
First, there is a radical democratization. This is not a bad thing per se. The more voices at the table, the better. And there are certainly some voices that have historically not been heard and now need a hearing. That said, and perhaps this is particularly true in my field of religion, there are some pretty crazy ideas out there and it seems to me that some of the least qualified people have the largest audiences. While this is true of our society in general, it seems to be particularly true on social media. Maybe I am too ensconced in an archaic and hierarchical ethos, but it seems to me that credentials should matter. Right?
Second, and related, ignorance is offered and extolled in spades. In one blog, housed on a generally reputable website, I learned that the NT understanding of Satan and Hell were derived from the Jewish historian Josephus (I offered what I think is a better explanation, but did not hear a peep from the author or any of his readers). In another blog I learned that it was a waste of time to read the bible from cover to cover because someone might let it go to their head. Rick Warren (whose Purpose Driven Life is second to only the Bible in worldwide sales–YIKES!) helpfully tweeted a litany of inane comments disparaging academic theology… to nearly a million followers. These are just a few encounters but I would say that such seems to be the norm.
Third, and also related, the ignorance is dispensed viciously. Yes, it is easy to get sucked in, but the objectification that happens is frightening. There is no dialog as atheists disparage religious people, religious people damn secularists, conservatives vilify liberals, and liberals excoriate conservatives. (A whole post could be devoted to tribalism.) We are often left with quick nasty quips (the dark side of snark) that don’t really help us understand the issues. (There was a fascinating article posted just today on the effectiveness of nasty comments from internet trolls). We are not challenged to move beyond where we find ourselves.
This is where I find the rub. Face to face interaction is in decline. Yahoo continues to take heat for its decision to make its employees come to the office to work. The brick and mortar shops in which we used to congregate are slowly being replaced by amazon.com or their own online outlets. Online college degrees are touted as the future of education. Regular participation in church is in decline. Are we moving towards a place where social media is our primary mode of interaction with other people? Is the radical democratization, general ignorance, and tribal ad hominem that runs rampant on social media the future?
The situation reminds me in some ways of Europe during the Reformation. New ideas were bringing a certain democracy and people had to figure out how to use their newly discovered freedom for good and leaders had to learn how to govern people who had learned that they had a whole lot more power than previously realized. It was a tumultuous and violent time out of which a new way of being and doing emerged. Might we be living in a similar time? Is this our peasant revolt that too will one day pass? Is this an adolescence that we will grow out of?
There is much to nuance from this post. Perhaps I have painted an unfair picture? Maybe your experience is different? Maybe you think I am spot on and have some suggestions to make the internet a better place. I’d love to hear your thoughts.