Tag Archives: postmodernism

The Spirituality of Facebook

Shane Hipps (whose teachings I enjoy, and who wrote the book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith) wrote an article for Relevant magazine this month (Sept./Oct. 2010) about Facebook. The title/opening blurb is “What’s [Actually] on Your Mind? … Social networking is changing the way we think, pray and ‘like.’ But what has it cost us?”

As I said in my earlier posts, Hipps hits the narcissism angle, but I’ve already said enough about that. Except one final point:

He talks about how we spend a lot of time tweaking our profiles and building our online personas, which is the technological equivalent of looking at ourselves endlessly in the mirror. I take this with a big grain of salt. We need some measurement of what people are actually doing during their social-networking time for that to be credible. Are they really spending untold hours massaging their profiles and uploading new and more flattering pictures? Most of us, I suspect, spend way more time connecting with friends, family, colleagues and (yes) strangers—interacting, in other words—than designing an online persona. Sure, those interactions make up part of the persona, but that’s not really the goal of them. The goal is relationship and connection.

He also talks about the damage done to the attention span. I really can’t argue with that because I have experienced it myself. That said, I made it to the end of his article easily, which apparently makes me “an impressive and rare breed of human—an intellectual Navy SEAL.” A bit overstated, don’t you think? But I’ll take the compliment!

The other thing Hipps critiques is the way we can artificially create who we are on the Internet. He says, “This heavily edited and carefully controlled self easily hides certain parts of ourselves we don’t want others to see.” He is concerned about the spiritual implications of this split personality. Sure, Hipps admits, we do the same thing in “real life,” but sooner or later, people see through the facade. He argues that it’s harder to see through the artifice on the Internet. I think this is a very interesting point, and I want to say “Yes… and No.”

For one thing, the more we become comfortable with social networking, the better able we are to pick up subtle cues. Sure, on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog. But if that dog gets deep enough into online communities and interactions, the truth will inevitably poke through. We are still infants with this technology, but we are becoming savvier all the time.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t think anyone really believes that the people we interact with online are exact mirrors of the person’s “real” identity. Don’t you think? We understand that the Internet is a mediated experience, and we correct for that. It’s not really artificial if we mutually understand the rules… just as I’m not lying if I say “Fine, thank you” on a perfectly awful day to the stranger on the street who asks me how I am.

I would put it this way: Our online personas are not truly authentic—but we all know that. But that doesn’t make them inauthentic. Instead, I think our online selves can be aspirational. The personas we create online are reflections of the people we want to be. Which is a kind of authenticity.

I have purple hair on my Facebook profile, but real-life friends know I am pretty darn buttoned up. But that picture tells you something about me and who I want to be… despite the fact that the purple hair was for a Harry Potter costume party and came from a can of temporary spray I purchased at Hot Topic with two toddlers in tow.

An analogy: I am a big fan of the Happiness Project, and have a sheet on my bulletin board that includes some personal mission/values stuff, similar to what Gretchen Rubin advocates in her book and blog. The sheet contains my personal mission statement, twelve “intentions” or ways I want to live my life, a bulleted list of “things I’ve learned,” and a list of values I hold dear. It is my north star.

Now you might look at that list and think, “Wow, MaryAnn’s got it all together!” But you would be wrong. So, so very wrong. This is the person I want to be, and anyone who spends any time with me knows that I fall way, way short of that (hourly, some days). My actions don’t mirror that page of values very well. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that reading that page of values would tell you a whole lot about who I am. Same with our Internet selves.

If we’re going to talk about the spirituality of Facebook and other social networking sites in a way that’s positive and helpful—here might be one place to begin.

Facts, Schmacts

“Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. Facts, schmacts.” -Homer Simpson

Oh Homer, even though you said that almost 13 years ago your words are so prescient. (Prescient, Homer. It means foreshadowing.)

This morning Newsweek magazine, in response to polls indicating that as many as one in five people think President Obama is a Muslim—he’s not—published a slide show of other “Dumb Things Americans Believe.” Their examples:  witchcraft (21%), death panels (40%) and that the sun revolves around the earth (amazingly, 20%). Just 39% of people believe in evolution, despite widespread scientific consensus. Newsweek’s title is perhaps unhelpful, but the point is sound. And I found the piece refreshing in a journalistic culture in which the press, in the name of objectivity, reports both “sides” of an issue, even in cases where one of the sides is wrong on the facts and/or fringe in its belief.

I have to say, this is something that I think about a lot. I suppose that misinformation is nothing new, but the Internet is like a Wild West free-for-all when it comes to rumors and misinformation. If you want to believe something, you can and will find support for it. But it makes it very difficult to communicate. It makes it difficult to preach when literally everything we know is up for grabs.

I can’t find it now, but did you catch the study a few months ago about attitudes among scientists about global warming? Many layfolks who are climate-change skeptics say that the scientific community is not united in its beliefs about the human causes of global warming—that there are a lot of scientists who doubt it.  That’s true, but among scientists who study it most closely and have published peer-reviewed research, the sense that humans are to blame is much clearer. Not everyone who calls him or herself an expert actually is an expert, in other words… but that’s not welcome news in a culture that disdains elitism, a culture in which people want to “decide for themselves.”

Earlier this month I attended portions of the Faithful Politics conference at Montreat. I was technically on vacation so I didn’t attend it all, but in one of the sessions I did attend, the speaker talked about the need for empathy as we seek to understand people with whom we disagree. I think that’s very true and as Christians, how we engage the questions of the day is as important as (more important than?) the answers themselves, which is really the message of my sermon on Sunday. Bickering and in-fighting is a pretty poor witness. As Tony Jones has said, “Two generations from now we will no longer be arguing about gay marriage, but we will be arguing about whether cloned humans are entitled to receive communion. So we’d better develop some norms for working through our differences rather than continuing the tired win-lose way we go about it now.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

But empathy and norms only get us so far, when we can’t even agree on what the facts are.

Lately we’ve been talking to Caroline about the difference between fact and opinion. She will ask a question like, “What’s the most beautiful thing in the world?” and after giving our thoughts we’ll usually say, “That’s an opinion question though, which means there isn’t one right answer. Different people will answer it differently.” Then she will ask “What’s the largest thing in the world?” which, once we clarify what “largest” and “thing” mean, is obviously a question of fact. (What is the largest thing in the world?)

This lesson we’re trying to teach Caroline seems very quaint, in a way. One of our cultural challenges is that, because we can find anything out there to support our own views and biases, we have forgotten that there are in fact differences between fact and opinion.

It doesn’t matter how many websites argue the contrary: whether the President is an American citizen is not up for debate. It’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of fact. He’s a citizen or he isn’t, and even if 80% of the public thought he was born in Kenya, it wouldn’t make him born in Kenya. (Incidentally, why are we polling on matters of fact anyway?)

I’m very willing to listen to people who disagree with me on matters of opinion—I’ve heard from some church members after Sunday’s sermon who explained their thoughts, and some differed from mine, but we heard each other. But it’s much harder—impossible, even?—to engage with someone who doesn’t even subscribe to the same facts you do. I’m not sure how useful it is to try, actually.

We’ve always had disagreements in our nation. When people say we are more polarized now than ever before, I want to say, hello, Civil War? But it does feel very intense and unsettling to me, and I think this Internet free-for-all doesn’t help.

Finally, I have to turn all of this back to myself, too: are there things that I take as bedrock that are not actually factual? Are there things that I hold so rigidly that others cannot engage me?

Image is from the Newsweek feature mentioned above.