I spent last week on my own at our home in the Scottish Borders writing a draft of my dissertation for my MLitt at the University of St Andrews. The first part of the week was wonderful as I caught up on reading, and I had a couple of nice evenings when I was able to take the computer into the garden, but as always, it did become a bit of a slog. However, the draft is finished.
My dissertation explores some of the challenges that social media such as blogs and Twitter might pose to an organisation like the Scottish Episcopal Church which has formal structures of leadership, governance and communication. It’s hardly a new topic, but it was interesting to study it within my own particular context, and I am immensely grateful to the clergy and bishops who patiently participated in interviews as part of my research. I have to confess, though, that I finished the dissertation with more questions than answers.
I’ve grown weary of the criticism of social media by those who do not use it, and my dissertation is in part in response to some of those criticisms. I am not a cyber utopian. I do not believe that online communication and social networks are the cure for all of society’s ills. But neither should all the blame for our fragmented communities, selfish individualism or increasingly polarised society be placed at the feet of social media. Ultimately, I strongly believe that we need to approach social media in the same way that we should be engaging in all other forms of communication: with care and discernment.
Something I’ve become convinced of is that we must recognise that the online/offline, virtual/real categories so often referred to, particularly in criticisms of social media, are actually profoundly unhelpful binary distinctions. That’s not to say that there are no ethical, philosophical, sociological or theological implications of online communication – quite the contrary. It’s just that the ethical, philosophical, sociological or theological issues raised by these constantly evolving communication technologies are actually extensions of ones we should already be exploring.
It is difficult to know at this stage to what extent online communication is having an effect on, for example, the way we communicate, how we understand personhood and relationships, or how authority is assumed or bestowed. Scholarship on these issues is evolving as quickly as social networks are. My mind may change again, but I am increasingly of the opinion that there is a stronger continuity between online and offline behaviour than is often acknowledged. In other words, social media is often magnifying current offline social trends, not necessarily creating new ones.
Therefore, some of the questions social media is raising for us in the church are the same questions we really should have been asking ourselves anyway: What kind of church do we want to be, and is this how we are actually viewed by those outside our church buildings? How do we enable the diversity of our church to strengthen our communities and not be a source of internal division? How do we hold together in a creative tension the rich traditions we have inherited and the prophetic movement of the Spirit towards uncharted territory? And in the midst of all of this, how do we communicate with one another in a way which reflects Christ’s command for us to love one another?
Those are all rather introspective questions, I concede. And one of the great gifts of social media is, of course, its potential to reach vast numbers of people. This blog is new and unestablished. It does not yet have a regular readership. But with links to Facebook and a couple of tweets, my last post had more hits than most churches in Edinburgh Diocese have communicants on an average Sunday morning. So why do we hear so little about social media when mission is being discussed?
But that great potential also brings with it great responsibility, and that’s where the questions above come in. How we in the church communicate with and about one another says far more about who we are and what we’re about than any formal church profile or mission statement, and it is to our detriment if we forget that. One of the gifts the church can offer to social media, on the other hand, is a different way of communicating: one which involves listening carefully, responding to difference with kindness, creating space for intelligent debate … one which models the love with which God loves us. This, I think is the greatest challenge we face.