Friday, March 23, 2012

A week of conversation about community, social media and ethics

Dr. Margaret Mohrmann
at our Lenten Luncheon;
photo by Lori K. Richardson
We got back to Charlottesville Friday in time for a Lenten luncheon at St. Paul’s featuring a talk by my friend Dr. Margaret Mohrmann, who is a professor at the University of Virginia in both the medical school and the Department of Religious Studies.

Dr. Mohrmann is a long-time member of St. Paul’s and she has a passion for ethics. She challenged us to think a little more deeply than we might otherwise about what it means to live a moral life in community. As she reminded us, the ethical choices we make have a great deal to do with not only our personal lives, but how we live together on this planet.

One of the underlying conversations at the Episcopal Communicators national conference that we attended this week in North Carolina was about how our use of communication tools represent moral choices about living in community.

The ethical questions were not confined simply to when, or how we lift photos off the Internet, though that issue is certainly important.

Nor were the ethical questions simply about institutional transparency, as important as that is (we can easily think of churches that have covered up pedophile scandals).

The ethical question is bigger than all of that.

As Bishop Stacy Sauls reminded us at the conference, the word “communication” comes from the word “communion,” and so we must ask: Does the sheer volume of information build communion or tear it apart?

I don’t have an easy answer.

But I believe the Church – especially the Church – must engage with that question, both concerning its own practices and in the wider trends in our culture.

All of our workshops had something to do with the uses of “social media” – these rapidly evolving Internet tools like Facebook and Twitter that enable people to form vast networks with each other using personal electronic devices.

As several speakers noted, if our church isn’t using Facebook we are signaling that we are saying we don’t care about the people who are.

We have seen recent examples of how Facebook has the power to knit people together all over the world, and how it can change political structures and shape events. The “Arab Spring” that brought down the government in Egypt was organized through Facebook. Both the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party owe much to social media.

At our Episcopal Communicators national conference, we were given reams of ideas for how we can use social media to draw people into our churches. Some ideas were better than others. One speaker told us how a church encourages its congregation to use Twitter and Facebook to message the preacher, and each other, about what they think of the sermon – during the sermon.

I would prefer to avoid that one, thanks.

We also heard how we could use these tools to find out a great deal of information about the demographics and personal characteristics of the people who go to our churches, and the potential “market” around us. Businesses are doing this, and so should we, or so we were told.

All of this got me thinking: How ethical is this? When does social media become anti-social?

We, as the Church, must pause to ask: Are we building community or contributing to the cultural forces that are fracturing community? Just because we can flood you with information, tailored especially for you that might attract you to our church, should we? Is evangelism simply brazen marketing by another name?

And when does Facebook, Twitter, blogs (oh please, not this one) feed an addiction that isolates people from real relationships with each other?

One of our speakers, a professor at the University of North Carolina told us how her students have said they would rather talk by social media than to have face-to-face meetings with her or each other. “That’s scary,” she said.

Don’t get me wrong – I am fascinated by social media, and intend to keep writing this blog and exploring others ways of connecting with people through social media. These tools have an amazing capacity to reach people in new ways, and reach people who we are not otherwise reaching. We can use these tools to bring the Gospel out beyond the confines of the physical walls of the Church. And I am continually awestruck by how many people read this blog all over the world.

Yet I also think it is incumbent upon us as the Body of Christ to continually ask the ethical question: Is what we are doing here in cyberspace building the Body of Christ or tearing it apart? This seems a ripe area for inquiry by moral theologians, and all of us.

As Dr. Mohrmann reminded us Friday, we should be careful to not settle for simple or quick answers. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts here on this blog, or in person.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux


Mike Dunne said...

"One of our speakers, a professor at the University of North Carolina told us how her students have said they would rather talk by social media than to have face-to-face meetings with her or each other. 'That’s scary,' she said."

This is a telling comment. It goes to the heart of "social media," which for the most part is a misnomer. There's little that is "social" about "social media." It's one-way talk, with many of the talkers not really interested in getting and then replying to a response. They want to have their say; end of conversation. There are exceptions, of course, and in those exchanges the building of community likely is happening, or at least I hope so.

Karen said...

I can think of many people, myself included, whose lives have been greatly enriched by social media. Tools like Facebook, email, blogging, photo sharing, have allowed me to get to know work colleagues, both here and abroad, at a level I might not otherwise have experienced. To keep in touch with my grown children , my extended, far-flung family - sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, cousins. To re-connect with cousins and friends whom I haven’t seen for many years. To get to know, and keep in touch with, some of my grown children’s friends, and their children. To share with others, in a way I might not otherwise have been able - sometimes my thoughts, sometimes my photos, sometimes experiences that have been very meaningful in my life. To me, this blog also helps keep me connected to St. Paul’s, and to the wider church and world community. As does the parish Lenten blog; I love reading each day’s entry and thinking of the person who wrote it, and their kindness in sharing their thoughts. A web of sharing, reaching far and near. Feels sort of holy.

WBJ said...

As you have stated, there are lots of different parts of this to unpack. I am able to sit here comfortably in Sacramento and read what you have written. But, I am not able to take you aside and say "Want to go down to Bernardo's and have a cup of coffee and discuss this?" Another point to consider is that it appears that our brains process (retain? reflect?) printed media and screen media differently. The question is what is the appropriate media for the intended use? Twitter might work for proof texting (not a practice that I endorse), but I imagine that a discussion of the annotated works of Thomas Aquinas would be difficult at best. Similarly, I understand that while Facebook is a useful tool to help maintain bonds of community and kinship, does it reinforce one's own self constructed identity or does it have the capacity to push you, in real life, to the edges of where you are comfortable - to the area in which real growth occurs?