Media and Meaning

Over at Seven Whole Days, Scott Gunn has posted a very interesting reflection on the church in the age of social media.

There’s no question that social media has already had an enormous impact on the shape of the global religious landscape and will continue to do so. In fact, I’d attribute most of the church splits and schisms over the last decade as being driven either in part or completely by social movements fostered and enable by new media. As far as I’m concerned, the Episcopal split and the formation of the ACNA would not have happened if blogs and blog networks had not been able to focus opposition to 815 and gain/create a critical mass willing to leave.

On the other hand, I know I personally have met and been nurtured by a wonderful group of people—some I knew or have come to know offline, others not—through social media interactions, most notably¬† this blog.

I just want to make two quick points.

First, from a systems-perspective, the problem of our age is not access to data. We have too much of it. We’re completely awash in information. Some of it is useful and important—some of it less so.The problem of our age is the analysis and organization of data into useful—and comprehensible—chunks.This is one of the broad functions of social media. No-one can sift through all of the news/information/books/essays/thoughts/etc. out there. It’s simply not possible. What social media does is, essentially, to serve as a crowd-sourced filtration and data organization device. Our friends and acquaintances access some bits and post or pass on what seems most meaningful to them. Social circles feed and amplify certain themes, stories, and concepts. We’ve got to use this tool but at the same time be very aware of the shadow-side of this strength: it’s really easy to get caught up in your own echo-chamber where all you hear are the kinds of stories, news,and statistics that reinforce what you already think and believe. As more and more of us rely more and more on the internet for our news and locus of critical reflection, we must also be intentional about cultivating friends and acquaintance who can challenge us enough to keep us from being locked into a simple and simplistic way of thinking and processing.

Second, when social media gets discussed, it usually means Facebook and Twitter. I think it’s fair to say that there has been a certain decrease in blog activity over the last several years—especially since the rise of Facebook. But I must strenuously protest: blogs have their place!! There are two things that blogs do better than Facebook. The first is the retention of a surface anonymity. Anonymity online is a source of liberation. It enables us to say and do things we can’t with a name attached. Yeah, I know—that can be a Bad Thing, and trolls will always be with us… Nevertheless, sometimes people need anonymity to provide a critical space for their own growth and reflection. Some of my favorite bloggers either are or were anonymous. I was semi-anonymous for a while myself. I don’t think it’s always a problem, and find it healthy for those just growing their wings.

The second thing that blogs can do that Facebook can’t is to provide a forum for the thoughtful essay. The essay genre is perfect for blogs. Facebook, not so much. If we are going to engage in thoughtful, compelling reflection, we need more space to develop a substantive body of thought than Facebook and Twitter provide. The best route is, of course, integration: using Facebook and Twitter to circulate pull-quotes that lead readers into the blog. (Not I do this myself, of course, but I still think it’s the best way to go…) In the article referenced above, Scott+ linked to a Reflections edition focused entirely on New Media. As I scanned the table of contents, I didn’t recognize the name of one person as a long-standing blogger of note. To me, that’s a serious oversight. You have people writing on the new media—but you leave out one of the central platforms? Hello?

One Reply to “Media and Meaning”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I killed myself on Facebook recently – couldn’t get with their base assumption that my privacy was no longer my business. The only thing I really miss is talking with my great nieces – Google+ isn’t happening yet, if it ever will – but I might start – gasp! – writing letters to remedy that situation. Or even start a family blog; that can be great, too.

    Facebook is all surfaces and in-group discussions – which have their place, for sure – but I still like the blog discussions. Twitter is for another purpose entirely, IMO; it’s going to be the future of on-the-spot news gathering, for one thing. And it’s more open and far, far less invasive of privacy.

    You can really talk about things on the blogs, though! And I do like “meeting” people that way, which you never really do on FB….

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