Putting the Social Back into Social Media

Quietnun in Digitalnun's Nest: going online
Quietnun in Digitalnun’s Nest: going online

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when we pray for the sick and those who have care of them; it is also Safer Internet Day, intended to encourage safer and more responsible use of online technologies and mobile phones. For me, there is a clear connection between the two.

Everyone knows, I think, that the community to which I belong chose to use the internet, including social media, as a way of responding to St Benedict’s concern for hospitality. Being short of money, physical space and numbers, and wanting to ensure that the monastic heart of our existence should not be compromised by too much noise or over-exposure to outside influences, the web offered lots of possibilities for engagement with others. It promised to be an excellent way of fulfilling the old idea of contemplata aliis tradere. By and large, I think it has fulfilled its promise and, as early adopters, I hope we have made a small but useful contribution to that.

Over time, many things have changed and the ugly side of the web has become more prominent. Think false information, anger, trolling, porn, hatred. These have made the community here more determined than ever to use online technologies for good. To a fellow believer I would express it as trying to take Christ into a situation, a world, from which more and more are trying to exclude him. In the early days we saw being active online as being where people were (and therefore where the Church should be). We now see it in rather starker terms. It is where a battle between good and evil is being fought, where we confront those principalities and powers of which St Paul writes. That sounds melodramatic, I know, but using traditional language to describe a current phenomenon does have advantages. It prevents us from seeing what we are experiencing now as completely without precedent and reminds us that the old disciplines of prayer and fasting may have something to say to us today that we need to hear.

Take social media, for example. I have often urged prayer before we go online and especially before we make use of social media. I have not been quite so enthusiastic about digital fasts because, in my experience, they rarely work as a way of bringing long-term discipline into a situation we may feel has got out of hand. That said, I acknowledge that, for some people, the need to come off social media for a while is essential because it has taken over their lives. It is a kind of Lenten discipline that enables one to re-focus. Fortunately for me, my life as a nun takes precedence over everything else so I am not free to go online whenever I choose or would like to. There is a kind of built-in restraint that is invaluable. There is, however, another way of looking at things I would like to suggest as worth pondering and perhaps acting on: bringing the social back into social media.

It is very easy to forget what the word ‘social’ means. It comes from the Latin word for a friend or ally (socius). It gives us the name we use for the community of human beings in which we live, society (societas). For St Thomas Aquinas, what we now call the State was simply societas christiana. The idea of being connected with one another in a relationship of friendship, mutual support and sympathy, is thus culturally an important one for all users of social media, whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them. It is our disregard of that which I would say is at the root of much of our current unease with social media and the way in which they are used.

There is a very active Tweeter in the USA who does not seem to be unduly bothered by the truth or falsehood of what he tweets. As far as I can see, he is a narcissist whose main aim is to exalt himself at the expense of everyone else. There are some users of Facebook and Instagram who plainly see those platforms as being marketing opportunities. All they want from us is our money, whether in the form of cash or data. All this may strike you as being very cynical. I prefer to think of it as a kind of sickness in need of healing. We cannot turn the clock back to those heady and visionary days when the web was seen as a way of connecting everyone and the internet promised to make knowledge of all kinds freely available, but what we can do is ensure that our own use of the opportunities we are given is not merely responsible but creative and, I hope, healing.

We do not often stop to think of the creative and healing possibilities of social media, but they exist, and I believe we should each try to cultivate them. It isn’t only the lonely who go online. It isn’t only the dysfunctional. But we should not scorn them if they do. The community’s use of social media has brought us into contact with thousands of people who would never otherwise have got to know us. We have accompanied a few of them through some dark moments in their lives. I think — hope— we may have helped one or two find a happier way of being. Along with the photos of cats and dogs, and the little jokes that delight some and exasperate others, I think social media have enabled us to open the cloister to many who are not called to live there permanently but who have discovered that it has value, even for them in their busy, secular lives. What I write of here is not unique to us. Everyone who uses social media can use it for good or ill, to build up or tear down; and we do not always have to be solemn about it. Laughter is a good medicine, but let it be the right kind of laughter, not the kind St Benedict regarded as destructive. Let us make friends online by being friendly, by being truly social.


26 thoughts on “Putting the Social Back into Social Media”

  1. I, for one, have been truly grateful for this opportunity”meet” you and have your thoughts challenge me to more of God, or to understand something differently. I also greatly appreciate the smiles you generate in me…. May we truly be social, and aware of one another’s frailties and foibles (not that I have any of those, of course!)

  2. You give a wonderful standard for Christians as they interact on social media. From the beginning of knowing you through your blog and FB posts, you have taught me and many of us, I suspect, through your good example, and I am most grateful for this. While I don’t always live up to this standard, I do try in my feeble way and at least content myself realising that failing to do so does remind me why your standard is best. Cultivating a constancy of awareness in this regard is important and necessary for aChristian, and and to achieve this I often find that I ask myself, “What would D. Catherine say? Would she post it?” , so impressed have I been by your monastic presence on social media.

    I agree with you, that internet/social media fasts may well be a good thing from time to time, as a discipline, but that giving it up all together is not wise. The world has changed. A stricter discipline for me, is waiting till after Terce each morning to check FB and Twitter. and then only again after None or vespers Exceptions are made of course if I’m in an office waiting to be seen or in a long queue, or if unable to sleep, as a find it a bit of a soporific. but in general this keeps me from mindless scrolling.

    Thank you for this important post.

  3. Thank you for your very thoughtful Blog. I have appreciated your posts on FB. I also try to use the Internet to encourage and share my faith, as I am often housebound and very rarely get to Church services these days, and have had to give up preaching. It has been a learning curve with people criticising and expressing their thoughts freely these days. I have made on line friends who have much in common with me, and feel linked in to the world still. Please continue. Bless you.

  4. Thank you for identifying so clearly what I have always experienced but found it hard to explain to many of my generation (71!) . Facebook has always been about connectedness for me. The gift of being a small part of the lives of friends, and their children, who live in other parts of the world.
    I heed all the warnings about its horrendous misuse and will try to adopt the habit of praying before venturing forth.
    I am blessed by my connectedness to the community of which you are a part – you daily bring the richness of Christ to me. Thank you.

  5. Wonderful site sisters. I’m becoming quite the educated girl fast!, as to gain the knowledge that you share here, would
    take, without social media/ Facebook
    etc a life time to find. Its shared on through me to my physical community. So how great is that! Blessings

  6. We think of your community as friends and pray with and for you. We’ve always appreciated your accompanying us through life’s trials, as well as giving thanks for God’s intervention. We pray for the other readers and commenters, too, in their struggles and searching. This is a safe place to rest and visit, to learn and grow. Friendship, whether in person or online is a true gift.

    Also appreciated was your cauliflower cheese recipe – a keeper and safely tucked into my recipe box. Always think of you with fondness, Big Sis, when I make it for our supper!

  7. This post is like oxygen to my soul. Thank you! Be encouraged that iBenedictines-Digitalnun have breathed life-giving “social” back into my FB feed. I’m so, so grateful, all glory to Him. Peace.

  8. Hello again Sister and thank you for sharing your perspective on social media. I’ve been engaging with the issue of finding and contributing to the best that social media have to offer for almost 30 years. Before the world wide web even existed I used to participate in the nascent social media groups on Usenet and in BBSs! In those days I used such strategies as reading and contributing to moderated Usenet groups while having little to do with unmoderated areas, such as the alt domains.

    I would be very interested to know how you deal with social media users who are abusive or who hold unpleasant views, such as extremist political views, if they turn up in your twitter feed or Facebook for example. Currently I disconnect from them or, if they are not directly connected to my account, I mute them, with a prayer for their greater enlightenment. I sometimes wonder though, if it would be more beneficial to stay connected.

    Do you have any thoughts on this Sister?

    • Ah, you’re an oldie (in internet terms) like me! My practice varies. If possible, I try to engage in dialogue with the abusers, but if all I get is more abuse, especially if it is profanity-laden and imputes dishonesty/base motives to others, or if I’m not well enough to sustain the ‘conversation’, I’ll do one of the following. On here, I won’t publish the comment. People have the right to think of this blog as a safe space, where they can speak freely, provided they heed the guidelines we give about respecting one another and behaving considerately. On FB, I’ll hide or delete the comment, depending how bad it is. On Twitter, I’ll mute the tweeter, then have another look and, if I think it necessary, block. People do sometimes try to cause trouble. In recent years I’ve had to ‘patrol’ our FB page more regularly because of those who want to sneak in party-political views or rants about the Church, women, nuns, etc, etc. In the days when we ran a Forum, we had to hold everything for moderation and the block list got to be quite long. I think now people who want to be nasty have many more, easier places to express their views.

  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Sister. I’m an oldie in all senses of the word! How interesting that you have to be so vigilant. “Hand me my flack jacket – I’m heading into Twitter!”

  10. Dear Sister Catherine, the world would be a worse place without your wonderful messages on social media of God’s love for us all.
    You have made me a better and more tolerant person. For that l am truly grateful.
    May the Lord bless and care for you, bring you comfort and relief from the pain, nausea and discomfort of your condition and its treatment.

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