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.

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Dodgy Data and Popular Pitfalls

From time to time I return to the question of what we’re doing online and why. Most recently, I mentioned the carbon footprint of our everyday online activity and suggested that we needed to make sure we were not reckless or profligate. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should. For a Benedictine, thinking in this way is natural. In his chapter on the cellarer (RB 34), St Benedict urges the business manager of the monastery to look on everything entrusted to his care as sacred, and to avoid both extravagance and parsimony. Reverence is another key theme of the Rule, a reverence that extends beyond the human and spiritual to the physical and material. The goods and property of the monastery are not to be treated casually or in a sloppy manner. As a result, I have often thought Benedict was an ecologist avant la lettre, one who has marvelled at the beauty of creation and desires to fulfil his duty of tending and sustaining it. In the same way, our community found its inspiration for its online activity in Benedict’s teaching on hospitality in chapter 53. That is why our first tweet of the day and our first Facebook post are always prayer (cf RB 53.4). It is why this blog exists, and why we are keen to revamp our other web sites, including that for online retreats. In the last few days, however, I have been thinking about a problem we all encounter online at some time or other: dodgy data and popular pitfalls.

As apps and web sites multiply, the internet becomes bigger and more hazardous for even the most knowlegeable and intrepid. False stories abound, and I’m not referring to the more or less harmless ‘joke’ variety. Many have died from measles as a direct consequence of the rumours spread about vaccination. Others have taken for truth erroneous claims about both individuals and organizations. Worse still, these lies have been spread by many who would be aghast to realise the part they had played in ruining another’s reputation or subjecting to unnecessary stress and anguish someone innocent of the charges being made against them. Sometimes, it is all down to ignorance and reacting too quickly rather than pausing to reflect for a moment or two.

Faced with an interesting story or piece of information, how many of us actually take the time to check facts with snopes.com before we press the send button? Even the minimum time needed for reflection tends to be curtailed because ‘everything is instant online’. So, instead of checking when something was written and by whom, we propagate a lie and make it even more difficult to correct. That is especially true of photos and videos. Everyone knows how easy it is to fake them, but how often do we do even the most elementary checks? For example, uploading a suspicious photo to the Google image search-box will reveal if/where it has appeared online and when. Notoriously, a video widely circulated with the title ‘Muslims celebrating after Paris terror attacks 2015’ turned out to be footage of Pakistanis cheering after a cricket match held in 2009. Yet, if you look, you will still find that video being trotted out as ‘evidence’ of Muslim malice. The contrary is true.

I believe that Christians have a role to play in trying to make the internet a safe and useful place to be because we are, or ought to be, people of integrity to whom truth matters. If we find that we ourselves have made a mistake, own up to it, post a correction and draw people’s attention to it. Support attempts to keep children and young people safe online. Welcome the UK Government’s Age Appropriate Design Code (due to become operational in Autumn 2021 — see yesterday’s announcement here: https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2020/01/ico-publishes-code-of-practice-to-protect-children-s-privacy-online/). Remember that we still have people using the internet who are not well-informed about its darker side and just assume everyone is telling the truth. Above all, take time to think. Yesterday I did something foolish online. I uploaded a short post about the feast of St Agnes and the exploitation of children. I’d hoped people would read it and think about the ways in which we can, unintentionally, let young people down. I followed it up with a light-hearted tweet about the image I’d used to illustrate my post (especially the first paragraph). Twice the number of people who read the post tweeted, emailed or messaged me their views on religious art. Bro Duncan PBGV used to urge people to be more dog. All I can say is, where the internet is concerned, don’t be a silly-billy like me. Think first!

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On Parading One’s Knowledge

It is a difficult line to tread, between sharing one’s enthusiasm and parading one’s knowledge. A few months ago I was taken to task for expressing delight in some of the work being done by South American type designers. I made no comment on the suitability of the typefaces for any particular use but found myself drawn into an increasingly grumpy exchange on Twitter where my interlocutor was concerned principally with the accessibility of typefaces, especially online, if I remember correctly. At the end of the exchange, I felt as though I had been lectured well and truly and the person I’d been conversing with declared himself angry and went off for a walk to cool down. It was an example of the way in which sharing an enthusiasm can go horribly wrong if one does not take into account the possibility of its being misunderstood. I regret the misunderstanding and would love to put it right, but once one has got at cross purposes it can be very hard to put things straight. One just has to trust to God that He will deal with it and try to avoid making the same mistake in future. I have not made any comment on typefaces or printing since because I don’t want to upset people.

A similar thing can happen on other Social Media. One makes a small point or comment and someone decides to demonstrate that they know much more than one does oneself, or they expand one’s original comment as though one were completely unaware of any other aspect of the case or had intentionally left something out. My usual response is either to say ‘thank you’ or, if I have some doubts about what is said, to ignore the remark. Unfortunately, I do not always follow my own advice, and I am sure I have caused hurt and misunderstanding at times both by my own comments and by my response to other people’s comments. What can one do in such a situation?

I think there are only two possible responses: a simple ‘sorry’, without, please note, going over the rights and wrongs of the case again. That rarely leads to better understanding. ‘Falling out of faithful friends/Renewing is of love’ perhaps, but one has to be good friends to start with. In any case, I am not suggesting that one should avoid expressing one’s opinions or sharing one’s enthusiasms. I think it is the way we do so that needs a little thought. The second response is more humbling but ultimately a way of gaining deeper insight: to ask oneself why one made the comment in the first place. Was one really sharing an enthusiasm or bolstering one’s own ego by parading one’s knowledge? My own conscience is far from clear on that question. How about you?

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Condemning and Condoning

Have you noticed how often there is a call to condemn something or other — the actions of an individual or an institution, or some historical event or behaviour that we now regard as wrong? Any failure to condemn is regarded as tantamount to condoning whatever is to be reprobated. That often leads to some very awkward apologies that appear intended merely to placate those with a sense of grievance rather than put right any real wrong.

For instance, if one is white British, one is sometimes asked to condemn and apologize for Britain’s part in the Black Slave trade. I can’t imagine that anyone approves of it or would want to try to justify it nowadays, but can one realistically be held to account for a wrong occurring in the past with which one may have no direct connection? Given many families’ lowly social and economic status during the years in question, it is difficult to say how many were actively involved. If one accepts that, simply because one is British, one shares in some sort of collective guilt for the suffering the trade inflicted, can one also claim credit for the work of the abolitionists? It’s difficult, isn’t it? Failure to speak out on the matter is regarded by some as evidence of complicity and has led to some ugly confrontations. I am sure you can think of other examples, but I use this because it will be familiar to many and concerns a genuine injustice and evil.

The advent of social media and the ease with which opinion can be expressed and shared has tended to make the urge to condemn much more prevalent. Look at Twitter, for example, and you will see rant after rant, accusation after accusation, often coming from those with more anger than information. The speed with which the Covington Boys were condemned online was astonishing. Even their home diocese did not wait to examine the facts of the case more carefully. The result has been unhappy all round. Today’s subject for condemnation will doubtless be different, because the world moves on, and the wreckage left behind by reckless accusations is of no consequence to those fuelled by a (misplaced) sense of righteous purpose.

Thus far, most of you will probably be in general agreement, but here’s the rub. Christians are just as bad at condemning others as anyone else. True, we may not use the profanity-littered language of the angry tweeter nor make the rash accusations of the furious Facebook-er, but we jump to conclusions just as readily and answer back equally curtly. We may not demand apologies as such, but we can make it plain we expect submission to our views rather than respectful debate. I have often argued that if we pray before we go online, we can avoid many of these things. We are not called to solve all the world’s problems, only those we can actually do something about. Raving and ranting about injustice achieves very little; working to put right what we see to be wrong is less dramatic and much harder, but it is also much more in line with the gospel’s teaching. Today, if you are tempted to say something harsh or make an accusation based on hearsay, please think twice. One day we shall answer for every word we have spoken. Every word.

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What’s the Point of It All?

Almost by accident (I use Google Alerts), I found myself mentioned in a recent Church Times article about the use of Social Media, mainly by Anglican clergy and academics. Along with the Church Mouse, Digitalnun seemed to be consigned to a list of ‘old has beens’ which made me smile. It reminded me of Wired back in the early 2000s prophesying the end of blogging. What I think the article and several of a similar nature have made clear, however, is that attitudes are changing. We are more aware of the limitations and pitfalls of any kind of internet engagement, and without a coherent idea of why we are here and what we hope to achieve (if anything), it is all ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’ — especially in Social Media.

As a community we would say we know why we engage with people via the internet but we are also conscious that what we have done in the past may no longer be relevant. For the last few years we have concentrated on blogging and Social Media interaction, mainly because our Broadband is unreliable and we are not very good at visual images and videos. I still think there is value in such interaction, but the chances of having a good discussion on Twitter or Facebook, the two platforms beloved of the older user, are probably fewer than in the past because we are all tending to react rather than reflect; and trolls rear their ugly heads in some surprising quarters.

Overhauling our websites recently (publication still a little way off because of the complications of Cor Orans), I came to the conclusion that we need to revisit some of the things that we adopted early on but then gave up. For example, we more or less ceased podcasting when D. Teresa died in 2010, but podcasting is now growing exponentially and we are thinking about resuming on a regular basis. It is definitely a favourite with the under 35s and sits well with our interest in serving the needs of the blind and visually impaired. There is a catch, however: the traffic trundling past on the A465. Can we find a quiet place to record? The ear is a delicate instrument and picks up all kinds of sounds. We do not want to inflict aural agony on the listener, so we need to think about it.

The big question, of course, is whether this activity is really doing what we hope it is doing. We have always seen it as an expression of our monastic hospitality. It begins in prayer and leads back to prayer, and we hope that en route, as it were, it brings the reader/tweeter/friend into contact with the living God, even if he/she would not necessarily think of it in those terms. There are many people who have no contact with a monastery, or whose contact is at the most superficial level. By bringing the monastery into cyberspace, we hope that we can deepen that monastic experience and make it more available to others. That is where you come in.

What we would like to ask you is what you would like to gain from our websites and interaction on Social Media. Please don’t ask for lots of photos of nuns in olde-worlde habits or the live-streaming of the Divine Office. We are a small community and there are others who can supply such ‘needs’ more easily than we can. What we are asking you to do, I suppose, is to think about why you bother to read this blog, visit our websites, or interact with us on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus or LinkedIn. You can help us plan for the future, and we would be immensely grateful.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Polemics and the Art of Being Christian Online

St Athanasius, whose feast we celebrate today, is one of my heroes. I love his reverence for the Incarnation, his pastoral concern, his interest in monasticism, the fact that the ancient Churches of both East and West regard him as a great saint. I even love even his rather fiery temper, though I do not think I would have liked to have been on the receiving end of some of his tongue-lashings.

Today there are many who seem to think they are heir to Athanasius in their zeal for purity of doctrine and observance but who quite often overlook two important points. First, Athanasius was a learned man and spoke and wrote from a deep store of theological knowledge and understanding. Second, he was a saint and consciously strove to put into practise the teachings of Christ. I have never been attracted to polemics myself but if I were, I think those two points would give me pause. It is very easy to assume we are right, that we have the answers others are searching for, but it is just possible we are mistaken, that we don’t know enough, or don’t understand as well as we think we do. As to leading holy lives, filled with faith, hope and charity, would it not be presumptuous to claim that?

One of the problems with the blogospshere at the moment, and perhaps even more the corner of Twitter that I inhabit, is that there is too much shrieking going on. Too many people are attacking others without really examining whether they are right to do so. We may want to see ourselves as champions of truth, but very often that desire is all about us and not about truth at all. I’m particularly saddened when I see Catholics attacking one another in virulent terms over supposed lapses in orthodox belief and practice.* Not so long ago I was myself attacked, in no uncertain terms, by someone regarded by many (though not, I have to confess, by me) as a champion of orthodoxy. Even though I did my best to point out where and how the misconception could have arisen, there was no apology, only another sneer. It left an unpleasant taste in my mouth and reminded me forcibly of something we need to remember every time we go online. We will never argue anyone into belief in God; we can only try to show something of God’s holiness and love and pray that he will draw others to himself. That doesn’t mean that we allow errors to go uncorrected or fail to stand up for what we believe; it does mean that we don’t mistake love of a fight for love of the truth. Putting someone down isn’t the best way of raising them up, is it?

Truth matters; and it is precisely because truth matters that I think we should be reverent and charitable in our attempts to defend and spread the truth we have been privileged to know, especially online where it is more difficult to convey nuance or relax tension. That is part of the art of being a Christian online. It is also, unless I’m very much mistaken, part of the secret of successful polemics, too.

*We all have a duty to try to put right whatever may be wrong, but the way in which we do that is important. It is particularly important that we make sure of our facts otherwise we may be guilty of grave injustice.

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Twitter Arguments

From time to time, someone on Twitter will decide to take another person to task about an opinion they hold, or are thought to hold (not at all the same thing), or will tag their name onto a tweet in the hope of getting their views into the other’s data stream and thereby reaching all their followers. It happens to me occasionally. Sometimes I’m not online to notice; sometimes I’ll engage in friendly discussion or disagreement. Sometimes, however, things take an uglier turn and I prefer to dissociate myself entirely from the other’s agenda by blocking them. Inevitably, that leads to howls of rage from the blocked, but, really, why should one meekly accept insults and accusations, usually expressed in screaming capitals, when one has not initiated the argument oneself and has no desire to press any particular point?

In the past few days, I’ve had two ‘interesting’ experiences of a Twitter argument into which others tried to draw me. My overwhelming feeling in each case was ‘this is a waste of time, no one is listening to anyone else, and hurling insults around makes it unlikely that anyone is going to want to listen to anyone else’. I preferred to withdraw (and was, of course, attacked for doing so) but I think if one genuinely believes in freedom of speech, one must allow others the right to silence. That is often forgotten on Twitter, where individuals sometimes assume the right to compel others to respond. It is, in effect, another form of bullying.

However, I accept that many people do want to use Twitter for arguing but don’t want to be bullies, so here are my five little tips for Twitter arguments. Before you begin, ask yourself

1. Is Twitter the best place to argue your  case?

2. Can you make a valid statement in 140 characters?

3. Can you argue your case without attacking/accusing/insulting another? (Courtesy does matter; so does checking one’s facts and getting them right.)

4. Are you prepared to admit you are wrong?

5. Will you recognize that not everyone is as happy to argue as you are yourself?

I have to admit that my tips come more as a plea to the disputacious than the fruits of experience as I’ve never initiated an argument on Twitter and don’t think I’ve ever ‘won’ any in which I may have engaged. Twitter arguments often generate more heat than light, and people and reputations are sometimes badly harmed in the process. The most important advice I would give to anyone wanting to argue on Twitter, therefore, would be Mr Punch’s advice to those about to marry — don’t. Or, if you cannot manage that, at least think before you tweet.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Speaking the Good Word on Twitter

‘A good word is above the best gift’ (Sirach 18.17) and ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). Those two sentences are culled at random from the scripture I store in my head, and for me they pinpoint why a Twitter silence is likely to prove an inadequate response to the evil of trolling and abuse. Silence will not, of itself, change a culture of abuse — and that is what we have: not merely individuals who abuse, but a culture which tolerates such abuse. Indeed, a Twitter silence such as some are advocating may allow it to flourish all the more. Instead of walking away from Twitter and other forms of Social Media, I think we should engage with them for good. We must show how use of the good word, positive speech and engagement, is much more beneficial, in all senses of that word, than bad or angry/abusive words.

It is a challenge we can all take up, but as we do so, perhaps we need to examine our own conduct. We may not be trolls, but we may be a little too free in our negative comments about others, a little too inclined to assume that we are right and everyone else wrong, keener to lecture than to listen. The good word is born of a listening silence. Let’s not forget that.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Religion and the Internet

This coming Sunday, BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ programme will be devoted to the subject of religion and the internet. Bishop Alan Wilson, Vicky Beeching and I will be grilled by presenter William Crawley on a number of topics. The programme outline has already sent my head into a spin, it is so searching and extensive, but I’m wondering whether we shall address one topic that has surfaced twice in the past few days: sacrilege. It’s an old-fashioned word, expressing an old-fashioned concept, clearly meaningless to many in the west, yet to many in the east far from meaningless. It is, in fact, a driver of action: something that calls for immediate and severe response.

My last post was on the act that led to the Pussy Riot trial in Russia. Note the words: the act that led to. The trial itself led to an explosion of comment in the media. Twitter and Facebook were awash with opinion, much of it condemning the sentence on the grounds that the band’s protest was aimed at President Putin. Yesterday the BBC published a report that a Pakistani girl had been charged under the country’s blasphemy laws for desecrating the Koran. There was some comment in the media, especially when it emerged that the girl was allegedly only 11 and suffering from Down’s syndrome, but nothing to equal the response to the Pussy Riot trial. My Twitterstream was virtually silent on the subject.

Someone carrying pages of the Koran in a bin bag or burning them is committing an act of desecration according to Pakistani law, and although I assume that most of us are outraged at the thought of a child being arrested for such an offence, we mainly seem to accept that that is ‘how it is’ in Pakistan. Judging by our response on the internet and in social media, it is much less troubling than the trial of a Russian punk band. There may be many factors at work here, not least the uncertain nature of the information coming from Pakistan (though I have to say, Twitter never seems to be too much concerned whether a rumour is true or not), but it has reminded me of something it is easy to forget: there is a morality involved in our use of the internet and social media.

The internet is a powerful shaper of opinion. In the past, blogging was a prime way of disseminating opinion and allowed a writer to nuance statements in a thoughtful way and invite similarly thoughtful responses on difficult and complex subjects. Today, I think microblogging is more important. We seem to like short, snappy answers to short, snappy questions — and that is where the danger lies. Not every subject is susceptible of brief treatment. Twitter, in particular, enables an opinion to gain momentum very quickly, but it is rarely possible to advance a detailed argument. It’s for soundbites rather than syllogisms, perfect for jokes and links. When we address serious topics, however, we have to think how we are to tweet responsibly. It is easy to tweet and retweet without thinking. Even silence, our not tweeting, can be significant. Think before you tweet? A good idea. Even better, if it is a good work you are about, pray. Odd though it may seem to some, I think of the internet as a sacred space where what we do and the way in which we do it matters. There is a closer relationship between religion and the internet than may at first appear.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail