It’s not unusual to hear the internet likened to the printing press in terms of its ability to disrupt cultural norms and make it possible to spread ideas in previously unimaginable ways. And so far as it goes, this is a fine comparison. Ask any journalist and they can tell you about the internet’s disruptive power relative to the printed word. (After you ask them that, you should probably buy them a drink.)
But this comparison can also run foul in several important ways. Most notably, it can implicitly reduce the internet to being little more than an updated take on the printing press: It’s a medium predominately used for the spread of ideas conveyed via the written word. It just uses different tools to do that which happen to be more efficient than the tools available via the printing press.
But the internet is far more than a tool for spreading ideas, as anyone who has spent five minutes on social media (or YouTube) well knows. It is also a tool for cultivating identity and joining communities.
For example, I’m on an email list with a bunch of other Christians that discusses any number of different topics. That membership is part of my identity online and is known to any other members of the group. It’s not fully public since it’s an email list, but it is also not private in the way that writing a letter to a friend is.
But in addition to these acts which explicitly link us to a community are the many things we do which implicitly tie us to one group or another in that they are public actions done in the sight of many. When I “like” the official page of my favorite Premier League team, I am not only signing up to receive updates via Facebook from Tottenham Hotspur. I’m also implicitly announcing to anyone who is connected to me on Facebook that I am a fan of Tottenham Hotspur (and that any Arsenal fans can go jump in a lake while singing that totally obnoxious Gi-roud song they all seem to love).
All the things we do on social media thus have an added layer of meaning beyond that of the specific act itself because everything we do on social media is essentially building our “brand” as an individual on the internet. When I share a Ross Douthat column on Facebook I am not simply sharing reading material with people; I am advertising to anyone who can see my Facebook page that I, at the very least, like this particular argument or column or essay by Ross Douthat.
Realistically, few followers will treat individual posts this carefully. They will see that posting, particularly if they have seen me post other Douthat pieces, as a more general statement about my beliefs, my fondness for Ross Douthat, or my general agreement with his Christian communitarian sensibilities. I am, as it were, creating a character called “Jake Meador” that will exist in the minds of people who follow me or are connected to me on social media.
This character that we create online will exist not entirely separate from our daily life in our local places, but also not entirely in sync with it either. You aren’t a wholly different person online, but your online life can exist parallel to your life rather than being within it or on top of it, as it were. As a result, the person we are online will, over time, begin to shape who we are offline which will, in turn, reinforce our online persona. This persona we cultivate online will exist in a kind of suspended reality removed from the economies of our daily lives. By “economies” I mean simply the relationships, customs, and networks that shape our relationship to the material world.
And this is the key point: Communities embedded in local economies shape you as a person in ways fundamentally different than the shaping that happens in online communities. Communities belonging to a local economy will force you to associate with and meet with people you would not otherwise know if left only to your own devices.
To take one trivial example, back in college my friends from my campus ministry and I would go out for a smoke after large group because we were Christian hipsters and I’m sorry please stop judging me. (I would tell you what ministry we were with but if you know anything about evangelical campus ministries you can probably guess.) The smoker’s area outside the student union was relatively small, however, and so we often ended up sharing the space with kids from the campus newspaper.
So for 15 minutes on Thursday evenings, the evangelical Christians and the non-religious campus newspaper kids (who often would make fun of the evangelicals) would share that space and actually have to be around each other and see what the other group is really like. (We didn’t talk much to each other and I doubt anything came from it, but even so, we saw more of each other there than we would anywhere else.)
And when you actually have a specific person in mind when you think about a group of people (rather than some vague, disembodied entity that is RUINING AMERICA) it forces you to actually reckon with your neighbors as neighbors and not as some impersonal force that you insult on social media in your spare time.
At its best, these encounters can create humility in us by showing us all the things we don’t know about that group and it can make us more empathetic as we actually get to know them and see them as a human being with whom we share a surprising amount of things.
This point is, incidentally, one of the main factors many people mention explaining how rapidly our culture has shifted in its views of marriage. As we saw more shows like Will and Grace and patronized businesses owned by gay or lesbian individuals we were forced to see these people primarily as human beings rather than as some sort of unspeakable monster. And that empathetic encounter combined with the implicitly genderless understanding of marriage that we already had made a cultural shift on marriage almost inevitable.
All of this is necessary background as we consider the rise of virtual communities of church leavers that exist online. In previous posts in this series, I mentioned that one of the chief difficulties for people who leave unhealthy churches is in finding community after they leave. Often churches like the ones being discussed in this series are heavily insular and, as long as you’re in, do community life really really well. So leaving them is incredibly difficult, if for no other reason than the fact that you’re leaving behind what may well be the only community you have.
This is where the internet comes in: Because the internet makes it very easy to join affinity- or experience-based communities, many people who leave difficult or dysfunctional churches find each other online either via blogs maintained by the professionally disillusioned or through sites intended to reach people in their specific situation.
In one sense, searching out these communities is a normal, understandable move for anyone who has just left a difficult church. Having been there myself I know how confused and alone one can feel during that time. It’s natural to want to find others who have been there and ask them for help. But joining these online communities can be a fraught thing for all the reasons discussed above.
Because these groups all exist online, rather than being grounded in true local economies of some kind, the communities can easily come to be defined and constrained by the aggrieved status their members wish to claim for themselves. And this has many disastrous consequences. In the first place, anyone who is seen as being responsible for the real or perceived injustice a member has experienced can quickly become something less than human. If you’ve read Frank Schaeffer’s writings on the men his father associated with in his later years, you’ve seen how this works. Matthew Paul Turner’s Churched is much the same, but may be even pettier than Schaeffer’s recent writings. But secondly, and more important still, because this community is removed from local economies there probably are not going to be personal encounters that happen that would challenge the truncated portrayal of other groups of people.
If I’m an evangelical Christian who eats at the local vegan place semi-regularly because they make amazing soup, I’ll actually get to know the people who work there and maybe will stop seeing them as an imminent threat to life and liberty. We’ll see each other and maybe even begin to trust each other. Or, if I’m a gay-rights activist who meets an executive from Chick-fil-a I might actually start to see him as a human being who can care about me as an individual, even while holding to certain views I find abhorrent.
The danger, in short, with turning to the internet to provide a therapeutic salve to one’s soul after leaving a difficult church is that disembodied communities can only do certain things. They are good for brief discussions of shared personal experiences and for the venting that is sometimes necessary in those groups. They’re also great for exchanging and debating ideas. There is, to be sure, much that they can do. But they typically cannot create the sort of interactions that help us to actually see and love our neighbor, even if they are different than us and, especially, even if they have wronged us.