The Separation of Church and Status

When the Princeton Theological Reviewasked me last summer to contribute an article to their latest issue (themed “The Church After Google”), I was honored and thrilled. Thinking about the role and impact of technology/new media on the church is certainly one of my biggest intellectual interests. The piece I came up with for PTR took a critical look at social networking within church life: "The Separation of Church and Status: How Online Social Networking Helps and Hurts the Church." You can click on the link above to download the whole issue (which contains a lot of great articles), or read an excerpt from my article below:

The Paradox of Public Intimacy

Facebook and Twitter are, above all, forums of public communication. Whereas in former eras we might never know who all of our friends’ friends were, where our pastors were, or what conversations our cousins or sisters or bosses were having (and with whom) in real time, all of that is now the norm on social networking sites.  Private conversations are now out in the open, displayed on “walls” and Twitter profiles for all to see, and we actually prefer it that way.

Analogous to the now regular, but terribly annoying, cultural habit of loudly engaging in a phone conversation on subways, in elevators, or pretty much anywhere for all to hear, this online relational exhibitionism favors public bursts of communication over private email messaging, just as the cell phone rendered  the privacy of the phone booth moot in the onward march to mobile telephony.

In the world of Facebook, our “friends” are almost destined to become collectible commodities and status symbols, things we collect to adorn the “walls” of our own online environs. We strategically “friend” people on Facebook or “follow” them on Twitter, and then we post things on their wall or tag them in a post to publicly consummate the relationship.

Twitter is built on the notion of public conversation. The process of gaining followers—the ultimate purpose and goal on Twitter—is aided by the “reply” system, where you tag another user with the @ symbol in your “tweets” of 140 characters or less. Each time you engage with another @user, the conversation, often comprised of two or three messages back and forth, is made public and an association is cemented.

As with Facebook, the whole culture of Twitter revolves around and is sustained by public relationships and a type of communication that is between individuals but observable by vast numbers of people. We love Facebook because we can spy on acquaintances and research who they communicate with regularly, and in what manner. We love it because if we want to “be seen” talking to someone, perhaps to make a point to someone else, it’s as easy as a quick wall post.

What else can this be but a performance, an exercise of power wherein which we can regulate and micromanage our very specifically staged social spheres? If this is really about relationship-oriented communication founded on intimacy, then we would just email people privately. If our “friends” were really important relationships to us, we would spend time with them in person or on the phone, and we would not care that the public was privy to the fact that we were in a relationship. This is one of the problems with social networking in general. It cheapens the very idea of “relationship” by making it a public and oftentimes performative act.  It can sometimes make friendship a mercenary act, a utilitarian activity akin to “knowing the right people” to gain traction or respect in an upwardly mobile profession.

Social networking also cheapens relationships because it removes intimacy and puts all our “friends” onto the same plane. We disclose rather significant things about ourselves (“We’re engaged! Having a baby! Mourning the death of…”) with the entire collective rather than to any sort of “inner circle.” I have heard more than one person tell me how disappointing and almost betraying it felt to hear “major” news about one of their close friends broken to them via Facebook where hundreds of others also heard it for the first time.

Pastor and technology critic Shane Hipps captures this tension well in his book, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith:

Intimacy happens the moment we are invited into the exclusive VIP room of another person’s life. Intimacy always follows the statement, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before.” These are risky words of deep trust and vulnerability. The exclusivity of personal information creates the conditions of intimacy. That intimacy is preserved in that relationship as long as the information remains exclusive. The moment it is available to anyone and everyone is the moment intimacy begins to evaporate.

If Christian pastors and churches are truly hoping to leverage social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter to “build community,” one hopes they are thinking seriously about what sort of community it is they are cultivating. Sure, Facebook might make it easier to keep tabs on large numbers of peoples’ lives, but is “keeping tabs” really a relationship? Facebook creates the illusion that by being constantly in touch with a person, you can know them more; that by accepting a “friend request,” you have made a real life, human connection. But  have you? Facebook allows us to have a broad network of “contacts,” but how  intimate are “contacts?”

As Christians, if we truly believe that each human is a precious being—that, as C.S. Lewis put it, “there is no mere mortal… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses”—then shouldn’t we be seeking to truly know others rather than to simply “keep tabs on” them through short updates, photo albums, and wall posts?