Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Church of Twitter

The NYTimes is running a short article on religion and technology: how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups have embraced facebook, twitter, etc., but with some tensions.

It is fairly well-known that evangelical Christian groups are more technologically savvy with other religious groups lagging behind. Rick Warren and Joel Olsteen were some of the first (well-known) religious figures to be found on these social networking sites. Last year, the Pope started a facebook page.

I liked how the article opened on a passion play:

Things went smoothly for the first hour of the Twitter experiment at Trinity Church in Manhattan on Good Friday in April.

While hundreds of worshipers watched the traditional dramatization of the Crucifixion from pews in the church, one of New York’s oldest, thousands more around the world followed along on smartphones and computers as a staff member tweeted short bursts of dialogue and setting (“Darkness and earthquake,” “Crucify him!”).

The trouble began in the second hour.

Twitter’s interactivity — its essence — made it easy for an anonymous text-messager to insert an unscripted character into the Passion play: a Roman guard who breezily claimed, “I’ve got dibs on his robe.” When another texter introduced a rogue Mary Magdalene, the intrusion only confirmed the obvious: Twitter’s trademark limit of 140 characters per message is no bar against crudity.

The question is: are these social networking sites somehow organizationally and intrinsically anti-authoritarian and, in fact, anti-traditional. Moreover, while they bring people together, they also keep people apart, alone with their computers. As such, are they intrinsically anti-community? Or if "anti-" is too strong a term for any of these questions, at least resistant to them?

In online debates and private discussions, leaders of all faiths have been weighing pros and cons and diagramming the boundaries of acceptable interactions: Should the congregation have a Facebook page, or should it be the imam’s or priest’s? Should there be limited access? Censoring? Is it appropriate for a clergy member to “friend” a minor?

Some recoil at the informality and unpredictability of the crowds marshaled by social media, and at their seeming immunity — even hostility — to the authority of established institutions. More deeply, some in the clergy see a basic tension between the anonymous world of online life and the meaning of religious community.

“In Judaism, we believe that God resides in the community — among people in the same room at the same time, hearing each other’s voices and looking in each other’s eyes,” said Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, who also wanted it known that he carries an iPhone and a laptop and is talking with his congregation about a Facebook page.

“But can you tweet a minyan?” he asked, referring to the quorum of 10 people required for most Jewish devotions. “I don’t think so.”


“If total control is what you want, social media will frustrate you,” he said, reprising his advice to the clergy. “But the trade-off is the ability to hear and learn, reach out in new directions.” Many clerics, desperate to connect with young people, have been like radio dispatchers using the wrong bandwidth, he said. “The young don’t do e-mail anymore,” he said. “They do Facebook.”


The anxieties are different for every group. Some Muslim clerics have told followers to avoid making statements on social networking sites that antiterrorist investigators might misinterpret as suspicious.

It is assumed to be an irresistible listening post, said Farid Senzai, research director for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Middle East policy group. Some imams advise people to avoid discussing politics, and especially to avoid mentioning Afghanistan or Pakistan, even if they have relatives there, he said.

For Roman Catholics, whose tradition requires every church in the world to follow the same liturgical script on any given Sunday, the main issue is message control. “It gets messy,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York. “When people can post comments on your site, things can degenerate unless you are constantly monitoring.”

The trade-off is that for more access to the faithful, you give up some control and you give up privacy--indeed, you may not ever know who is reading and listening and misinterpreting. You lose context. I am on a particular social networking site myself, but I tend to just keep my "friends" my friends.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Ah, twitter, the new religion:

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

I'd argue that there's something fundamentally different between using web 2.0 applications within an already established congregation/community and using them as a means of establishing community, but this article talks about these two things mostly as if they're variations on the same thing. I have a problem seeing a community among people who don't have some sort of regular contact (like the rabbi who stressed people being in the same room). Or at the very least, the kinds of communities found in electronic landscapes are very different; it's far easier to relate to someone as if they aren't really a human if you never have to see them.

For the people worried about having control, that went away a long time ago, with the inventions of print and modern capitalist structures that led to church membership basically being voluntary.