In 1991 the Australian political scientist, sociologist and historian, Paul Duffy SJ, concluded his major study1 of the role and nature of the media by arguing that if Catholics are to take the Gospel seriously, they also needed to take the media seriously.
In his book, Paul Duffy proposed a three-point strategy. Firstly Christians needed to educate themselves about the different types of media. Secondly they needed to develop a critical awareness of the socio-political genealogy of different trends and images on the printed page, the bill board and the airwaves. Thirdly, whether bishop or layperson, they needed to become adept in participating in media land while bringing to it the ‘life-giving’ ethical and theological presence of the Gospel.
Since 1993, I have found myself involved in on-line commentary, cyber-evangelising and blogging and the above insights are even more potent today.
Social media has exploded with a head spinning barrage of data, and also the ‘viral’ proliferation to new and larger ‘virtual nation’s worth’ audiences. The exposing, trans-spatial, unsleeping immediacy of cyber-generated dialogue is also tinged with the poignant hunger of people ‘out there somewhere’ yearning for ‘life-enriching’ clues and the warmth of e-relationships.
Pope Benedict XVI observed in 2011 that the cyber-era has not only digitalised data and relativised the relationship between its producer and consumer, the era has also revealed that information is a person-seeking missile: “…which is seen first of all as dialogue, exchange, solidarity and the creation of positive relations.”2
At the same time, Benedict cautions his audience to a subtle but real theological and ethical wakefulness. He points out that the virtual polis survives on a certain “one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence.”3
Christians need to be alert to the hidden and not-so hidden idols, pathologies and de-humanising practices that can be bred by social media. As both agents and audiences of social media, we need also to address these problems with the anthropological truth and beauty of our Trinitarian faith, as well as allowing ourselves to be formed in its high theological, epistemic, social and moral virtues.
Here is a snapshot of prompts to myself for virtuous cyber-practice:
- Contemplation and Mindfulness:
The cyber-ether is crammed with banal, silly, superficial, and numbnifying amounts of ‘noise’ and diversion. Life is short. Whatever the size, thoughtful content has more impact and durability than something produced by reactive fingers. Be mindful of the good reasons and probable impact of your browse or post. Mindfulness does not exclude serendipity, fun or delight. A virtual and physical deep breath before entering the fray helps! Prayer and grace subtly informs our minds.
The cut and paste-ability of online data, and the pressure for instantaneous results, means that it is tempting to ignore or forget the value of intellectual and creative labour. It is tempting to exploit or be exploited cheaply. The easy anonymity of the internet can feed the ogres, trolls and gremlins of our own vices. Avoid degrading, manipulative or toxic language, imagery or techniques about others or about oneself.
The internet is not a level playing field. Search out, appreciate and promote interpreters and sources who are truthful, wise, reliable and good. Step over gossip, sensation and personal bickering on whatever scale. Wisdom comes from discerning the cream not by hoarding flotsam.
- Humility and Teachableness:
The Holy Spirit works in cyberspace, and therefore calls forth particular gifts and talents in surprising places. It takes a brave and humble heart to work with one’s strengths, and to know personal limits and shortcomings. Social media encourages collaboration but can also breed narcissism. I have learned to be teachable by working with clever collaborators who have talents and gifts thin in my own repertoire.
- Creaturely Integrity:
Internet creation is not an end in it itself! It is good to remember we are incarnated, time-embedded and sacramental beings. Avoid being consumed by virtual stimulus like so many battery hens and roosters. Like healthy chooks, we need sunshine, exercise, and flesh and blood experience! It is important to know when to turn the computer, phone or tablet off, and to enjoy and tackle the organic reality of mind, heart and body.
– Anna Krohn
A shorter version of this article first appeared in Word Made Flesh & “Shared” Among Us, an eBook produced by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. It can be downloaded at http://goo.gl/oncoV.
2. Pope Benedict XVI, Message to the 45th Communications Day: Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age, June 5th, 2011.