An April 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age,” documents major growth in social networking among Americans since 2008. The number of people who use social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter has risen from 26 percent of the general population (33 percent of the online population) in 2008 to 60 percent of the general population (69 percent of the online population) in 2012.
The study, which focused specifically on political activity online, also found that social networking sites are rapidly becoming important venues for political involvement, learning, and debate. For instance, in 2008, 3 percent of adults posted political content on social networking sites, compared to 19 percent of adults in 2012. The trend is especially pronounced among young adults ranging in age from 18-24, of whom 67 percent used social networking sites for political activity in the 12 months before the survey.
While “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age” didn’t measure religious use of social networking sites, similar trends in this arena are likely. Americans—at least those with the time and money to sit in front of a computer screen—increasingly participate in the communal dimension of life online. This development discourages plenty of religious leaders who perceive online religious networking as a threat to the health of religious life in local communities. Others, however, look to the growth of digital communication as an opportunity for religious entrepreneurialism and innovation. Still others take a pragmatic approach to changing patterns of communication: If the digital platform is becoming the vehicle of choice for human communication, we’d better get on board so we don’t miss the ride.
The issue of embodiment features prominently in the debate about the value of social networking and other digital tools for contemporary religious life. A dualism that divides the human person into soul and body and elevates the former over the latter, is deeply embedded in popular Christian sensibility. Even so, creation and incarnation remain pivotal theological categories. Bodies matter in Christian theology, and human relations are necessarily bodily. Do our posts, tweets, and blogs end up disembodying ourselves and our relationships with others? Or is social networking an extension of our embodied existence?
Added to worries about digital communication’s potential to distance us from our bodies are concerns about web technology’s impact on our capacity to be in community. Declines in social attachment over the last generation have been well documented by social scientists. Robert Putnam’s now classic book, Bowling Alone, shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, religious and civic institutions, and democratic structures. But what role, if any, digital technologies play in our increased isolation is a complicated question. Perhaps digital technologies, paradoxically, render us both more alone and more connected at the same time.
The digital sphere, while altering the way humans relate to one another, does not necessarily compromise the mandate for humans to embrace bodily existence in community. Online communication is no less legitimate and no less transparent than “real life” interactions. Face-to-face communication is not interchangeable with digital communication, but media theorists suggest that people’s online activities are largely continuous with their offline ones. Moreover, to the extent that social networking pushes us into non-physical religious engagement, historical precedence has already been set. As Jason Byassee has observed, the Christian church, as a missionary oriented and geographically dispersed community, has been a “virtual body” since its birth. The Apostle Paul wrote that the church is one body with many members, spanning time and geography. Paul’s form of pre-digital communication—his pastoral letters written to Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean region—suggest that those who form religious community online are by no means the first or only people to see themselves as members of a virtual religious group.
This week, Verity Jones, founder of the New Media Project and executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, will be leading a writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute about the intersection of digital communication and religious life, entitled “Posts, Tweets, Blogs, and Faith.” Envisioning the Internet as a new public square, Verity and 12 workshop participants from around the country will discuss how the Christian values of embodiment and belonging play out on the digital platform. They will also explore how people of faith can make compelling contributions to the digital landscape. We are excited to welcome this group to the Collegeville Institute. Stay tuned to learn more as the workshop unfolds.
Images: Ebayink. Tablet use 1. Available from: Flickr Commons.
Scherm, Tanja. Collage of Digital (Social) Networks. Available from: Flickr Commons.