Promise of the Internet

Re: Religion May Not Survive the Internet — Valerie Tarico returns with more End of Religion evangelism.

“Religions have spent eons honing defenses that keep outside information away from insiders. The innermost ring wall is a set of certainties and associated emotions like anxiety and disgust and righteous indignation that block curiosity. The outer wall is a set of behaviors aimed at insulating believers from contradictory evidence and from heretics who are potential transmitters of dangerous ideas.” — Valerie Tarico

I think the headlined conclusion is completely wrong: some folks thought the rise of writing and the printing press meant The End of All Good, too, yet here we are.

But Tarico may be right about some important details. The internet has already transformed several conservative denominations in the last 15 years, and changed them irrevocably. For example, a strong, open network of progressive Seventh-day Adventists has evolved out of isolated college and university towns into a global conversation. Even if small in relation to the international membership of its home denomination, the Spectrum and related progressive web forums are  influential because they provide information and discussion channels beyond the scope of authorized church publications and Saturday morning classes.

It’s not all light, however. While open and accessible, Spectrum and similar nontraditional channels are also characterized by thick discursive conflict: comment sections feature as much misapprehension and ad hominem detours as insight and open-hearted listening. These channels are also dominated by vocal minorities while the majority of users “lurk” or monitor sites without contributing content. As a Salon respondent writes: “Extremist minorities often drive the conversation because the moderate majority can’t muster enough interest to even engage.”

Complaints about deep social polarization on and off the internet often focus on various “rabid extremists” who (so the story goes) have hijacked the public sphere and who consistently destroy opportunities for mutual engagement and respectful dialogue. It’s easy enough to observe conversations that fit that bill: cable news thrives on stalemates among energetic opposing voices, and reality television is designed to create it.

The Salon comment points to something else just as important: where is the “moderate majority” on this landscape? Are we the passive audience that extremist drama plays for? As much as we might complain about the people running public conversations, do we actively participate ourselves? Of what value are our complaints about degraded public dialogue serve if we’re apathetic about direct, constructive involvement?

As we discussed this article, a friend pointed out to me that the internet has been a boon to many denominations: it supports increased and more symmetrical connection among members. Surely this is good if society at large tends toward disconnection and less engagement person-to-person and denominations have a norm of hierarchical relationships.

But I wonder if the communities for whom the internet has been a good thing are mostly non-traditional from their start: geographically distributed, experimental, intentionally dialogic, and with a strong sub-population of early adopters. For more mainstream congregations, the net has provided some benefits and proactive leaders have capitalized on them. A whole battery of communication channels are now available to churches because of the internet. Centralized PR offices can disseminate more information in more ways: websites, social media, email, list-servs, webcasts, live-streams, and forums. Despite this, there’s almost a species-sized difference between groups that use Twitter or Facebook mainly to host discussions or facilitate support, and groups that use the same media like a univocal billboard service. The latter are often wildly unprepared for the interactive internet and the unpredictable, uncontrollable people who use it and expect feedback from site owners.

So what now? I’m still waiting for some of the internet’s promise to manifest: we were told that the net would democratize relationships and the flow of information. In some ways it has. But in other corners especially those not filled with early adopters, openness, transparency, and cross-function collaboration are second-tier values and reluctantly pursued.

My sense is that the majority of people are still interfacing with the old world’s glacial institutions and that we’re creating at least two distinct realms of experience: one actively interconnected and the other persistently disconnected. If, regardless of our groups and cliques, we need curiosity about ideas and possibilities to grow, is this bifurcation of values the best future we can imagine?

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