Religion thrives when communication occurs between a single person and a single audience -- a preacher or a teacher addressing a congregation, or a worshiper praying directly to God. One distinctive audience is addressed, rather than the multiple audiences that are reached when the pope tweets -- or, as he did recently, posts a Throwback Thursday picture of himself on Instagram!
So what's the problem with religious leaders using social media? Today, congregations maintain Facebook pages, clergy use LinkedIn, and the pope is on Twitter, with 3.8 million followers. But I'm becoming increasingly convinced that social media can undermine religion by encouraging "one size fits all" messages, putting value on "likes" and "followers," and distracting people from a relationship with God and their nearest neighbors.
A researcher named danah boyd (who uses lowercase for her first and last name) is an authority on teenagers and the Internet, but she finds Facebook difficult to manage: "For me," she says, "it's a world of context collapse."
Context collapse is a new phrase which aptly describes the difficulty of creating a "one size fits all" message on social media. Think of what happens when you post a picture or a message on Facebook: You send this single message to numerous audiences made up of friends, family members, colleagues and neighbors. Many contexts are collapsed into one, which creates problems because normal communication requires that you connect with each of these groups in a slightly different way. Instead of clear communication, you end up with awkwardness and tension.
Messages on social media can certainly be focused, such as the sending of a Facebook message to one person, or the creating of groups on Facebook and Twitter, which can be perfect for communicating messages in a congregation. But many organizations try to reach as many people as possible, with success being measured by the number of Facebook likes or Twitter followers. As an administrator of my church's Facebook page, I am constantly being encouraged by Facebook to "get more likes" and "reach 380,000 people nearby" (by paying Facebook, of course).
"People are trying to reach as many likes as they can muster," says Martin Davis of Sacred Language Communications, a firm which helps churches and businesses with online communication. While many of the small businesses he advises measure success by the number of likes, he finds that churches on Facebook "have little idea, much of the time, what to do with it or what likes really even mean." He encourages churches to use social media for discussion and conversation, not for racking up Facebook likes and Twitter followers.
Yes, it's tempting to put time and effort into posting material that will "get more likes." But religious faith grows stronger when we take time to turn away from the world and focus on God and our nearest neighbors, instead of following the Twitter feeds of celebrities. Many Christians make this shift during the season of Lent, a time of sacrifice and spiritual growth comparable to the Muslim month of Ramadan.
John Siniff, an editor at USA TODAY, decided to give up Facebook for Lent, following the lead of his wife Monica. "Though we both love connecting with family and friends," he says, "to see who is doing what with whom, we figured that the constant distraction of Facebook would at the very least free up some time -- and that time might as well become time spent reconnecting spiritually."
Now, every time he looks at his unopened Facebook app on his iPhone, he thinks about the season of Lent. "Maybe not deep, theological thoughts," he admits, "but I think about Lent." He has discovered that social media is ingrained in every waking hour of every day, something that he didn't realize until it was gone. By giving it up, he has found that now, more than ever, he is "present in the season of Lent."
The word "religion" comes from the Latin religare, "to bind," meaning that we bind ourselves to God and to a community of faith in a particular set of spiritual practices. This bond can become unraveled by the context collapse of social media, and it takes effort to restore it. Many people joined the "National Day of Unplugging" on March 7-8, which involved putting away phones, tablets and laptops for a 24-hour digital Sabbath. According to the National Day of Unplugging website, people unplugged in order to dance, sleep, write, play, relax, reflect, reset, chill out, stay sane, and be more connected.
Yes, be more connected. Although social media promises to strengthen connections, its technology has limitations. Clicking a Facebook like or becoming a Twitter follower creates a bond, but not a strong one. We can all benefit from unplugging from the online world for a day or a season, and finding serenity and spiritual growth in a stronger connection to God and to the people closest to us.