Evangelization in a Wired World – Pope Benedict and Social Networking

According to Rachel Wagner (“Sacred Texting: When Religious Writ Gets Wired” Religion Dispatches Oct. 23, 2008), Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to use SMS (“short message service”) technology, sending out a “papal thought of the day” to Italian mobile phone users.

Upon his death in April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI followed suite — encouraging mourners with the admonition: “Let us go forth in the joy of the risen Lord and trusting in his permanent help”, and embracing “texting” during World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia.

Since that time, the Vatican has embraced the world of social-networking for the purposes of evangelization:

As with any form of technology, the myriad forms of “social networking” can be both a boon and a curse. The negative influences and detrimental effects were analyzed by Christine Rosen in “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism” (The New Atlantis Summer 2007):

Today, our self-portraits are democratic and digital; they are crafted from pixels rather than paints. On social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook, our modern self-portraits feature background music, carefully manipulated photographs, stream-of-consciousness musings, and lists of our hobbies and friends. They are interactive, inviting viewers not merely to look at, but also to respond to, the life portrayed online. We create them to find friendship, love, and that ambiguous modern thing called connection. Like painters constantly retouching their work, we alter, update, and tweak our online self-portraits; but as digital objects they are far more ephemeral than oil on canvas. Vital statistics, glimpses of bare flesh, lists of favorite bands and favorite poems all clamor for our attention—and it is the timeless human desire for attention that emerges as the dominant theme of these vast virtual galleries.

Although social networking sites are in their infancy, we are seeing their impact culturally: in language (where to friend is now a verb), in politics (where it is de rigueur for presidential aspirants to catalogue their virtues on MySpace), and on college campuses (where not using Facebook can be a social handicap). But we are only beginning to come to grips with the consequences of our use of these sites: for friendship, and for our notions of privacy, authenticity, community, and identity. As with any new technological advance, we must consider what type of behavior online social networking encourages. Does this technology, with its constant demands to collect (friends and status), and perform (by marketing ourselves), in some ways undermine our ability to attain what it promises—a surer sense of who we are and where we belong? The Delphic oracle’s guidance was know thyself. Today, in the world of online social networks, the oracle’s advice might be show thyself.

Likewise, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the implications of social networking technology in his recent missive, “New Technologies, New Relationships: Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship”, commemmorating World Communications Day:

The new technologies have also opened the way for dialogue between people from different countries, cultures and religions. The new digital arena, the so-called cyberspace, allows them to encounter and to know each other’s traditions and values. Such encounters, if they are to be fruitful, require honest and appropriate forms of expression together with attentive and respectful listening. The dialogue must be rooted in a genuine and mutual searching for truth if it is to realize its potential to promote growth in understanding and tolerance. Life is not just a succession of events or experiences: it is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this – in truth, in goodness, and in beauty – that we find happiness and joy. We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by those who see us merely as consumers in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.

The concept of friendship has enjoyed a renewed prominence in the vocabulary of the new digital social networks that have emerged in the last few years. The concept is one of the noblest achievements of human culture. It is in and through our friendships that we grow and develop as humans. For this reason, true friendship has always been seen as one of the greatest goods any human person can experience. We should be careful, therefore, never to trivialize the concept or the experience of friendship. It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbours and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation. If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.

Friendship is a great human good, but it would be emptied of its ultimate value if it were to be understood as an end in itself. Friends should support and encourage each other in developing their gifts and talents and in putting them at the service of the human community. In this context, it is gratifying to note the emergence of new digital networks that seek to promote human solidarity, peace and justice, human rights and respect for human life and the good of creation. These networks can facilitate forms of co-operation between people from different geographical and cultural contexts that enable them to deepen their common humanity and their sense of shared responsibility for the good of all. We must, therefore, strive to ensure that the digital world, where such networks can be established, is a world that is truly open to all. It would be a tragedy for the future of humanity if the new instruments of communication, which permit the sharing of knowledge and information in a more rapid and effective manner, were not made accessible to those who are already economically and socially marginalized, or if it should contribute only to increasing the gap separating the poor from the new networks that are developing at the service of human socialization and information.

* * *

On August 6, 2009, a DOS (“Denial of Service”) assault on Twitter crippled the popular social-networking site for around two hours. According to CNN, the Twitter blackout left users feeling ‘jittery,’ ‘naked’:

… for people like [Christina] Cimino, who said she “felt naked” without access to Twitter, the attacks were a serious reality check — a chance to evaluate just how dependent they’d become.

“You know how you pat your pockets for your cell phone and your keys? Well it’s that same kind of phantom [limb] with Twitter,” she said. “It’s like, ‘I can’t update! I can’t update!’ It’s just one of those bugs that gets in you.”

She added: “I was pretty upset, actually. It feels like a lifeline for me … Pretty much everyone knows almost every detail of my life by what I’m doing on Twitter.”

[…]

“Horrors!!! People will have to communicate face to face!” one user commented on CNN’s SciTech blog. …

Now that Twitter is back online, the No. 1 conversation thread on the site is called “whentwitterwasdown,” where users discuss what they did without their real-time Twitter updates.

Ultimately, I suspect this week’s outage may prompt disillusioned users to venture into the virtual frontiers of Flutter.

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