We all know that video killed the radio star, but what about social media? Has Twitter killed the theology star?
Theology has rarely been “in style” but social media has opened a door onto the once insular conversations. There was a line between popular and academic theology. Now, with Twitter and blogs, emerging academics write for an audience outside of the “guild.” At the same time, writers of varying degrees jump into blogging and tweeting as a part of their promotional strategy. In the publishing economy, this is becoming more and more essential. One’s followers in social media is seen as market potential.
The clear benefit is that an “ivory tower” discipline can begin to step out of the tower and speak so others may hear. Theologians can begin to hear their work in conversation with so many more people beyond their fellow specialists. Too many books are published for the dozen our so colleagues in the field. Just look at the footnotes and you can see a conversation between a few people. Engaging a wider population helps to stretch our vocabulary and style while at the same time inform our thinking in ways that the traditional format of guild journals and academic publishing has not yet done.
Yet, social media is also creating a bit of a different culture that brings with it a number of problems. First, it creates an air of conversation that is really non-existent without intentional cultivation. Few writers have been able to actually engage an audience and keep the conversation constructive in the process. Instead of conversation, trolls and ideological one-upmanship tend to dominate the threads. As we have seen, a number of news outlets and journals have shut down the comment sections of their webpages for that very reason.
For those emerging into the field by the nature of their formal education or in a desire to cultivate a following to support future projects, the conversations often feel like nothing more than self-referential. In academic forums this is fairly typical. It is not uncommon to sit in a conference presentation and listen to question after question from graduate students that are more about their own interests than about the paper just presented. It is kind of like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character calls out a first year grad student for his pompous recitation of the basic syllabus. “So you must be in this class, wait until next year when you read these books and you will change your mind.” Yet, in social media, such dismissiveness is akin to heresy. The democratizing assumptions in Twitter and Facebook are such that any attempt to “pull rank” is quickly labeled as mean or patronizing.
The effect is a kind of conversational throat clearing. The theologian has to defer to the readers and commentators in a way that often dismisses his or her own research and expertise. There is no room in social media for a true expert or trained practitioner. Instead, in the chaos of comments, he or she must constantly acknowledge the critiques of readers who often have only read the basic introductions to any one theological topic.
In other instances, when the commenter does have some expertise in a field, the conversation quickly focuses on that person’s understanding. In face-to-face conversations, the expectation of collegiality pushes towards connections and development. Yet, in social media the conversation often sounds like someone trying to make everyone else’s project look like their own. Of course there are ways to show the interrelationships between different theological arguments, often through questions. But the tactics and rhetoric are such that there are sentences of preface in order to not sound like a troll or a random critic.
I am beginning to wonder if Twitter and Facebook can ever really support the kind of conversation they seem to capitalize on. All we need to do is look at the number of headlines that basically say “Look at what this person said on the internet, how stupid can they be!” Or, skim the Twitter feed and see how many “gotcha” tweets have been posted in the last 30 minutes. The nature of short, pithy, and decontextualized statements the likes of Tweets and Facebook posts is based in the soundbite culture of our media. While substantive discourse can emerge, such conversation has to be filtered through the noise of trolls, snark, and flat out error. In short, the energy expended in filtering our the static quickly outweighs the benefits of the media itself. The end result is a social media “persona” that is just as one-directional (“Here is what I think on this subject”) as traditional publishing has been for centuries. Either respond to all the comments, or don’t. To filter out the dregs of trolls and off-handed remarks runs the risk of looking too self-concerned.
For those in Anabaptists circles, social media gives the feel of community when all that really exists is a connection. We often insert our expectations for high church community where relationships are a significant part of our theology, and assume that these connections give us place to confront or converse. However, community in social media is a rarity, and takes effort to cultivate. Just because you are friends on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter does not give one the capacity to “call out” or for that matter to question. In the end, such questions or comments are just more noise to filter. And when the comment or critique that we think is substantial is filleted with the dregs, it becomes personal or the silence becomes a statement made about the character of the other.
In the first centuries of Christianity, Tertullian famously asked (with a bit of rhetorical irony) “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem.” Maybe it is time to ask a similar question. What does Twitter have to do with Theology? Maybe it hasn’t killed the theology star, but it is importing expectations into the conversation that may not have been there in other media. Maybe social media in general is creating a false sense of community, giving connections the weight of true relationships. This veneer, however, is quickly shattered when someone does not respond as we think they ought. This is not to say that community cannot be encouraged, or even cultivated on-line, but rather such communities are the outliers, and thus the exception that proves the rule. Building relationships through social media takes just as much effort, if not more given the lack of context and non-verbals, as building them in face-to-face conversation.
So then, the irony should be clear. Here I am writing about the pitfalls of social media on a blog that will be shared through Twitter and Facebook. The question, then, is to you: What of theology in the social media landscape?