The Art of (Digital) Neighbouring

Facebook Wants a New Face by Rishi Bandopadhay
Facebook Wants a New Face by Rishi Bandopadhay

In a recent speech delivered on World Communications Day, Pope Francis reflected on the ever-shrinking nature of our world. Developments in travel and communications technology have meant that we are more connected at a global level; more aware of issues taking place on the other side of the planet; more able to share what we’re passionate about and express opinions.

The internet, he says, has opened up so many possibilities and ‘is something truly good, a gift from God.’ But it has not managed to eradicate deep-rooted divisions. Nor has the increased possibility of online dialogue always facilitated a good or fruitful exchange of ideas. So all of us must ask ourselves the important question:

‘How can we be “neighbourly” in our use of the communications media and the new environment created by digital technology?’

The whole speech is well worth a read. It raises many themes that we have covered in a recent preaching at ChristChurch London on The Art of Neighbouring, and finds answers in parables like the Good Samaritan. Pope Francis encourages his listeners to ‘boldly become citizens of the digital world’ but also warns that

‘It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closing in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness… The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness. The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people.’

We live in a digital world and much of our communication will take place not face-to-face, but via email, instant messaging and the many social media outlets available to us. So all of us, whether or not we are people of faith, ought to think through how we can be good neighbours to those with whom we rub shoulders online.

Pope Francis highlights a number of key challenges posed by communications technology, which are worth considering.

Immediacy can lead to rash expression, poorly thought through.

‘The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression.’

Sometimes the dizzying amount of information available can paralyse us in our decision-making; there is always another article to read, an opinion to consider.

Social Media can easily become a tool for narcissism rather than authenticity. We work hard to craft the image of ourselves that we wish to project to others. We select the photos that accentuate particular aspects of our lives, and hide the less flattering ones. We deploy carefully-honed bite-sized witticisms, designed to make us look more erudite than we truly are. If Social Media is a window to our soul, it’s often a rose-tinted one!

Potential anonymity can bring out the nasty side of people, as seen in the way some have have experienced astonishingly unpleasant levels of abuse on platforms like Twitter.

Communications technology can create a high level of awareness on social issues like exclusion, poverty and injustice, which may have the effect that we ‘become so accustomed to these things that they no longer unsettle us.’ And when it does lead people to engage on social issues, often it can be little more than slacktivism – low-effort approaches to engaging with social issues; tweeting, liking and sharing whatever issue happens to be trendy that day. Many commentators have complained that such practices often do more for the self-esteem of the individual than make a difference for the cause, and have the effect of making people feel they’ve ‘done their duty’, when in reality they’ve done very little indeed.

There is undoubtedly some truth in that criticism, but I’m not ready to write off social media entirely! When it is used to raise awareness and supplement rather than supplant genuine action, social media can be a powerful tool. I found Matilda’s story about her involvement in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign to be a powerful one; it began with a Facebook status but led to action.

For those of us who talk about faith-related issues online, we can often forget the breadth of our audiences. I’ve observed that many Christians seem to tweet as if only Christians are listening, and so come across as aloof, disconnected, or aggressive towards those who don’t share their views. I know that a large number of my friends and followers hold wildly different beliefs to my own, so if I’m going to talk about my faith online, I need to do so in a way that fosters genuine conversation without causing confusion or alienating people. I want to express myself in a way that helps everyone to grow in understanding and mutual respect.

Pope Francis writes,

‘Effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence”’

So here are a few questions to think through as we seek to be good digital neighbours:

  • How is my use of social media promoting genuine humanity and authenticity, rather than fostering narcissism and individualism?
  • Am I investing in both my online and offline relationships and ensuring that all of my connections are rich and life-giving?
  • When engaging on social issues, is my use of social media supplementing or supplanting other more costly – but perhaps more effective – forms of engagement: giving to causes, volunteering on a project, befriending an individual.
  • Am I engaging in sincere dialogue, respecting the opinions of others and seeking to understand their perspectives rather than bombarding them with my own message?

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