Covenant-making and context collapse

A few weeks ago I made a joke that took on a life of its own. Sorry if it’s taken you all that time to erase it from your memory, only for me to remind you again. I tweeted a picture from the Bible of Jean de Sy, which depicts Abraham’s circumcision in Genesis 17:

It’s a peculiar picture for many reasons – the orange boots, the choice of what looks like butter knife, the fact that Abraham performs the act himself (Genesis 17.24, 26 simply says he was circumcised, but doesn’t say who did it), the pointing angel whose contribution to the story is ambiguous and led to a plethora of suggested captions. It amused me, and I thought it may amuse a handful of others.

A couple of days later it had received 21.6k likes, over 3k QTs/RTs, 2 million impressions, and more than 500 responses.

Before this, my only experience of anything close to going viral was an article about The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and the Unintended Consequences of Failure Porn, which has been read around 37k times. And my most popular tweet was a Star Wars joke from 2015, which also featured poor Father Abraham and gained what I now consider to be a measly 800 likes, 422 RTs/QTs, and 145k impressions:

Between Porn and the Patriarchs, I seem to have found myself an unexpected (and unwanted) niche!

It was an odd experience, watching the image spread. I didn’t enjoy it. Over the course of two days, I felt I could clearly see the moments the tweet crossed over from one audience to the next.

For the first morning, it seemed to stay in the realm of the kind of people I follow and who tend to follow me – mainly Christians of a broadly evangelical mould. The responses were warm and witty, and many of them made me laugh out loud. (I especially enjoyed this video, which Michael Bird shared.) By the evening, it had spread to Christians of a more progressive type, who again were largely amusing and light-hearted. Then as more of the exvangelicals jumped on board, the tone became a little more mixed. Still plenty of good-natured humour, but with a few slightly more barbed comments about the brutality of the Old Testament, or the dangers of Christian literalism.

By the next morning, it was all quite different, and thanks to a few RTs from some high-profile agnostic/atheist comedians, the tweet had reached a more sceptical or hostile crowd, and the responses became increasingly crude, anti-religious, and – to me at least – offensive. A lot of snarky comments about God, the barbarism of genital mutilation, and the insanity/idiocy of anyone who takes an ancient book seriously, or practices any kind of religion. By the end of the second day it had gone beyond full circle, back to a far more conservative fundamentalist Christian crowd, who had seen the tweet through the lens of the mocking and hostile commentators, and assumed I shared their anti-religious views. A few of them sent me replies or DMs telling me I was guilty of inciting people to blasphemy and informing me that I was therefore cursed for bringing contempt upon Abraham (Genesis 12.3).

At that point I quickly learnt how to mute notifications, restrict DMs, and went on holiday. So who knows what happened next? I’m not inclined to turn them back on and find out.

What I experienced over those couple of days was the phenomenon known as Context Collapse. This occurs when material intended for one audience makes its way into the feeds of another, and another, and another… with each subsequent audience failing to understand the original context. Often each new interaction becomes less charitable, the further the people find themselves from the original target audience.

To be honest, I didn’t start out with an intended audience in mind. I just tweeted something I found amusing, and assumed my small band of followers might too. But as it spread, people brought their own perspectives to bear on the tweet and made assumptions about my original motivation for sharing it. People assumed that the reasons they found it amusing were the same reasons I did, whilst others assumed I held a view I emphatically don’t, by interpreting my intentions through the lens of my commentators.

I found it interesting to notice what this did for my emotions over a couple of days. At first I enjoyed the interactions, a good number of which made me LOL. But as time went on and the tone got hijacked, I felt a range of emotions. I felt disappointed, disgusted, angry, and yes a little guilty and ashamed. I did question whether I bore the responsibility for the crude and anti-religious responses, and whether I should just delete the tweet. I contemplated responding to people, to clarify my motives, but I quickly decided against it. For one thing, most people weren’t deliberately trying to offend me; they just lacked the context of who I am, what I believe, and why I had tweeted the image in the first place. And for another, Twitter is not known for facilitating reasonable dialogue!  

So, I don’t really have any profound conclusions. I don’t think I regret posting the image, but I didn’t enjoy those 15-minutes of… whatever that was. I’m glad I don’t have a bigger online reach than I do – it’s exhausting, and not especially desirable. I’ll definitely think more about context and audience going forward, both with the things I post, and the way I view tweets from others. Especially those outside my normal circles.

And I have made three immediate decisions:

  1. In the future, I’ll be making more use of the ‘mute notifications’ and ‘who can reply’ features.
  2. I won’t post any Abrahamic memes for the foreseeable future.
  3. Although I’m very curious, I’ll resist the urge to see if Gibeath-haaraloth has ever been depicted in stained glass (cf. Joshua 5.3). If you want to go for it, be my guest. Just think twice before you share what you find!

If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

Photo by Hester Qiang on Unsplash

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