The Logic of Online Community

When trying to make sense of the changes that new media have brought to us, we can use either supplementary or substitutionary logic. With supplementary logic, Facebook et al. extend the range of our embodied relationships; with substitutionary logic, social media replace them. Those who want to use social media to enhance their churches' outreach implicitly use supplementary logic. Those who want to worship online and don't want to change out of their pajamas or meet other people in their messy particularity ... well, you get the idea.

A recent trip to New York City for a first meeting of the New Media Project Research Fellows reminded me of the superiority of supplementary to substitutionary logic. This happened because the neighborhood around Union Theological Seminary is so deliciously, specifically, embodiedly particular. Union itself is a marvel: its gothic architecture makes it unmistakable that this is a place with history. Niebuhr taught here; Bonhoeffer smoked and worried and decided to go home here; James Cone and Christopher Morse teach here; Serene Jones leads here. The neighborhood extends this particularity; the Jewish Theological Seminary, down Seminary Row, has a glorious crest above its door: "And the bush was not consumed." A tunnel under Union leads you to the grandeur of Riverside Church, where Fosdick and Forbes thundered. Go a few blocks south and east, and you're at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest interior church space in North America. The morning I visited, the light shone blue through the rose window, filling the clerestory with incandescent beauty. The chapel at Columbia University, with its stained glass above the altar depicting St. Paul preaching on Mars Hill, is a perfect image for situated Christian truth vis-à-vis the gods on campuses and in Manhattan.

Can Mindfulness Be Tweeted?

I attended a basketball game this winter at the University of Maryland, accompanied by an intern at my workplace, a man in his twenties. For much of the game, we chatted about everything from politics to how North Carolina is far superior to Duke in all the ways that really matter (on the court, of course). During the conversation, between glances at the game, my colleague maintained steady eye contact … with his smart phone.

Friday Links Round Up: School Lunch. Commencement. Women.

Here’s a little round up of links from around the Web you may have missed this week:

The Best of Tools, and the Worst

THE EGYPTIAN revolution started on Facebook. True. The Iranians who took to the streets last year to try to overturn a fraudulent election used Twitter to coordinate their actions and to communicate with the outside world. Also true.

I used to think that all the visionary verbiage you sometimes hear about global community, the power of connectedness, and the “hive mind” of the Web was a bunch of pothead baloney. But now I have to wonder.

Meanwhile, last fall, old-school rock and roll star John Mellencamp stood up on his hind legs and declared, “The Internet is the most dangerous thing invented since the atomic bomb.” Mellencamp was thinking mostly about the Web’s impact on artists and the arts. “It’s destroyed the music business. It’s going to destroy the movie business,” he said. But he could have added that it’s well on the way to destroying mass-market independent journalism.

Of course, Mellencamp is a bit of a curmudgeon, and I may be turning into one, too. But I still think he’s on to something. The fact is that we’ve got ourselves a paradox here. Like every other technology since the wheel, social media are tools that can be used for good and for ill.

In repressive societies, like Egypt and Iran, in which independent mediating institutions (news outlets, political parties, labor unions, universities, religious communities, etc.) have been crippled, destroyed, or co-opted, social media can be a panacea. They allow people to work around the system, cobble together free and voluntary associations, and speak their subversive thoughts out loud. This helped the Egyptians to move a million people into Liberation Square, and once that analog community in the square was established, it didn’t matter when the regime shut down the virtual one.

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