Social Media Friendships Might Be More Special Than We Realize

At Grotto Network, Millennial editor Robert Christian writes:

When distorted by hyper-individualism, being authentic can become associated with things that are superficial and ephemeral, behavior and preferences that are unrelated to who a person is at their core — their deepest values and the unique position that each occupies in the world of persons. A distorted sense of authenticity might inspire one to create a distinct social media identity that is closely linked to a particular lifestyle, mood, or look that the person values, but that only reflects a fraction of the person’s everyday life. Genuine authenticity is more likely to impede the construction of this separate identity and narrow picture of reality.

My friend’s feed was not filled with staged shots, skinny arm, and an endless parade of good news. It looked like real life. There were countless cute photos of her darling daughter, but these included ones where her daughter was sick or causing trouble, like little explorers so often do, or disrupting her work. She was very active on social media and her feed was fun, but we got to see a mom who got tired or had a new mess to clean up or could laugh at a slightly awkward moment. I saw a real person, a real family, and it created a sense of connection.

Bonds of solidarity often grow through shared experiences — and the joys, struggles, and sheer hilarity that often accompany parenthood are well-suited for creating such bonds. But in an increasingly atomized society, where intermediary institutions are crumbling and countless forces are fostering a (sometimes involuntary) lived individualism, strong bonds of friendships and solidarity are more difficult to realize and sustain…

as we consider the limits (and disastrous ills) of social media, we should not ignore the ways it can enrich our lives if used wisely…

Sometimes that means having the opportunity to follow the lives of our loved ones across the country more closely and to share more in their everyday experiences. But it can also mean developing a greater sense of connection and solidarity to more casual friends — the depths of which may not be known until an acute moment of joy or sorrow reveals how much we care.

Pope: Use Internet, Social Media to Foster Communion Not to Spread Hatred and Lies

Here are some highlights from the Message of the Holy Father Francis for the 53rd World Day of Social Communications:

Ever since the internet first became available, the Church has always sought to promote its use in the service of the encounter between persons, and of solidarity among all…

If the Internet represents an extraordinary possibility of access to knowledge, it is also true that it has proven to be one of the areas most exposed to disinformation and to the conscious and targeted distortion of facts and interpersonal relationships, which are often used to discredit.

We need to recognize how social networks, on the one hand, help us to better connect, rediscover, and assist one another, but on the other, lend themselves to the manipulation of personal data, aimed at obtaining political or economic advantages, without due respect for the person and his or her rights. Statistics show that among young people one in four is involved in episodes of cyberbullying

Moreover, in the social web identity is too often based on opposition to the other, the person outside the group: we define ourselves starting with what divides us rather than with what unites us, giving rise to suspicion and to the venting of every kind of prejudice (ethnic, sexual, religious and other). This tendency encourages groups that exclude diversity, that even in the digital environment nourish unbridled individualism which sometimes ends up fomenting spirals of hatred. In this way, what ought to be a window on the world becomes a showcase for exhibiting personal narcissism…

While governments seek legal ways to regulate the web and to protect the original vision of a free, open and secure network, we all have the possibility and the responsibility to promote its positive use…

How, then, can we find our true communitarian identity, aware of the responsibility we have towards one another in the online network as well?…

God is not Solitude, but Communion; he is Love, and therefore communication, because love always communicates; indeed, it communicates itself in order to encounter the other…

By virtue of our being created in the image and likeness of God who is communion and communication-of-Self, we carry forever in our hearts the longing for living in communion, for belonging to a community…

The present context calls on all of us to invest in relationships, and to affirm the interpersonal nature of our humanity, including in and through the network. All the more so, we Christians are called to manifest that communion which marks our identity as believers. Faith itself, in fact, is a relationship, an encounter; and under the impetus of God’s love, we can communicate, welcome and understand the gift of the other and respond to it.

Communion in the image of the Trinity is precisely what distinguishes the person from the individual…. . I am truly human, truly personal, only if I relate to others…

Our life becomes more human insofar as its nature becomes less individual and more personal; we see this authentic path of becoming more human in one who moves from being an individual who perceives the other as a rival, to a person who recognizes others as travelling companions….

If the Net becomes an opportunity to share stories and experiences of beauty or suffering that are physically distant from us, in order to pray together and together seek out the good to rediscover what unites us, then it is a resource.

We can, in this way, move from diagnosis to treatment: opening the way for dialogue, for encounter, for “smiles” and expressions of tenderness… This is the network we want, a network created not to entrap, but to liberate, to protect a communion of people who are free. The Church herself is a network woven together by Eucharistic communion, where unity is based not on “likes”, but on the truth, on the “Amen”, by which each one clings to the Body of Christ, and welcomes others.

Is Twitter the Best Place for Catholic Debates?

One of the most exciting mediums for gathering news and opinion is Twitter, the online social networking service. If you follow the right people, it’s a never-ending flow of information and analysis from professional pundits and accredited journalists from around the world. In another era, so much public discourse among competing reporters would be unthinkable, but in the digital age, nobody bats an eye when a CNN news anchor shares his insights with a journalist at the Washington Post.

In addition to secular media, Twitter has also become an important source of Catholic news and opinion, where a wide range of Church-related issues are reported on and discussed. Many of the world’s top Catholic thinkers and leaders are active on Twitter, and many probably spend more time on it than they’d like to admit. Recently, I watched with fascination as a Vatican reporter, a professor of theology, and a Dominican Friar engaged in a vibrant discussion on the impact of Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum.

Yet while Twitter has emerged as one of the more interesting and popular mediums for Catholic discussion, I’ve also found it to be one of the least effective. During the Synod on the Family last fall, theologians and pundits sparred on Twitter over the issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. I watched as extremely talented writers desperately tried to construct their arguments 140 characters at a time. The result was a long stream of tweets that readers had to piece together to make any sense of what the author was saying. I’d be willing to wager that despite the hundreds of hours Catholics spent on Twitter during the Synod, few if any changed their original positions—not because of stubbornness, but because exchanging views about Catholic teaching is next to impossible to do effectively two or three sentences at a time. Realizing how futile it is to argue this way, some commentators resigned to short, fiery insults and attacks aimed at their opponents. The personal nature of Twitter can spur us to attack people rather than ideas. Amidst a heated exchange over the Synod, one high profile columnist subtly accused his sparring partner, a theologian with opposing viewpoints, of supporting heresy, which lead to even more hostility on both sides and eventually spilled onto the pages of the New York Times. Personal feuds overtook the Gospel as the main focus of what some called “the Twitter Synod”.

Twitter is not just an impractical medium for theological discussions; it’s a dangerous one. Twitter rewards nastiness and wit, and makes little time for temperance and kindness. For Catholics, specifically, I’ve seen how it amplifies divisions in the Church and leaves us amnesic about our shared faith and unity in Christ. With the arrival of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, the battles of last fall are already making a comeback on Twitter.

If you don’t use Twitter, you might ask whether the bickering on a micro-blogging site is of any consequence for the Church. I would argue that it is; rambling, vitriolic debates among top Catholic thinkers and their many followers will lead to hardened hearts and increased division in the Church, while resolving nothing.

Twitter is ideal for finding links to interesting articles and tracking news stories. And it’s even good for the occasional discussion. But it’s time we admit the obvious: complex theological debates should stay off Twitter. Magazines, blogs, websites, email, and even Facebook better provide the necessary space for discourse that Twitter doesn’t. While it’s hard to resist, I encourage Catholics, especially those in influential positions, to refrain from igniting and engaging in debates on Twitter that deserve more than a 140 character limit.

William Bornhoft is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota. He may be reached at


Pope Francis Will Be Great at Instagram

Millennial co-founder Christopher Hale has a new article at Time. He writes:

By joining Instagram, O’Loughlin argues that the pope has shown that he isn’t afraid to take risks and that he understands that for the faith to spread, it must be communicated where today’s people are and in the language they speak.

Every one of Jesus’s beatitudes was fewer than 140 characters, so there’s no reason the faith’s message cannot be delivered effectively in today’s social media era.

Pope Francis has always understood that. From the beginning of his pontificate, the Argentinian pontiff has traded in the lengthy and abstract discourses of his predecessors for a more pithy and accessible message that resonates with everyday people….

Two millennia later, Francis makes a foray to Instagram—where images are the currency of choice—to continue this proclamation of God’s invitation to a revolution of tenderness.

Days before the coming Easter festivities, that’s not a bad way for a pope begin the holiest week of the year.

You can read the full article here.

Who is My Digital Neighbor?

Last week, Pope Francis released his message for the 48th World Communications Day, “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.” Since 1967, most of these messages (and every one since 1996) have been dated for release on January 24th, the feast day of Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists. They are released several months ahead of the actual day of celebration of World Communication Day,  typically in May or June, with instructions that: “each year in every diocese of the world, by the determination of the Bishops, there should be celebrated a day on which the faithful are instructed in their responsibilities” with respect to media (Inter Mirifica 18).

Although these messages are often overlooked, I think the internet popularity of Pope Francis makes it more likely that this message will be read. Here, I’d like to offer some comments on key passages in it that I think are important, with respect both to Francis’ pontificate and to Catholic teaching on social communications.

“In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity.”

The language of unity and solidarity runs throughout the message. One of the great theological questions about the internet is how can it promote solidarity. By now, the fear of becoming an isolated individual is almost a cliché about internet usage; less frequently noted is how our engagement through media can create digital enclaves that mimic the gated community mentality we often see “in real life.” The message’s theme of a “culture of encounter” depends on a willingness to encounter “others” who might challenge our basic assumptions, experiences, and narratives. Thus, a “culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive” (2), especially from those outside our comfort zone.

“The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.”

In a tonally problematic piece for Time, Samantha Grossman (sarcastically?) sees Francis as contradicting the famous Al-Gore-created-the-internet thing, and eventually writes “True that, but like, now we can totally justify our Internet addictions. This is how God intended us to be.” This oh so clever zinger helps to reveal a point made very effectively by Jana Bennett in her Aquinas on the Web? Doing Theology in an Internet Age: the internet is part of creation by virtue of being part of human life. She investigates the internet as a “power” in the biblical sense of “powers and principalities,” arguing that we ought to see the internet not only as a created good, but as fallen, and thus capable of influencing our discipleship both positively and negatively. The possibilities of the internet are tremendous, and we ought to use our gifts positively; nonetheless, we sin through abuse of our gifts, and the internet is not exempt.

“We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind.”

One of the greatest challenges to internet-mediated solidarity is the so-called “digital divide,” which describes the differences in access (and quality of access) to the internet due to socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, geography, education, disability, and so on. It might seem hard to believe for many residents of the US (especially those of us who have come of age with such technology), but many around the world (and closer to home) do not have the same access we do. Lack of access has demonstrable effects on economic and civic participation in a wider culture, particularly in “developed” and “developing” nations.

“What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding? We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen. We need also to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us. People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted. If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.”

This is a key passage, because it notes how participation in internet culture trains our participation in discourse. We become accustomed to responding immediately, which can both discourage deliberation/reflection and encourage sniping and snark. The vision of genuine “encounter” here is not brief or instantaneous, but ongoing, intentional, and patient. Our engagement with one another is meant to take the time to grow in charity, not to fire off quick, clever, or defensive responses.

“This question can help us to see communication in terms of “neighbourliness”. We might paraphrase the question in this way: How can we be ‘neighborly’ in our use of the communications media and in the new environment created by digital technology? I find an answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is also a parable about communication. Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.”

By drawing on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Francis asks us to rephrase the scribe’s question to be “who is my digital neighbor?” Communio et Progressio defines communication as “the giving of self in love.” Communication in service of encounter means to give of ourselves in love and to receive the other in love. This is why Francis says that “communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement” : in the midst of an internet-mediated culture, we are dealing with fundamentally human questions, concerns, and hopes.

“To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.”

David Tracy describes this view of conversation in terms of the risk of conversion – we must be open to the possibility that the other will disclose genuinely new possibilities to us (see Dialogue with the Other). We are not meant to lose ourselves entirely in this process, but to come to a more full realization of the self and of the other. When communication is seen in the broader context of giving and receiving in love (rather than simply giving and receiving information), we recognize the possibility of fruitful dialogue that can encourage solidarity, foster charity, and build toward unity. But for any of this to be possible, we must be open to living and operating within this “authentic culture of encounter.”

Stephen Okey is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Saint Leo University. This article is also featured at Daily Theology.

Conflict, Complexity and Hope: The Millennial Experience

The world is awash in conflict.  The push and pull for supporters to back a particular position is broadcast and often inflamed by digital media.  Suicide bombers wager that death will bring notice to their cause.  They trade their own lives for the publicity and the chaos that ensues when their heartbeat stops.  American politicians, campaigning in a context of democracy, actively engage in attention-getting stunts that translate into tweets and re-tweets, which they hope might eventually turn into votes.  Individually, we post what we think are compelling or insightful messages to our facebook feeds and measure the reception of these posts by the number of “likes” or comments. 

I am beginning to wonder what we lose as a society when we measure the value or worth of an idea by the number of followers, tweets, likes, and hits?  How does the digital revolution contribute to the ground game for justice?  Every day, there are men and women who are laboring to affect change without the hope of a head turn, much less a re-tweet or like.  Many, many of them are simply rising with the sun each morning to face another day of hard work.  They don’t have a marketing or public relations staff advising them on what to tweet when or what image should be paired with their facebook post.  They soldier on with a deep sense of responsibility to make the common good accessible for all.

Earlier this month I started a new job in a fledgling parish-based organization tucked between the parochial school and the rectory.  Barbed wire and concrete do little to communicate the vibrancy inside the gates.  With each ring of the doorbell there is another moment of life unfolding.  I watch one of the priests, collar pushed to the side, papers balanced in one hand and a glass of water in the other, try to answer the door while also answering the phone.  Unfailingly, he greets the visitor with a smile and a kind welcome.  Meanwhile, the parish secretary holds court by the photocopier, turning out flyers for the upcoming health fair outreach.  A somewhat beleaguered young mom, toddler in tow, requests a package of diapers to bridge the days between now and her husband’s next paycheck.

I have worked in nonprofit organizations for over twelve years and several of those in settings with few resources, yet in each one, marketing was a preeminent concern.  I came to this position ready to lend my technological savvy to raise awareness of the challenges facing this inner city parish community and the good work they are doing here. Yet with each passing day I feel less and less comfortable with spending my time promoting the facebook page.  I have a front row seat to very basic Gospel principles in play.  Justice for the broken and abandoned is painfully slow to come, but it is being pursued humbly and earnestly.

One of my favorite contrarians, Wendell Berry, wrote, “I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.”  I am not ready to wholeheartedly agree with him, but I am struck by his observation.  Is my best effort spent in doing the good work or in communicating the necessity of it to others?  What role should digital visibility play in advancing a good cause?  Millennials are perhaps the first generation to have the full range of wired resources at their fingertips, but also to be aware of the complexities that progress can bring.