Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Virtual Communities

TITLE: On Virtual Communities
Written by: Conrade Yap
DATE: 16 August 2011

"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Eph 6:12)

MAIN POINT: How social is social media? How can one build community in an online environment? Technologies may change. Not people. The same rules apply when building community. 

Times have changed. A few years ago, the words 'Facebook,' 'Twitter,' 'Google+,' and anything related to the words 'Social media'  are non-existent. Back then, we download emails on Microsoft Outlook or Mac OS Mail to read. We religiously observe limits on our dial-up Internet connection. We play Solitaire on computers. Starbucks means not just an expensive cup of coffee, but moments with dear friends.

Not anymore.

With wireless connectivity, unlimited Internet access, and increasingly portable computer devices, it is more common to see individuals on separate tables, more interested in typing electronic updates on their computers than them sipping lattes. Conversations are slowly been replaced with keyboard typing. People look down intently on their gadgets, sometimes oblivious to people around them. With a few clicks, they report themselves:

  • "Hey! I'm now sipping Latte at ABC Shopping Centre."
  • "That girl on the left outside McDonalds is gorgeous."
  • "Feeling terrible. Need a holiday."
  • "..."
Virtual cyberspace far away seems more interesting than the physical world near them. Perhaps, these people are building communities. A digital kind, that is. One that is short. Sweet. And techno-savvy. This week, I reflect on the impact of online communities, both positive and negative.

1) Short and Sweet Interaction

First, the positive. Imagine being able to keep in touch with people regardless of where they are. Going on Facebook is a wonderful way of fulfilling our promise to keep in touch. With social media, busy people are able to multitask with different relationships all at the same time. A short twitter. A quick Facebook update. And the whole world will know what is going on in your life at any one time. Easy.

With promises of the ability to do more things with less, and to reach more people with a single platform, people spend countless hours fiddling with their gadgets. Compared with the traditional email to all, one can update one's status without being accused of sending unsolicited email. After all, Facebook means sharing one's details openly and freely.
Flash Mob Dancing in Montreal

Social media is a fun and creative way to gather people together. Using cellphone texting and Twitter, short messages up to 140 characters in length have helped bring people together for all kinds of reasons. It takes a few to organize many. For instance, at Christmas time, flash mobs appear out of nowhere at various shopping malls, to belt out Christmas carols and holiday tunes. They sing and dance. They perform tricks. They provide a colourful respite in an otherwise boring and dull looking business district. One memorable Youtube video shows how a professional group sings Handel's Messiah in a food court in Ontario, Canada. That video went viral, and sparked several copycats around the world. Amid the new face of technology lies a sinister old ontology. (Note: Ontology is a technical word for the nature of being)

2) New Technology; Old Ontology

Brace now for the negative.

There are signs that the traditional demons of human sin are showing up through these new media. Something as harmless as Twitter has become another medium for crime.

(From: Youtube Video)
On August 13th, 2011, a 7-Eleven store in the state of Maryland became another victim of a worrying "Flash Rob" phenomena. Communicating and coordinating through social media, strangers walk into the convenience store, and without paying, walk out with everything their hands can carry. Outnumbered. Outgunned. Out of luck, the store employees are helpless as they watch young teens storm the store, taking things out of the door nonchalantly without paying. This is looting, coordinated by Twitter, and text messaging.

Another trend is that of organizing flash mob attacks. In Philadelphia, a group of black kids gang up via Twitter, to bash up a white man. There is also another flash mob version where innocent unsuspecting bystanders are either beaten up or robbed. All it takes is a few individuals to tweet a plan and a place. At the specified time and location, the crime occurs.

In Vancouver, and more recently, in the UK, he police have identified how thugs and thieves have used Twittering and texting to create 'Flash Riots.' Emboldened by their numerical superiority, young people exhibit thuggish behaviour and rationalize their actions by blaming the government, the rich, and the 'corrupted' systems they are living in. I am saddened to see such developments. New technology has not changed the age-old human nature. It is simply given sinful human being a new channel to display its warped personality. One can blame the system for all its flaws. One can complain about how unfair the society is treating them. However, using it to justify one's crime is pure absurdity and stupidity. This is no way to build any community.

Key Point: New Technologies do not replace the old nature of being. Flash mob as a trend is a dangerous way to harm society. 

3) Social Media is Not Neutral: It is a Principality

One common argument that I have heard about technology is that it is a 'neutral' device. Like money, they say that it is not technology but the 'love' of technology that is the root of all evil.
"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." (1 Tim 6:10)
Unfortunately, those who says this miss out the meaning of 'philarguria.' In the Greek, there is no separate word for 'money.' It is essentially 'love of money' in one word: 'philarguria,' translated sometimes as love of silver, or some form of covetousness. One professor I know and respect has dismissed any notion of 'money' being a neutral device. Like a dancing prostitute enticing lonely men by flaunting flesh, can anyone honestly say that the prostitute is 'neutral.' Whether the girl is led into the flesh trade by choice or by consequence, plying the trade does not make the participant any more neutral than the Twitter messages urging young teenagers to commit a crime. In the hands of evil, nothing is neutral. We are reminded about spiritual warfare. The King James Version translates 'spiritual forces' as 'principalities.'
"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." (Eph 6:12, KJV)
Eugene Peterson renders Eph 6:10-12 very vividly as follows:
"And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no afternoon athletic contest that we'll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels." (Eph 6:10-12)
If something is 'neutral,' surely we do not need to put up any defense? Unless, it is NOT neutral, but is bent on deceiving us. In asking us to put on the armour of God, we are to be on the defense against 'everything the Devil throws' in our direction. This kind of 'everything' is masqueraded often in the 'neutral' stance. Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, there is a certain purpose behind the use of such 'neutral' devices. The evil one uses it to distract, to deceive, and to devour the unsuspecting person. Can we honestly say that such principalities are so 'neutral' that we let down our guard? No!

4) Building Online Communities

It is not impossible to establish healthy online communities. It just needs a little more creativity. Instead of using social media to commit crime, why not use it for good? Why not use it constructively to encourage one another? Why not use it to bring hope and good news to all? It is all possible.

First, we need to be aware of the positive and negative impact of social media. It can be used for good as well as for evil. The examples mentioned above can be quite scary and discouraging. Social media is here to stay. It will not easily go away. May I suggest that our attitude with regards to social media be one of 'suspicion' rather than outright acceptance. Learn to apply the quad-filter test. Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it truthful? Is it just?

  • Necessity Test: "Sensational news may be entertaining at first. Is it necessary to share it?"
  • Helpfulness Test: "How can this benefit the virtual community I am in?
  • Truth Test: "Is what I am going to share, something that is true, or is it a hoax?"
  • Justice Test: "Should I report this to the police?"

The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (Spiritual Legacy Series)One of the most loved spiritual guides of all time is St Benedict's "The Rule of Benedict." Written more than 1500 years ago, St Benedict establishes a guide for his community of monks that are to be strictly followed. The intention is to maintain order, and enact effective guidelines for individual devotion and community living. One may think that such a guide will contain lots of contemplation, prayer, and worship materials. Wrong. In fact, in his chapter entitled: "The Tools for Good Works," he calls one to love God fully, and do no harm to others. He writes:

First of all, 'love God with all your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself." Then the following: "You are not to kill, not to commit adultery; you are not to steal nor to covet, you are not to bear false witnesses. You must honour everyone. and never do to another what you do not want done to yourself." (St Benedict, The Rule of Benedict, compiled by Joan Chittister, New York, Crossroads, 2010, 56)
Great reminders. We need that. May the love of God compels us to stay vigilant against all kinds of principalities of this world, especially the social media network.

Next week, I will be writing on some additional pointers how to establish healthy virtual communities.

Thought: "Your way of acting should be different from the world's way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love. Bind yourself to no oath lest it prove false but speak the truth with heart and tongue." (St Benedict)


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  1. Money is just a tool/instrument and is indeed neutral, it is the 'love of money', a form of covetousness, that is not. The prostitute analogy is flawed ! Almost mistaken the writer for an Amish ...

  2. BTW, if it is possible or achievable to 'love God with all your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.", then Jesus need not have come as we will all be so perfect already !

    As for "You are not to kill, not to commit adultery; you are not to steal nor to covet, you are not to bear false witnesses. You must honour everyone. and never do to another what you do not want done to yourself.", it's just a partial rehash of the 10 commandments. But more to the point, lets move the pulpit from Mt Sinai to Mt Zion, the glorious new covenant !