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Twitter, Democracy, and UFOs

Manuel Castells, receiving the Balzan Prize (the sociological Nobel) in 2013

Manuel Castells, receiving the Balzan Prize (the sociological Nobel) in 2013

Another figure from my sociological theory class that influences my thinking is Manuel Castells (pictured). He is a professor of sociology and communications at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. His theoretical focus is on the nature of modern communication with special focus on the impact of technology. In short, he argues that access to communication avenues (namely internet driven) are disruptive to previous power structures. It’s unclear, he says, how this new democratic process will play out over time. But the role of technology (twitter, Facebook, etc) have clearly played a critical role in protest movements across the globe.

Castells has been on my mind frequently since I covered him in class last month. The implications of his thought echo every day when I try to follow the twitter “conversations” on my feed. The air quotes are there because it’s not clear if the intent is engagement or the repetition of a specific comment designed to score points. I was caught up in one of those interactions for a good part of yesterday afternoon and by the end of it had a hard time understanding where individual tweets fit into the conversation.

The other day I went to Castells’ web page at USC to look over his work. One article available for download caught my attention. Titled “Communication, Power, and Counter-Power in the Network Society“, it appeared in the International Journal of Communications in 2007. It’s an interesting piece (trust me) that says much about modern cable media and internet communication. I’ll quote some pieces from the article and then try to draw out implications.

I will also analyze the process of formation of counter-power, which I understand to be the capacity of a social actor to resist and challenge power relations that are institutionalized. Indeed, power relations are by nature conflictive, as societies are diverse and contradictory. Therefore, the relationship between technology, communication, and power reflects opposing values and interests, and engages a plurality of social actors in conflict. (239)

Two things are significant in this paragraph. First, there is a tension between institutionalized power and non-institutionalized power. Technology becomes essentially disruptive to the dominance (the technical term is hegemony) of the institutional authorities. Second, where in the past we’ve had two party conflict (think classic Marxian thought of owners and workers) now we have multifaceted sources of conflict. This multiplicity of voices can often get mistakenly read in dualistic terms when something far more interesting is going on. Modern technological conversation may be more like classic New England town meetings that the bimodal world of cable news programs.

The communication system of the industrial society was centered around the mass media, characterized by the mass distribution of a one-way message from one to many. The communication foundation of the network society is the global web of horizontal communication networks that include the multimodal exchange of interactive messages from many to many both synchronous and asynchronous. (246)

The key words in this passage are “horizontal” and “multimodal”. Communication streams are occurring rapidly with multiple conversations occurring at the same time or with conversations resurfacing into new dialogue. I just saw someone retweet a comment from April. That tweet is re-introduced into a new dialogue to make a point or restart an earlier dialogue. The horizontal is important because it speaks to the equalizing force of modern media. You may be a power-broker in institutional life but I have my 140 characters and my tweet gets out there regardless.

And it is self-generated in content, self-directed in emission, and self-selected in reception by many that communicate with many. We are indeed in a new communication realm, and ultimately in a new medium, whose backbone is made of computer networks, whose language is digital, and whose senders are globally distributed and globally interactive.

Castells uses the prefix “self” three times in that sentence. The essence of this new form of communication is personal expression (earlier he calls it “electronic autism”). This is where attempts to label other participants as heretics, hypocrites, or heathen becomes problematic. People writing on the internet are attempting to communicate their thought processes (often while still in flux). But we tend to treat the written word as fixed text, not the exploration of ideas.

The emergence of mass self-communication offers an extraordinary medium for social movements and rebellious individuals to build their autonomy and confront the institutions of society in their own terms and around their own projects. Naturally, social movements are not originated by technology, they use technology. But technology is not simply a tool, it is a medium, it is a social construction, with its own implications. Furthermore, the development of the technology of self- communication is also the product of our culture, a culture that emphasizes individual autonomy, and the self-construction of the project of the social actor. (249)

There are clearly individuals who use social media to critique established institutions. There are others who simply ask their questions they don’t feel free to ask within the institutional context. Still others use social media like defensemen in a hockey game (it’s on in the background as I’m writing), assisting the institutional powers and putting the metaphorical puck back in play. What Castells catches, however, is that the democratizing impact of the medium allows for shifting definitions. There is a process of social construction operating through which people attempt to find collective understanding.

This is where the UFOs from the title come in. One of my favorite articles in the sociology of religion was written in the 1970s about a UFO cult then operating in Oregon (sadly, it turned out to be the Heaven’s Gate group who committed suicide in San Diego following the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet). The sociologists (Balch and Taylor) interviewed adherents who said they felt supported by the group and its leaders but didn’t buy the UFO stuff. They then said that the researchers couldn’t tell anyone that they had doubts. Many adherents repeated the same warning.

One of the dynamics of modern internet communication is that individuals are free to share what they think outside the dynamics of institutional sanctions. This is consistent with the central argument I’ve been making about testimony vs industry evangelicalism. The dynamic of self-expression is important to identity while it is simultaneously destabilizing institutional power.

Therefore, not only public space becomes largely defined in the space of communication, but this space is an increasingly contested terrain, as it expresses the new historical stage in which a new form of society is being given birth, as all previous societies, through conflict, struggle, pain, and often violence. New institutions will eventually develop, creating a new form of public space, still unknown to us, but they are not there yet. (258)

Here’s where all this leaves me. Twitter and Facebook have no mediating mechanisms. There are no referees who say “that was out of line” or “you’ve missed her point“. There are no structures to bring people together for dialogue (although I loved that someone suggested we start a kickstarted campaign to fund dinner for four for two competing twitter figures and their spouses!). Castells’ last sentence is timely. We need new forms of public space that allow the positive attributes of democratic, multi-vocal, authentic forms of communication without resort to power moves.

Until those forms develop, we’ll need to show the discipline to offer Grace one to another.

The Family on Parlor Walls: Ray Bradbury and Modern Media

Source imdb.com

Source imdb.com

The end of the year is when everybody seems to be reflecting on their favorite blog posts. I’ve had my own favorites (often not the ones that drew many page views), but it was more interesting to see how the blog shifted over the year. At the beginning of the year, I was writing exclusively on Christian Higher Education because I was writing a book on the topic (coming this spring from Wipf & Stock). Then I spent time focused on millennials and the way they get treated in the media. As I worked on a class in race and ethnic relations, I added issues of race and oppression. Because I was writing on the Respectful Conversation project, I began focusing on evangelicalism as it impacts the larger world. 

As the year turns, I find myself focused on some broader sociological questions that frame all these other conversations. I touched on this in my Duck Dynasty post ten days ago, but I’ve been pondering it more deeply in recent days. Issues of celebrity plagiarism, twitter fights, Wars on Christmas/Christianity, reality television and Facebook “likes” all share some similar issues in terms of how we engage culture. Somehow, contemporary society needs to learn better means of discernment so as to avoid living in continual outrage.

It’s been sixty years since Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451. In his dystopian world when books were outlawed, people spent their evenings watching wall-sized televisions that ran the latest exploits of The Family: a group of actors who provided a vicarious outlet for the otherwise humdrum characteristics of life. The Family was more important to the Herzog’s wife than anything else (except for the pills she took so that she’d be slim enough for social standards).

Bradbury died in 2012, but it would be fascinating to know his reaction to our media saturated world. His analysis of a world without books is simply too prescient. Who in 1953 would have thought that we’d hang 70 inch televisions on our walls so that passersby on the street could see what we were watching?

For all the folks putting their ten life-changing books on Facebook, information for a great many people doesn’t involve books. Research by Pew Interest in 2012 found that the median number (the 50% point of a distribution) of books read by respondents came in at 8. In more recent surveys, they found that nearly 15% of college graduates had never been to a library.

In a world without books, factoids and opinion become the coin of the realm. We have no ability to separate what is relevant from what is merely a passing claim. Everyone who encourages friends to use Snopes more to verify “can-you-believe-this-outrage” Facebook posts, the number of isolated conversations seems to increase.

Which brings me back to the entire “reality show” problem. These shows operate as semi-scripted entertainment. They don’t reflect real people with real lives. Do you know anybody who shares the lifestyle of the Real Housewives of Wherever? Are “normal” people selected for competition shows? (Early seasons of The Apprentice answered that question for us in the negative.) How is it that characters from a show about Teenage Mothers wind up as known quantities (at least for some) on supermarket check-out magazines? I saw a piece online this week about how Jon Gosselin was mad at Kate again — who cares? Even when their show was popular, I mean, Really?

Add to this the problem of continual perceived persecution. As we identify with characters, whether Phil Robertson or Mark Driscoll or Ted Cruz or Shane Claiborne or Rachel Held Evans or whoever is your favorite, we find the need to defend them against attack. As if somehow when they are criticized (even for being less than careful in their remarks), our entire belief system is being called into question. It’s simply not. They might not be concerned about comments made about them (it goes with being in the public eye) so why do we get so enraged?

Partly, this is because the people behind all these communications are not interested in exploring issues or interesting people — they are trying to run a business enterprise. That depends upon keeping their product in the public eye through any means possible. I’m not the only person not surprised that A&E reversed themselves on banning Phil Robertson. They’d gotten their week of outrage. They will undoubtedly run higher ratings in the spring when DD returns and be able to charge higher advertising rates.

Others keep our focus on outrage because it’s key to their brand. Alan Noble illustrated how this works with Fox personality Todd Starnes. (Disclaimer: I engaged in defense of Alan’s point on Facebook this morning so I’m less than objective.)  The methodology of outrage is to pick an isolated instance of Christianity not getting automatic privilege, ignore some key details, and make the instance look like some major social trend. Then they put out the distorted story on a Facebook page and ask you to share if you are outraged. And, surprise!, you do.

There are some very negative effects of these media distortions. First, our attention shifts from our own lives and those around us to these supposedly “real” people. We become alienated from our own environment, just as Herzog’s wife did. Second, we see lives of people Very Different than us. One of the byproducts of reality shows like Duck Dynasty or the Duggars (19 kids and counting) is that it creates an impression that folks who take Christian faith seriously are backwoods folks who have lots of kids and live off the land. Third, believing we are seeing “reality” keeps us from addressing real issues. If we watch the Teen Mother show, does it make us think about support for teen mothers, contraceptives, or adoption agencies? Or does it make us focus on the latest drama between this girl and that other girl (I simply don’t want to know their names)?

We treat these “reality shows” just like The Family. It reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show. Truman Burbank has lived his entire life on camera and is the only person who doesn’t know his “reality” isn’t real. Everyone watches the show: in bars, in hair salons, at home. If it was made today, we’d watch it on our phones. But the point of the movie is that Truman has to break free and live his own life. There’s an underground concerned with what “reality” is doing to Truman. In the end (spoilers, skip to next paragraph), he gets away and must make his own decisions out of the eye of a loving audience.

Bradbury didn’t foresee the impact of social media like Facebook and Twitter. But I don’t think he find it healthy. Zach Hoag wrote a wonderful piece Sunday he titled “Resolved: Quitting the Progressive Christian Internet in 2014“. He speaks accurately about the way in which our various forms of outrage have created divisions when the Church should be a collective witness to the Kingdom. I think Zach is on the right track.

I’d go a step farther. I want us to stop identifying with celebrities and reality show characters. If you want outrage, write about when you were personally wronged. Better yet, get to know the very real people down the street or those you pass at the mall. They’re way more important than those faces on television or images on the internet. They are the Very Real folks created in the Image of the Creator God.

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