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Features

Connect, reflect, respect

Neil Pugmire

Instant but distracting, fascinating but often unreliable, social media can render us unwitting PR officers of the self. Neil Pugmire shows how churches and their congregations can turn unprecedented connectivity into genuine dialogue.

 

It's no exaggeration to say that social media has fundamentally changed the way we interact, both with our friends and with those we don't know. Before Facebook, we might write letters to individual friends, ring them up or visit them. Now suddenly we can interact with hundreds of friends simultaneously, sharing our news, photos and web links with (seemingly) everyone we've ever known. Twitter allows us to share ideas and opinions publicly, and to communicate directly with celebrities and experts as never before.

Much of this is good. We can instantly share photos of our new baby, bring an issue to the attention of our MP, request help from a like-minded group, and even create online communities. It can introduce us to helpful websites, thoughtful blogs and important issues not covered by the mainstream media.

Christians can use social media to share ideas about faith, promote church activities, spark dialogue and counter misconceptions. In many ways this has advantages over more traditional channels of communication: it's rooted in dialogue, rather than one-way broadcasting; it's immediate, because there is no timelag; and it relies on networks of friends and colleagues, whose opinions we tend to trust.1

The other advantage is to do with the sheer numbers of people involved: 1.2billion active users of Facebook, a billion YouTube users, 650m on Twitter and even 540m on the much-derided Google Plus2. In December 2014, Instagram claimed to have overtaken Twitter, reaching 300m users compared to the 284m 'active' users of Twitter (the word 'active' is much debated)3. At any rate, using social media can certainly help your church reach more people than a tatty poster on a noticeboard.

But there are specific dangers worth talking about. Social media is changing us - and we need to recognise that in order to know what we can do about it.

PROMOTING SELF

Although social media seems all about dialogue, most of the time we are promoting ourselves. Unlike normal conversation, few of our status updates begin: 'So, how are you today?' Instead we share our latest achievement, holiday snaps or quirky encounter - often with the ubiquitous selfie. We have unwittingly become PR officers for ourselves, subconsciously shaping an image of ourselves as fun, popular or well-read.

We share the photo of ourselves with friends at Wembley Stadium or the Eiffel Tower, not the day we're at home in our pyjamas. We use an Instagram filter to make our selfie look achingly attractive. Then we then invite people to like or comment on what we are up to, hoping for approval.

Those who do share that they are feeling sad may be seeking reassurance from others that they are still loved. In many cases, it's entirely appropriate for online friends to rally round someone having a bad day. At other times, such behaviour can just be attention- seeking or border on emotional manipulation.

SEEKING ATTENTION

Even those who are keen on being 'citizen journalists' - giving us live updates on traffic jams, urban riots or just commenting on what we're all watching on TV - may do so because they like the buzz of being first with the news. It's important to them that their update is retweeted or shared, not someone else's.

Researchers in the USA studied the habits of 294 students, aged from 18-65, and discovered that those with more Facebook friends were more likely to be 'socially disruptive narcissists'4. Such people might respond aggressively to derogatory comments or say shocking or inappropriate things in order to be the centre of attention. They would be more likely to accept friend requests from total strangers and seek social support, but less likely to provide it. It's not clear if Facebook is simply reflecting or creating this kind of behaviour, but we should be aware it is happening.

DOWNPLAYING KNOWLEDGE

Social media thrives on the fact that we trust our friends more than we trust commercial firms or seemingly faceless organisations. Hence social media advertising - and other review websites - will play on the fact that our friends like a certain product in order to sell things to us. Sometimes we are grateful for a steer in the right direction.

But that tendency sometimes means we share or retweet information which simply isn't true, just because we trust our friends to have got it right. But of course, they have also done the same. That can mean inaccurate information about immigrants claiming benefits or schools being banned from staging Nativities is passed on without checking who is saying so.

Among the many examples was one uncovered by the Spectator5, which investigated a series of photos showing the House of Commons debating issues such as MPs' pay or expenses (when the chamber seemed to be full) and the war in Afghanistan, sexual abuse, or Syrian refugees (when few MPs seemed to be there). Various sets of similar photos (or 'memes') had gone viral. People shared them because they tapped into the perception that greedy MPs were only interested in themselves.

The reality was more complex - some 'full' photos were taken at Prime Minister's Questions, when a whole range of important issues would be touched on, and some 'empty' photos were taken after a specific debate had been going for hours.

EMOTION AS INFORMATION The most effective currency on social media is emotion, not information. People respond more often to social media updates that are emotionally engaging - whether they are funny, touching or appear unjust - so it's easy for some organisations to play on our fears. The mainstream media can do the same, but there are laws of libel and guidelines about the right of reply that help to limit some extreme views. But if my friend passes on what seems like a horrifying statistic in an easy-to-digest format, and all I have to do is press 'share', 'like' or 'retweet', it's tempting to do so. It may never cross my mind that it's not true.

The cumulative effect is that many people assume that there are more illegal immigrants, paedophiles, benefit cheats or radical Muslims than there actually are. A UK survey for the Royal Statistical Society and King's College, London, in 2013 revealed 10 common misconceptions along these lines6. For instance, people thought 24 per cent of all benefits were claimed fraudulently - the actual figure was 0.7 per cent. They thought 31 per cent of the UK population were recent immigrants, whereas the actual figure was 13 per cent. Ultimately, this may contribute to us living in a more fearful society than is strictly necessary.

HERD DISTORTIONS

Social media promotes what people are already talking about. The Facebook algorithm and the Twitter trending list highlight what is already popular. The implication is that these things are also the most important. Of course, there are more important things in the world than a reality TV star's naked body or a comedian's ill-judged joke. But it is those things that lead to Twitterstorms or so-called 'breaking the internet' events.

The mainstream media can easily focus on the trivial too. But social media allows us to tune out of anything we don't want to hear about. We can 'follow' or 'like' only information about those celebrities, TV programmes or events that interest us. Unlike watching 'News at Ten' or reading a broadsheet newspaper, we are less likely to stumble across something significant.

Not only that, but in the social media world - where all content is user-generated - it's easy to read opinion as fact, especially if it is negative. If a person or an institution is branded 'homophobic', 'racist' or 'corrupt' enough times, that can become their defining characteristic.

SOLIDIFYING CARICATURES

A quick look at the comments section of any online newspaper article about Christianity shows how angry people feel - rightly or wrongly - about the Church or organised religion. Misconceptions such as 'all wars are caused by religion' and 'most priests are paedophiles' are banded about as if they are incontrovertible facts. It's interesting how quickly attitudes to the Church have switched from apathy to anger over the past few years. Perhaps there's a link with how easy it is to read such opinions online?

Some believe that social media amplifies the concerns that women have about their bodies. It's bad enough seeing celebrities with 'perfect' bodies, but if my friends are also sharing photos filtered via Instagram of themselves looking 'hot', how will that make me feel? A 2013 survey showed that only 33 per cent of 14- and 15-year-old girls felt good about themselves, compared with 41 per cent as recently as 2007. The main reason given was the way they looked, over and above academic prowess or a happy family life. A staggering 62 per cent wanted to lose weight. This self-esteem index peaked in 2007, which coincides with the time when social media started to become widespread7.

TRIVIAL CONNECTIONS

Our ancestors would have marvelled at our ability to carry a link to all our friends, to celebrities and public figures in our pockets. And there are definite pluses in being able to instantly share a quick message with friends - by email and text as well as social media. And we can continue a conversation in person that started online or vice versa.

But it does mean we sometimes don't bother to see people in person, when we could read each other's tone of voice or body language better. Instead we catch up in quick, unfulfilling instalments. Our online relationships can actually provide the illusion of companionship - our online connectedness paradoxically can leave us feeling more isolated, anxious and depressed in our offline lives.

VIRTUAL FRIENDS

One US researcher interviewed 150 adults and 300 children for her study into how social networks and a texting culture affected our relationships8. She concluded that access to friends at all times always gives us the chance to be 'elsewhere', rather than dealing with the social situation in front of us. Social media can therefore both enhance our friendships and also keep us isolated from the real world. Those 'friends' we know primarily online may not have the same levels of commitment to us, and vice versa. They can be a welcome distraction, but not necessarily a real community.

Younger people in particular may have to keep up with the large number of social media outlets their peers are using. The pressure to keep up a 'performance' of social competence on a variety of channels can feel exhausting however digitally native you may be. Everyone else looks gorgeous in selfies taken with their friends at the prom, so I need to make sure mine looks perfect. Then there is the phenomenon of cyber-bullying, in which so-called friends make negative comments about our appearance or behaviour that all our other friends can see. It may therefore be no surprise that teenagers who appear to be well-connected and popular online actually feel disconnected, anxious and lonely.

ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOUR

There are a small number of people who may be described as social media addicts: they may spend hours online and be unable to function without a Wifi connection. But even for those of us whose relationship with social media is more 'normal', our behaviour has changed. US figures showed that 90 per cent of adults owned a cell phone in 2014 and 91 per cent of those people had them with them at all times9. Threequarters of young adults check their mobiles before they even get out of bed10. The average Smartphone user now looks at their phone 221 times a day11.

The thrill of seeing people like, retweet or comment on what we've said involves a minor release of the hormone dopamine. So we respond to every buzz and ring of our mobiles, whatever conversation we might be in the middle of. Not only is that rude, but it borders on compulsive behaviour - and now we think that's pretty normal.

We can also 'retreat' into looking at our phones to relieve the stress or boredom of a real-life activity, which means we're not really paying attention to what's actually happening around us. When, for instance, fathers are engaging with social media while standing around the football pitch, rather than watching their children play, that child may lose something of the pleasure to be gained from 'performing' in front of a proud parent.

So, what can Christians do about all this? Social media users seem to love lists, whether it is '10 celebrities who you didn't realise had plastic surgery' or '21 photos you just won't believe are possible'. So here's my easy-to-digest list of Five Principles For Social Media Integrity:

1. CHAT, DON'T PREACH

It's so tempting for churches to use social media just to broadcast their own ideas and events. For many vicars and pastors who are used to preaching to a passive congregation, using Facebook as a one-way broadcasting network may come very naturally. But if we do this, we're falling into a familiar trap - that it's all about us.

A much more effective and radical idea might be to invite others to tell us what they think about the Christian faith, our church or our denomination. We might need to be sensitive to other people's experiences and perceptions, rather than just telling them what we think. This makes it easier to address the issues that others find difficult about faith. And a proper dialogue might lead to a better understanding of what Christianity really offers, rather than simply engaging in a terse exchange of views.

2. CHECK AND CHALLENGE

Let's try not to share information where we don't know the source, and let's challenge those who do. That's hard, because those who share those inaccurate facts might have deeply-held views and this wrong information might be confirming their misconception. You may have to do some digging yourself to find official facts and figures, and of course your friend might challenge you back. Again, a proper dialogue may be needed, which may actually work better offline, if possible.

Just as in offline conversations when you challenge someone about a racist or derogatory comment, you may risk someone's friendship because you don't agree with what they say. Proper friends will respect your opinion, even if they don't agree.

You will need to know which battles to fight. Choose which issues you know most about - meaning that you can bring to mind a range of facts and figures as well as personal experience. Discussions on Facebook are easier in the sense that only your own friends or your friends' friends can join in. Twitter debates take place in public, and so may attract 'trolls' with aggressive agendas or who engage in personal attacks.

Tackling a high-profile figure can leave you open to attack from thousands of their followers, and the 140-character limit makes nuances harder to convey. You may need to be sure of your facts, retain a thick skin and have plenty of time at your disposal.

3. SHARE REAL STORIES

People love to read stories about other people. One way to offer an alternative to the distorted reality we see on social media is to share positive stories about real people - with their permission. They might be churchgoers with interesting testimonies about God's healing or guidance, families being helped by a food bank or Messy Church run by your congregation, or individuals in other countries being helped by development charities. It's easy for others to argue with you about abstract issues, but harder to dispute what someone has actually experienced.

Include photos of the people you're talking about, as we respond better to those whose images we can see - and tag them if possible so their own friends can read these stories. Even more effective are short videos of people telling their own stories. We've already seen how social media users respond best to posts that engage their emotions. So a video of a Christian talking about how God answered their prayers at a critical time in their lives is likely to be well received.

Any story about such real people will talk about them as a whole person - emotionally and spiritually, not just physically. This might help the agenda of how people look.

4. PRIORITISE OFFLINE

One vicar I know once claimed he could do all his pastoral work online - via email and social media. It seems unlikely he was meeting all of his congregation's needs! Take time out to visit people or speak to them in person. That kind of one-to-one pastoral work has almost become counter-cultural in our digital world, so it will have a significant impact.

With your friends, neighbours, and fellow worshippers, why not plan holidays together, invite each other round for coffee or meals? And when you do so, focus on the person in front of you, rather than the person you're engaging with via social media. It will make such a difference to those relationships.

5. SWITCH IT OFF

Social media sells us the lie that we need never be alone. Hence many of us have lost the art of gazing at nature in solitude, going on a retreat for a few days, or even enjoying bath-time or bedtime without a device. Declare that mealtimes are off-limits for mobiles, decide not to look at email before breakfast, don't take your mobile to a sporting event, or choose to enjoy a long walk somewhere with no phone signal. It's not that social media is a bad thing, just that we may not want it to dominate our lives. If we decide to limit our use of social media and embrace other activities, we may discover that these things might actually be more fulfilling. If social media teaches us one thing, it is that us humans still want to be social. Those who predicted that technology would isolate us into interacting only with machines didn't count on the rise of social media. It does have major benefits. But being aware of its potential dangers will help us to enjoy it even more.

 

NOTES 1 100 Ways To Get Your Church Noticed (revised and expanded edition), published 2014, Church House Publishing. Details: www. getyourchurchnoticed.com 2. Quoted in 100 Ways To Get Your Church Noticed. Detailed figures from each social media outlet 3. The Guardian: 'Instagram now has 300m users sharing 70m photos and videos a day' (10 December 2014) 4. Chris Carpenter, Western Illinois University: 'Narcissism on Facebook: Self-Promotional and Anti-Social Behavior', in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (March 2012) 5. Isabel Hardman, The Spectator: 'The menace of memes: how pictures can paint a thousand lies' (29 November 2014) 6. IPSOS/MORI poll for the Royal Statistical Society and Kings College, London, June 2013 7. Schools Health Education Unit survey, November 2014 8. Sherry Turkle, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other (2011) 9. Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. 10. Cisco Connected World Technology Report 2014 11. Survey of UK Smartphone users by Tecmark, October 2014

100 Ways To Get Your Church Noticed by Neil Pugmire is published by Church House Publishing (www. getyourchurchnoticed.com)

Neil Pugmire worked in regional journalism for nine years and is now communications adviser for the Church of England Diocese of Portsmouth. He has written five books and his latest is a revised and updated version of 100 Ways To Get Your Church Noticed (2014). He leads national training courses on church communications.