The blogosphere – a good place to hide (even from yourself)

I’m very doubtful about the concept of genuine community on the Internet, and even more doubtful about whether the attempt is a good thing. Eugene Peterson points out somewhere that a genuine church is a collection of diverse individuals whose unity in Christ somehow manages to triumph over their diversity in almost everything else (age, sex, race, economic circumstances, education, political views, theological views etc. etc.). In contrast, he says, a sect is a community of the like-minded. This, by the way, is one of my big disagreements with churches that ‘stream’ worship services to meet the ‘preferences’ of different groups (age and otherwise): quite apart from the consumer-mentality this teaches, it also tends to produce sects, rather than true communities.

Now a so-called ‘Internet community’ almost always evolves into a sect, in Peterson’s classification. Internet communities tend to form around blogs and tend to reflect the views of the blogger. Not surprisingly, the majority of commentators on any particular blog will be in general agreement with the views of the blogger, and those who are not in agreement quickly find themselves ‘ganged up on’ by the rest (for the record, I have been on both sides of this experience!). Most blogs quickly develop an ‘orthodoxy’ that is rarely challenged by the regulars, which makes these blogs a very comfortable place for the members of the ‘community’. In fact, for some people, they are far more comfortable than the real, flesh-and-blood communities they actually live in. It’s not uncommon for commentators to say things like ‘you people are the only ones who really understand me’ and ‘I get more support here than I do at St. So-and-So’s’.

But of course, the catch is that no one knows if what you are presenting on the blog, either as the author or as a commentator, is the real ‘you’. As Marianne says in the latest BBC production of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘It is what we do, rather than what we say or feel, that makes us who we are’. And in the world of the Internet, no one knows who we really are. I have been described in very generous terms by some people I’ve ‘met’ in the blogosphere, and of course this is very gratifying to my ego and I like it as much as the next person. But the fact is that no one I ‘meet’ on the Internet really knows me. They know what I say, they meet the persona I create for myself (how telling it is that pseudonyms, screen names, and avatars are so popular in the blogosphere!), but they don’t meet the real ‘me’. And, try as I might, it’s almost impossible to avoid creating a deceptively rosy persona for oneself in the anonymous world of the blogosphere. If I’m not careful, I might even begin to believe in it myself! As Jeremiah says, ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’.

I might give the impression on this blog (and in the comments I leave on other blogs) of being a good, conscientious priest, but of course you, my readers, don’t really know whether or not that’s true (unless you happen to be past or present parishioners of mine!). I might give the impression of being a loving husband and father and grandfather, but in order to be really sure that’s the case, you’d need to consult my wife, my children, and my grandson. I might give the impression of being a patient and caring and compassionate person, but unless you see me on a regular basis, and not just when I’m trying to sound good, you have no way of knowing whether or not that is the case.

Internet ‘communities’ can be very gullible and very deceptive. I have not been in the habit of filling my blog with stories about difficulties in my parish or my relationship with those who are ‘over me’ in the ministry – mainly because I think those issues should be worked out face to face with those who are directly involved, not gossiped about to disembodied people with screen names and avatars in the anonymous world of the Internet. But the real problem, of course, is that there are two sides to every story, and unless a blogger has an unusual level of honesty and self-knowledge, it’s only natural that what you get from them is their side of the story. The pastor who is having difficulty with his or her congregation will usually give the impression of being the patient and compassionate shepherd (or the brave and visionary leader, depending on the culture of the church!); it’s the congregation, of course, who are unappreciative or unsupportive or unsympathetic or unresponsive or just downright unChristian. If the blog is being run by a member of the congregation, then, naturally, you’ll get the opposite viewpoint. A priest having trouble with their bishop will unavoidably tell the story in terms that make it clear what an unfeeling ecclesiocrat the bishop actually is (and some clerical blogs are anonymous precisely for the reason of allowing the cleric to blow off steam like this). Unless one of the regular commentators is actually part of the situation and is willing to blow the whistle from time to time and say, “Look, that’s not actually the whole story…”, the others are none the wiser.

Experience teaches us that life is messy, and people are not just one-dimensional. There are very rarely goodies and baddies; there are just ordinary flawed human beings, people who get some things right and some things wrong, people who are sometimes loving and sometimes selfish. There are not usually ‘haters’ and ‘fascists’ and ‘revisionists’ and ‘leftists’; there are human beings trying to pay their mortgages and do a reasonable job at work and be better parents and love God as best they know how. And of course, when it comes to the real flesh-and-blood people in my family, and my parish, and my circle of friends, I see that flawed and yet admirable humanity most clearly and am most likely to cut people some slack because of it (or, at other times, pluck up my courage and challenge them).

It’s more difficult to do that in the blogosphere, because there we don’t encounter the real multi-dimensional persons who exist outside the ‘matrix’. We encounter what they present to the world, but we have no way of knowing how real their persona actually is, and we will never know that until we wash dishes with them, or play music with them, or receive communion regularly with them, or get our hands dirty cleaning up the churchyard with them. Until that happens, we’d be wise to remind ourselves that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people we’re talking to online, and there’s probably a lot they’re not telling us (intentionally or unintentionally) in the stories they share.

7 thoughts on “The blogosphere – a good place to hide (even from yourself)

  1. An excellent and discerning post, Tim. It expresses well some of the thoughts and concerns that have been crystallizing over the past couple of months, and especially over the last week or so (perhaps because my state of health has meant I have had more time to ponder). You got there ahead of me, though.

    Of course, even community in real life is not without its pitfalls as far as presenting facades and hiding ourselves from others and ourselves. Some manage this for years, even decades. But the nature of the blogosphere does make it much easier to do this. My ideal would be for a blogging community where most the members knew at least one or two of the others IRL.

  2. Casper

    One of the reasons I post anonymously is precisely to be more honest. In fact, I have a post in draft that will probably be posted in the next few days which, if I were not anonymous I would never even begin to contemplate posting.

    Certainly the ideal would be that this transparency should be exhibited in organic community (e.g., church) but it may not always be possible in our atomistic age (it hasn’t for me). A imperfect substitute is still better than nothing I think.

    God forbid that my blog should ever be orthodox!

  3. RevSimmy, I am sorry to hear of your poor health, and wish you all the very best.

    This post seems a very pessimistic view, perhaps unduly so. I think it’s rather overly pessimistic. Speaking from my own experience:

    a) I run a blog. Trying to get anyone at all to venture a comment is … difficult (I’m not sure why; do I bore people or scare them off?). As soon as they DO comment, however, it’s usually to disagree with me.

    b) I run separately a community (the Hangout; please do not confuse with the Hub, where I blog. The Hangout is basically for atheists only, so it provides some sort of mirror to your parish life united in belief and nothing else). Owing to accidents of history, quite often I am as admin and person at odds with many of the members on certain significant issues; quite often they are at odds with each other as well. Often, they function as a … trial for me. I may be admin, which means winning per se on any really important issue, but it can be very, very nerve-racking, dealing with very different points of view, different cultures and nationalities, and occasionally dealing with very severe problems, the equal of any in everyday face-to-face life.

    I’ve had over the years to deal with suicides, threats of suicide, episodic psychoses on the part of some, manipulation by maliciously inclined, extreme sudden financial need owing to ill health on the part of some, huge personality clashes, and some very fundamental differences of outlook (e.g. very intolerant anti-theism versus my own cooperate-where-possible live-and-let-live atheism). None of those problems seem to me to be in any way smaller than those experienced in real life.

    I wouldn’t have coped if I didn’t have some very firm allegiance to what I think is true, and a firm resolve to reflect it.

    Yes, obviously, people can lie much easier on the net than face-to-face — but we also all know the all-too-commonplace histories of those who lie in real life, ranging from the ordinarily manipulative and/or malicious, to actual leaders of parishes and the like. What I’ve found over the years on the net is if one pays enough attention to posters as individual people, and follows their actual posting histories, all the things they don’t say as well as what they do say, then one often gets a very good idea indeed of the character of someone, what their intentions and values are, and so on. Sometimes better so than in face-to-face life, where visual cues can throw off our judgment.

    c) Internet communities have one huge advantage — bringing those together who would not be able to do so in everyday life. For a tiny and very widely-scattered minority, that can be a very good thing indeed.

    d) I would be extremely happy to meet you in real life, Tim and RevSimmy, and the first rounds (coffee or whatever you like) are on me. And hopefully one day that will happen; I have after all met face-to-face a surprising number from the blogosphere.

  4. Casper

    Well, that’s charming!

    Gurdur would like to meet Revsjimmy and Tim but not me – whatever did I do?

    He’s right though, it is a pleasure to meet Tim – a thoroughly nice bloke.

    ps. This is a joke. I am in no way offended.

  5. Tim Chesterton

    Casper is also a thoroughly nice bloke, I can report!

    Sorry I haven’t had time to respond to your critiques in detail, Gurdur and Casper – having a busy week in the parish. But I second Gurdur’s comment about making the acquaintance of fellow-bloggers – indeed, meeting Caspar and three or four other fellow-bloggers in the UK for the first time was one of the really nice parts of my 2007 sabbatical leave.

  6. As someone once said, we live in a world of communication without community.

    There are various ways of communicating on line, and it is important to discern which is best for which purpose. Blogs are good for some things, but not for others. The trick is knowing which medium is best for which purpose.

    I generally find that blogs full of posts complaining about people I’ve never met and am not likely to are boring — priests’ complaining about their bishops and parishes are among the examples you mention. But there are exceptions, like the SPCK Bookshop scandal a couple of years back. I don’t mind reading blogs that are critical of things that are more abstract — like ideas, or policies, or theological concepts — I find those stimulating, if the ideas interest me.

    And that is where sometimes even sects are useful. I enjoy discussing books by the Inklings (S.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkiern & Co). There’s no one in my physical neighbourhood, or even in my church that is remotely interested. So I sometime blog about them, and read other blog posts about them, but even better than blogs for such a topic are mailing lists, because in a mailing list everyone is equal, whereas in a blog, the blogger controls the discussion.

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