At last month’s annual convention of the Associated Church Press (ACP), Bryan Cones managing editor of US Catholic
, asked me a great question: Is the New Media Project “doing a theology of social media?” The workshop that gave rise to this inquiry was entitled, “Theological questions raised by social media,” and the conversation had been far-reaching and substantive. Among other great questions, Heidi Thompson of Sojourners
wondered aloud whether thinking theologically itself might be at risk because of social media and other new media tools. The session felt more like a cross between an adult Sunday School class and a seminary study group than a web-track convention workshop for journalists. It was a wonderful, and I’m grateful to my ACP colleagues for their participation.
But Bryan’s question gave me pause and led to other interesting conversations around the edges of the convention. Ultimately I think, no, we are not doing a theology of social media. The goal of the New Media Project is not to construct a theological account of social media. We are not apologists. We are not trying to make a theological case for the use of social media in today’s world. Such a case might emerge in various forms in our work, but that is not the goal. The hope is, instead, to identify guides, questions, and markers to help navigate this new landscape with some theological acumen and agility.
Here’s the problem: Doing a theology of social media suggests that social media are things out there, tools or subjects that can be isolated, set aside, examined, pondered, and explained theologically on their own terms. While rich descriptions of social media tools are useful and even necessary, especially for those who are new to their uses and patterns, what’s intriguing to me about social media is that the use of the tools is changing the landscape in which we live and breathe … or at least communicate, which is as fundamental a human activity as any. Social media are not just new subjects we can spot on the horizon of the landscape. Rather, the use of social media tools is changing the very landscape itself.
For example, social media as a phenomenon has changed the flow of information. It used to be that news and ideas flowed from experts to the rest of us. Newscasters and editors determined what news we needed to see, hear, and read. Doctors determined what medical information we should know. We even trusted advertisers to help us understand products for our homes. Today, the gatekeepers of information can no longer control what gets through. We choose what types of news we want to read, when we want to read it, and how to respond. We research medical ailments from our kitchen tables and ask questions. We are much more likely to trust goods and services recommended by friends than those promoted by advertisers, and we are willing to share our own opinions about products.
What does this mean for religious leaders and communities of faith? How do we navigate this new landscape with some theological depth? Not just with technological savvy but with theological skill? We stand in the midst of this landscape, look around with keen and interested eyes and ears, and try to understand how that which we see and hear has to do with God’s being, God’s work in the world, and God’s people. Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.