Concerns about privacy in the Internet age are as old as the Internet itself; however, initial concerns about individual privacy centered upon Orwellian fears of the power that the Internet gives to entities (corporations, governments, etc.) to find out details about a person’s life that that person would rather not share. While those fears about intrusion into private life remain relevant, one increasingly hears another set of complaints related to privacy and social media: voluntary oversharing of inappropriately “personal” details on the part of those formed by new media.
A good recent example is a recent post
in the Chronicle of Higher Education
in which a professor blames social media for the fact that, in his view, current generations of college students share overly intimate details of their lives without discretion. As he puts it, “In this Facebook age, young people expect everyone to be a 'friend' who is willing to accept whatever they 'post'"—be it online or in the middle of a crowded classroom.
Regardless of the extent to which one agrees with this sort of cultural diagnosis, it does give rise to thought about how the practice of “confession”—sharing private details—has changed. Indeed, religious leaders will call to mind the fact that, until relatively recently, it was religion that provided a formal, ritualized space for such confession. Even Christian traditions that do not have a “confessional” per se
, or any formal practice of individual confession, nonetheless still privilege the pastor-parishioner relationship as one which often is defined by confidential (albeit one-way) disclosure—of sins, of private doubts, of life events deemed too intimate to be shared within the public sphere.
With that in mind, it seems as though one way of looking at the culture of oversharing is to see it as a diffusion, a spreading out, of the confessional. Such diffusion is a kind of secularization (in that the church no longer controls the space of confession), but it is also a kind of democratization—anyone, not just the priest, has the potential to hear and validate the experiences being described.
As a pastor, one of the principles of ministry to which I adhere is this: on those occasions when I am tempted to lament some aspect of the so-called “secular” world, I should first ask what role the church might have had in bringing that state of affairs about by “things done and things left undone.” With that in mind, it might be useful to ask ourselves how it is that the church might have dropped the ball at some point before worrying about how to pick the ball back up. Has the church’s very public mistakes—particularly its lapses in protecting the safety of those who have trusted it, as well as its reaping the spoils of the now-fading cultural hegemony of Christendom—rendered it an unsuitable “confessor” in the minds of much of today’s world?
If the church is to demonstrate its God-given gift of being—at its best—a space of grace and trust for those whose lives are in turmoil, then the answer can’t be for the church to “rein in” oversharing by (futilely) attempting to re-arrogate to itself the exclusive space of confession. Rather, the church should be where God has called it to be—out among the vast, diffuse, and complex channels of modern communication, providing a humanizing and life-giving voice amidst the fertile chaos. If communicating with a generation formed by new media forces the church out of its complacent walls, then perhaps the fragmenting of the confessional will come to reveal itself as a blessing. The Rev. Dr. Robert Saler is a Research Fellow and administrator with the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. 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.