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S1E6: The Internet's New Community
(The following is the manuscript for episode six of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on September 25th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
I remember a life before the Internet.
I was born in ’91, so I don’t know what a life without television was like, but I do remember a time before the Internet. I would go outside to play often, and that entailed going to my next-door neighbors asking if David, Lindsay, Wesley, or Robert could come out and play. If I wasn’t outside, I was playing video games with my brothers. But I do remember when we got our first family computer – I remember the unbelievable amount of excitement I had when I realized that soon I’d be able to play the same Star Trek and Star Wars games my dad would play on his work computer. It would be a while before I was given permission to double-click the blue Internet Explorer icon on my own, but I didn’t care. The Internet was boring at the time – I just wanted to be a Jedi with a double hilted yellow lightsaber, dangit.
By the time I was a teenager, though, my relationship with the Internet had changed. In 2005, upon turning 13 years old, the Internet was the most incredible thing in my life. It was my gateway away from a life I didn’t want to live at a time. It was my portal to endless amounts of entertainment, as evidenced by the thousands of hours I logged playing Halo: Combat Evolved’s online multiplayer. It was, quite literally, my life, and it completely replaced the life that I had before – and, I don’t think its a stretch to say that, in many ways, it defines my life to this present day.
I am going to make a sharp and hard distinction on what exactly we are going to cover in this episode, because “The internet”, at least as we understand it today, is such a massive behemoth that its almost impossible to talk about it without reducing it to a conversation about social media, or Youtube/streaming culture, just to make the conversation easier in terms of reducing the scope of the subject matter. As much as we can, I want us to go back to when the Internet – which, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as “an electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world” – was starting to become more readily available to the average American consumer, which wasn’t really a reality until the mid-90s or so. The reason for this is because we are going to devote entire episodes to consequences of the Internet – smartphones, social media, streaming, etc – and because some of the critiques of the Internet that we see today aren’t new at all, but were beginning to manifest relatively early on in the Internet’s popular life. Specifically, we are going to look at two significant changes brought by the Internet, one of which will seem like a “well, duh” observation but is necessary for the significance of the second change. First, we are going to look at how the Internet was revolutionary as a medium because it allowed for truly bi-directional communication, and second, how this bi-directional communication began to shape the concept of “community”.
What makes the Internet such a significant phenomenon was that this was the first mass medium to incorporate bi-directional communication as one of it’s key features. In the previous episodes, as we’ve been talking about books, television, and the differences between the two, we’ve not mentioned that books and television share one significant common feature – they are only one-way streets in communicating ideas. The author of the book knows that there will be no way for a reader to respond directly to the author’s message through the medium that brought that message to him – the disgruntled reader can write a letter to the author, or perhaps stop him or her in the street or at a book signing to voice their grievances, but otherwise, the book does not let a two-way conversation take place. The same is true of television – as much as you’d like to think that yelling at the ref after he makes a bad call will change anything, you know that he can’t hear you. Neither can the newscaster or political figure that you dislike hear you as you express your disagreement or disgust at what they’re saying. The Internet, though, opened the door for the possibility for that to change. If mediums are not value neutral, and if they promote and encourage certain forms of engagement over others, then I think it’s safe to say that the Internet values two-way communication because it makes it possible in a way no medium before it could, and paves itself in such a way so that it can become a two-wide street wide enough for anyone to talk to someone else about anything with as many number of people that want to join in.
In 2018, pointing out the fact that the internet is a bi-directional medium of communication is tantamount as saying that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west – there’s nothing profound about it. But at the time, this was a big deal. Yes, there was one other significant bi-directional medium of communication before the Internet – made possible by culturally irrelevant technology we refer to as “landline phones” – but you didn’t use phones in the way that you use the Internet. First of all, you had to have someone’s number if you wanted to be able to reach them (which was a challenge if there was a cute girl or guy you wanted to possibly date), and unless you were using the phone for business purposes, you generally knew who would be on the other line when you dialed a number. If you dialed the wrong number or the wrong person picked up, you would re-dial or leave a message, but you typically wouldn’t spend time talking with someone on the other end that was a stranger. There’s a reason why the “stranger-making-a-scary-phone-call” motif is one of the oldest tropes of horror and suspense films – its a form of intentional communication that shouldn’t be there. With the Internet though, that intentionality isn’t necessarily removed, by the parameters governing that intentionality are significantly expanded. Generally, on early Internet forums, it was expected that you not know the person you were talking to, but so long as they weren’t being creepy or abusive, talking to them was okay. The same was true of email and, to perhaps a lesser extent, messenger programs. Instead of that intentionality being governed by wanting to talk to someone you know or for an intentional business purpose, like it was with landline phones, intentionality on the early Internet was governed by the subject matter that you wanted to talk about. You were willing to talk to people you didn’t know because they shared the same interests you did.
And this was the second significant change that the Internet brought. Because it was a bi-directional medium, it made bypassing your physical communities possible. You could now talk to people who shared a common interest regardless of any geographical constraint.
What is a “community” – or, perhaps more helpfully, “how do communities form”? That’s a massive question and I’m not going to be able to give it the attention it really deserves, but in the most general of terms, communities form when 1) multiple people are able to talk to each other 2) over a shared common interest. Your physical community is dictated by the people that you talk to over the common interest that you share – it could be the coworkers in your workplace, fellow parents that attend the same school that your kids do, other people in your church, or your next door neighbors living on the same street as you did. Before the Internet, your physical community was all you had. If you lived in a city or town where you didn’t know anyone shared your passions, interests, hobbies, causes, or political views, you were kinda stuck with that. If there was a topic that you wanted to talk about but you didn’t know anybody else who did, that was your situation you had to deal with. In larger cities, this may not have been as big of an issue, but if you came from a small town – one like Claude, TX, where my parents currently live with a population of 1,300 people – you had no relief from that. The idea of belonging to a community beyond what you were physically wasn’t possible – until the Internet. Again, in 2018, this is not a significant revelation, but in in the 90s and early 2000s, this was a very big deal. It allowed you the ability to bypass the limitations set by your immediate, physical community and to choose to belong to communities of people that cared about the same things that you did. Now you had a choice – if you wanted to, you could invest in your physical community and the real, flesh-and-blood relationships you have with your neighbors, or you could invest in a digital community and the people who you know next to nothing about, other than the fact that they care about the things you do. But where you might’ve been stuck with your physical community and have to deal with things or issues that you disliked, with the Internet, you could enter and exit communities based on your discretion. You could consume content and engage with others at your convenience. You could focus only on the things you wanted to focus on – and totally ignore the rest. The Internet allowed for anyone to have things their way – right down to choosing the place where they felt they belonged.
In the previous episodes about television, we introduced the idea that the context you hear a message in shapes the message itself, and that contrary to what the late Rev. Graham and other leaders thought in the early days of television, the medium does not result in a 1:1 transmission of a message. We also talked about how when you hear a sermon in a church that you participate in a shared experience in a congregation, and that being a part of the gathered people of God will shape the way you listen to a sermon compared to watching the same sermon at home in your pajamas on your television. Television introduced the possibility of participating in a religious experience in isolation from a physical gathering, and its no secret that Americans were tolerant of the idea of getting a sermon in a church and getting a sermon in one’s home and that the two were legitimate options. But the Internet takes this situation and adds the possibility of connecting to others in a context where connecting to others people wasn’t possible. In a pre-Internet world, you could stay at home and watch a religious broadcast, and the only other personal connections you had in that moment were those shared by others in the room. With the advent of the Internet, staying at home didn’t automatically mean you weren’t connected to a community of some kind. The Internet allowed you to connect to others regardless of the distance or space in between, and in doing so, reshaped the idea of community and allowed for a concept of community unhinged from the physical concept of space to exist.
It should go without saying that this impact on the concept of “community” has significant implications for a religion with a community-centered orientation as one of it’s main driving identities. In 1 Peter 1, the apostle tells us that “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” and that “once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” All of those terms refer to a group of people, and before the Internet, that group of people was a physical community known as “Christians” or the “Church”. The Internet introduced a new type of community, and as Heidi A. Cambell and Stephen Garner explain:
Online communities exist as loose social networks where members have varying levels of affiliation and commitment. This is in contrast to traditional communities, which often exist as more tightly bounded social structures overseen by family and institutional ties. Online religious communities often function quite differently than conventional religious groups and institutions, where membership is established through a set of rituals such as confirmation, baptism, or an act of public confession. Online religious communities are often formed through people’s commitment to a shared interest, and membership is based on active participation in group conversation and online activities rather than affiliation or membership rituals. - Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, “Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture.”
In assessing the Internet, I don’t think it’s possible to respond purely in a technology optimistic or technologically pessimistic manner. When it came to television, I think it was obvious that I hold a pessimistic view of television, and I think it brought more harm then good. With the Internet, however, I’ve already spoken positively of it as being a medium that amplifies the power of the spoken and written word – the medium that Christianity is ultimately rooted in, and early on, that was the main way the Internet was used. While there were examples of online congregations popping up in the 90s, most notably The First Church of Cyberspace (how’s that for a dated term?), most of the uses of the Internet by early Christians revolved around the dissemination of information about Christianity – for example, the “United Methodist Information” email newsletter, which Campbell and Garner note is the first recorded Christian email newsletter to exist. I do think that there is an inherent difference between reading text in a physical book and reading text on a screen, but at the same time, the Internet was making material on Christianity more readily accessible and available – and for that, I am beyond grateful. But when it comes to the Internet’s impact on the idea of “community”, I tend to take a more pessimistic response, and the reason I take that response is because mediums shape the way we interact with each other as a result of the terms of engagement set forth by the medium in question. Campbell and Garner again:
Studies of Christian community online have found that theological orientation and religious identity often draws members together. Researchers noted that new patterns of social sharing and interaction online may lead to shifts in expectations regarding the nature of community. The ability to interact and exchange ideas with people from different parts of the world from a shared faith perspective can transform members’ expectations of how contemporary religious groups could or should function. These expectations create desires for online Christian community members to experiment with and even model in their offline churches new styles of small-group interaction, accountability networks, or forms of dialogue experienced online. - Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, “Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture.”
In other words, the Internet began to shape our interactions with each because we began to expect our offline interactions to mirror, in some way, our online interactions, and when those offline interactions don’t live up to our expectations, we have something better that we can go back to. I know this to be true because this is what happened to me. I mentioned earlier that, when I was a teenager, the Internet was a portal to endless amounts of entertainment, but it was also a portal to a community and friendships that I didn’t physically have at the time. In 2005, my family moved in with my grandparents to be their live-in caretakers. My grandpa had Parkinson’s disease, and he couldn’t drive himself and grandma around anymore, so we moved in to provide transportation and take care of the house. My grandparents lived an hour away from where we lived – moving required uprooting from the home, church, and neighborhood I grew up in and move into a gated community comprised mostly of retirees. I did not transition well. I was homeschooled at the time, and so the only time I saw anyone my own age was during Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights at church – and I didn’t fit in at all, and wouldn’t feel like I belonged for a couple of years. But that didn’t matter – I had my networks of Christian Halo clans to keep me company. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but I was able to spend time with these other believers I had met online and chat and play with them and forge relationships with them that I didn’t have in the real world at the time. We would pray together. We would discuss the Bible together. We would encourage and support each other, sometimes even financially. It was, quite literally, my life, because it was the place where I felt like I belonged. My offline communities were painful, and so I wanted nothing to do with them. My online community brought me joy, and so I wanted to spend as much time as I could with them. In a season or space where offline Christianity was painful, I had the choice to be in a space where online Christianity was life-giving and centered around the things I cared about, and this created a feedback loop where the more time I spent with my online friends, the more my offline life began to look like my online life, which only put me at greater odds with my physical community of Christians because they weren’t fulfilling my expectations or desires of how I wanted my offline relationships in the church to work. Eventually, though, I would start making healthy offline relationships, and over time my relationships with my online friends would fade away, but in a season where I was in a space where I didn’t want to be, I had the means to be in a space where I wanted to be – something only made possible by the Internet.
I think we’ve reached a point where we can start drawing some big conclusions based on everything we’ve covered in these past several episodes, and on the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we are going to do just that. We still have quite a bit of ground to cover, but before we get to smartphones and social media, I think we have enough on our plate to show how changes in technology and media have changed the way we think about God.