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Does Twitter Do Us Any Good?

July 1, 2009

Does Twitter Do Us Any Good?

How the movement of the Trinity can help us decide.
Mark Galli | posted 6/04/2009 09:42AM

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The culture continues to be atwitter about Twitter and other electron-based social media. It’s easy to find both scathing critiques and passionate defenses of the Internet. But as we approach what many churches celebrate as Trinity Sunday this weekend, there is another angle to ponder.

When we think of the Trinity we tend to think of doctrine—that Jesus’ relation to the father is homoousios (Greek: of the same essence) and not homoiousios (Greek: of similar essence); that, as the Nicene Creed puts it, Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God … .”—and so forth.

But the heart of the Trinity is not fine theological distinctions but a relation of love, a fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit, a super-community that is so unified in love that it counts as one being.

The nature of this love overflows—love begets love and even more beings to love. And for some reason, God—who is spirit—nonetheless wishes to make this love a tangible reality in the things he creates. This starts from “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” to “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” to

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev. 21:2-3)
The movement of God is toward deeper and deeper incarnation, enfleshment. It appears that the glory of our existence as beings created, redeemed, and blessed by God is a tangible, physical existence, in which we live together and love one another in an embodied way.

One can even define sin as anything that undermines shared embodied love. Murder is the most obvious example. But so does gossip or lust or theft or unrighteous anger, and so forth. The many catalogues of vices in the Old and New Testaments have this in common: they undermine in one way or another a shared embodied life of love.

And so we come to the age of the Internet. For all its obvious flaws, it does seem to bring people together to communicate, collaborate, and create community. As Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine, waxed eloquent recently, “Communal aspects of digital culture run deep and wide.” He noted Wikipedia as “just one remarkable example of an emerging collectivism,” and also pointed to collaborative sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, the Hype Machine, Twine, Wesabe, and of course Twitter. “Nearly every day,” Kelly concludes, “another startup proudly heralds a new way to harness community action.”

In this essay, Kelly compares the “collectivism” of the internet with classic socialism. Along the way he says things like this:

Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs.
It’s at this point that we spot the great weakness of this technology. The type of community that can quickly and easily be fostered on the Internet is a disembodied one, one in which only minds meet, and that works at cross purposes to the movement of God in history.

This need not alarm us or prompt us to shut down our computers. Every technology has the ability to enhance embodied life or to subvert it. Take transportation. Planes, trains, and automobiles allow us to enjoy embodied fellowship with people who live far away from us. This is a great good. But speedy, cheap transportation also makes possible the transient culture we live in, where people struggle to put down roots in one place and ground themselves in their neighborhood.

The Internet has this wonderful ability to connect people over long distances, and with technologies like Skype, to help us visualize the embodied life of another. When my daughter was in England for 5 months, it was a much richer experience talking with her on Skype than by phone.

But of course Skype was a poor substitute for being able to visit her—and no one would argue otherwise. But the Internet is so good at creating virtual realities, that we sometimes mistake them for the real thing. I have to remind myself that what I’m seeing on the screen is not my daughter but a bunch of pixels that are replicating my daughter. It is a mirage. A useful and handy mirage, one I would not abandon. But a mirage nonetheless.

And this suggests that the test of whether any technology is “godly” (that is, tending toward the fullness of God’s intention for us) is whether it encourages shared bodily life or undermines it.

Not a few of us find ourselves addicted to email. It is a wonderful thing to be able to connect with so many people so quickly and efficiently. But like many, I often find myself so drawn to my Blackberry and laptop that I fail to be present with the flesh and blood person who is standing before me. I look at them and pretend like I’m listening, but my mind strains to get back to my email. The technology is obviously undermining my ability to be present in an embodied way to the real person in front of me.

We see the same sort of problem with angry emails that are sent because we’re afraid of actually talking the issues through face to face. Or viewing pornography rather than engaging in a deeper relationship with one’s wife.

On the other hand, email or Skype or Facebook can sustain a relationship so that, when we meet with a loved one face to face, we are able to ground that relationship at even deeper levels. Or we collaborate with others to create software that helps us more easily schedule face-to-face meetings, or to organize fun runs or bike outings, or to make plane reservations to go visit a daughter on another continent.

These are very simple observations, which is why sometimes they are so difficult to attend to. And why we need to be reminded time and again of God’s intention for us, and then measure everything we do or say against that intent.

The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan put it well in responding to Kelly’s piece, when he wrote on his blog: “It has long occurred to me that the web is indeed a Marxist paradise. Pity we are not really full human beings with bodies when we are on it.”

It is a pity, but it is not something we have to wallow in. Despite Kelly’s apparent Internet boosterism, the Internet is not the key to human fulfillment, but neither is it of the devil. We can work with this technology, as we can with any, so that it fosters engagement with “real, full human beings with bodies.”

Readers Review of above statements:

Displaying 1 – 3 of 33 comments. See all comments
Cliff Posted: June 10, 2009 9:39 PM

Just as Christians are supposed to reflect the glory of the Lord to the world, as found in 2 Cor. 3:18, the Internet reflects the nature of man to the world. Noble, aspiring ideas are found there as well as depravity. It answers our call for information whether good or evil. Our fallen nature drives the internet to abound the with pornography, gambling, and now even human trafficing. Human slavery has returned to America. We now need another liberator to imancipate, will we step up?

Greg K. Posted: June 04, 2009 7:14 PM

When are people going to stop being amazed-yet-critical of the internet? There are people right now who are graduating high school who are too young to remember a time when there was no internet. The internet is here. We can continue to try and assign a moral value to it, asking whether the internet is good or evil, but the reality of it is that the internet is just a mirror of the world. Just like the world it is wonderful and terrible, capable of great good and great evil. So let us stop marveling at it, and stop trying to exert ourselves over it by figuring out whether it was Jesus or Satan who invented it, and sit down and really talk how we can use this new version of reality to do something Good.

Deborah Posted: June 09, 2009 11:24 PM

The internet, via blogs, is a great tool for witnessing the true word of God. It does not matter what the topic may be, there is always someone based on their comment that have never tasted, nor hungered for God’s truth. People from all over the world can be witnessed to which I personally feel is very awesome. E-mail is my primary use on my computer, but I also look for blogs to give a comment, because it never fails that you will find someone in desperate need of God’s truth based upon their comment. Most of the time, I get a negative response. But, that is ok, because they read my comment in order to make their negative comment. Only God knows if I planted His Holy seed. I know that the primary purpose in our life is to be faithful and obedient to God in order to bring the lost to Him. Giving God the glory for the most precious love of all, His love.

choppie Posted: June 09, 2009 7:44 PM

I met my husband online, and I believe our relationship is stronger for it! We became best friends slowly, over three years, before we even talked on the phone! We fell in love soon after that, after seeing only “pixels” of each other,and he came to Iowa from Sweden and we married. Now we live in Sweden and even though my children and grandchildren are still in the states, I regularly see and talk with them. I would not change a thing! I would certainly not recommend it for everyone, but as a handicapped individual who cannot get out, and with grown children, it opened doors for me that before had been slammed shut.

Sue Talley Posted: June 09, 2009 2:04 PM

As this article observes, for all its challenges, social networking is here. The fact is, only yesterday a friend left Facebook because of another friend’s ill-judged communication. It is up to us, parents, teachers, pastors, and Christian mentors of all kinds, to TEACH the right use of the Internet and (most of all) to model the temperate and appropriate use of social networks ourselves. I question someone’s commitment as an employee if they are constantly messaging. I question their commitment to their art if they are a musician. Yet to be able to check in frequently on one’s friends and family and offer kind words is not without blessing, I believe. and, as a professor, I thoroughly enjoy sharing the fine music available on YouTube (from Bach’s Brandenburgs to Gregorian chant) with our students. Our Metropolitan Museum of Art now puts wonderful lectures on YouTube that I can share. I am grateful to God for the great resources we can share in casual, friendly ways.

Abundant Life Posted: June 07, 2009 4:21 PM

Mr. Galli, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m no Luddite, but I fear that many people today–especially younger ones–have virtually replaced flesh-and-blood relationships with electronic ones without understanding that each has its own proper place and purpose in a person’s life. My 20-something nephew, for example, would tell you he has “dozens of friends” online. But recently, when he attempted suicide by taking a handful of sleeping pills, it wasn’t his online “friends” who came to his rescue. No, it was his flesh-and-blood youth pastor who, worried when he didn’t show up for an appointment, tracked him down and called paramedics before it was too late. The Internet is only a tool; it can be used for good or ill, but it can never replace hand-to-hand and heart-to-heart relationships. Thank God for people who are still willing to embody the incarnational aspects of His love for us!

ZachF Posted: June 06, 2009 1:06 AM

@Mark Galli, I wish to extend my gratitude for compiling these uncomfortable observations and sharing them. Until recently, my job was as a software developer in testing. This meant that I purposefully investigated some technological solution – searching for and reporting on ways it failed to meet the expectation(s) of someone important. While this required skepticism and epistemology, it was a faith in Christ that compelled me to ask, “is this thing beneficial for humanity?” I felt that few people were concerned with the answer to that question, much less asking it. My answer (as of today) coincides with your point. I did not find your writing to be a call to Ludditism, but a thoughtful warning on the ways that we can become beguiled by our own ingenuity. The real irony to me is that we’ve increased the frequency of our communication, but perhaps at the cost of their effectiveness. The world may be changing as a result of our creative advancements, but our God has not. Thanks again.

Mark Galli (Registered User) Posted: June 05, 2009 5:08 PM

Regarding the seeing my daughter in the flesh or via pixels: Even though there is always a layer of reality between us and the outside world (receptors, etc.), there is something categorically different about being in the same room with someone. By “seeing” I mean “experiencing,” and when I’m with my daughter I see and hear and smell and touch her, and vice versa, in fully embodied ways, that is impossible over the Internet. This does NOT make the Internet evil. It does mean that, like all amazing technologies, it has it’s limitations and weaknesses. Of course I’m not intrinsically against it–I wrote the essay for online publication! But I’m puzzled as to why this weakness is so hard for some readers to acknowledge.

Ken Posted: June 05, 2009 3:49 PM

I don’t understand why the reviewers are so reactive to this piece. Mr. Galli did nothing at all to criticize nor to undermine the functions of Internet, Twitter or Blueberry etc. He just want to invite us to have a deeper reflection to the real world and the real issue, rather than framing our mind to the fast-paced virtual world, which may discourage thoughtful analysis and discourse. We have to admit that the over-supply of easy and quick information would develop a generation with shallow and sentimental character, rather than seekers of the things with higher value–which need patience, effort and sophisticated mind. I am 33 BTW.

Paul Posted: June 05, 2009 12:21 PM

Really? You went from talking about the internet, to the trinity, to your basic thesis that the internet is something that we shouldn’t dive into. It is technology, and at its essence technology enables people. The net is something that enables you, often when no one else is looking. For some that means reading the news, talking to friends, and for others it means looking at porn and breaking laws. Guns do the same thing, nuclear energy does the same thing. You talk about skype being short of visiting your daughter, but yet you elected that over a phone call or writing letters. Never in the history of the world has there been the level of cooperation that is powered through technology. The internet will be a major vehicle for the gospel. Use of hollow arguments that it is done one way in Africa or whatever are pointless as our context is different here. Mr Galli needs to get our of his office and interact with people outside the church under 35 and then re-write this article.

Ronda Posted: June 05, 2009 9:03 AM

Community is best fleshed out when lived daily through all the ups and downs, highs and lows, and especially in the midst of all the middling and moderate times. Yet, given our already transient culture, the internet can help us re-connect and stay connected in ways otherwise not possible. As with anything — even reading a good book or having a fun conversation with a friend– the question is: Is what I’m doing now distracting me from what God would have me be doing now? Some will (and have) allowed the internet and all it offers to lure them away from the risk of real solid relationships. Do you remember “bookworms?”

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