Chief cheerleader, soul mate, business partner and soon-to-be bride to the Editor of Catholica, Milly (Amanda McKenna), in recent days has been reading The Google Story by David A. Vise. Quite part from finding her future partner across the width of a continent through a Catholic discussion board on the internet, Milly is excited about the possibilities of the web for building community and broadcasting the Good News. In this second commentary she shares some thoughts on the possibilities the web offers. Milly has had extensive experience experimenting on building community through a number of both secular and religious cyber communities. She is in the process of developing a new cyber community for young people involved in music ministry using the MySpace web portal in conjunction with the Parramatta Diocese and Catholic Education Office.
I had been one of those who didn't hold a very high opinion of the world of cyberspace — coming from a position of complete ignorance, I might add. I had formed attitudes about it even before I'd logged on for the first time! To me, it was peopled by rather nerdy or needy individuals who were either not interested, or couldn't function normally, in the 'real world'. I believed that those who 'met online' had committed something akin to soliciting a date with an escort, or lurked about because they couldn't get a date any other way.
I was both right and wrong, of course. There were (and continue to be)those who were using the internet for those purposes and reasons, but there was a whole lot more I wasn't expecting to find and I was pleasantly surprised and rather dismayed in equal measure.
This now vast population that now congregates in cyberspace...
My own story is very similar to millions of others who now find themselves in this new frontier of cyberspace. From very humble beginnings as a user with nothing more than an email address, simple curiosity finally cause me to put my prejudices to one side and begin 'clicking around' to discover what else was to be found on this new medium they called the internet.That's when I discovered the rest of the world, and my own story echoes that of millions of others who now find themselves in this new frontier of cyberspace.
Like those millions of others, I began to 'follow my nose' to sites and subjects that interested me. The subject of my enquiries were chiefly of a spiritual/theological nature — Catholic spirituality and theology in particular. I found a proliferation of sites basically carrying advertising for programs/retreats/conferences I usually couldn't afford, held at times inconvenient to me and in places too geographically removed from my location to make participation possible. I also found a proliferation of Catholic Apologetics sites and a few news sites. But what I was really searching for was a place with a sense of 'community' — where I felt I could belong and could make contact with others like me. And again I stress, in a very short time there have grown to be millions just like me in cyberspace. I was looking for a place to explore and discuss issues relevant to my life.
I found two 'communities' that fell into one or both of these categories.One was a completely secular message board and the other was the CathNews discussion board attached to the Church Resources news portal. This discussion board was a place where CathNews readers were invited to comment on news articles and other relevant topics, but it quickly became clear to me that there was much greater potential for growth than that; it was a place where people like me could have meaningful conversation about matters of faith. As the contributors continued to patronise the board over time, I saw a level of trust borne and a sense of 'community' emerge as people shared their stories. The success or failure of the board hinged not only upon the quality of the contributions, but the way in which posters conducted themselves in the course of their discussions.
Two of the biggest challenges:
1. Sorting the 'chaff' from the 'wheat'...
Two of the biggest challenges I've faced in my time in cyberspace have been in sorting the 'chaff' from the 'wheat' when reading the offerings online. I soon learned that some sources could be trusted and others were pure donkey snot, and to find the good stuff was a very hit-and-miss affair. I also came to realise that it is challenging to convey a message in what is essentially a text-driven discussion forum sans the benefits of facial cues and body language. I've learned to make adjustments to how I express myself in this medium, all learned via the school of trial and error. Through being misunderstood on occasion, I have learned not to jump to conclusions about what a person doesn't say, and I've learned to ask for clarification when in doubt. (Not 'jumping off the deep end' in a discussion community has the added bonus that it usually takes an enormous number of posts to get things back on track, and I'm basically too lazy to do that much typing if it can at all be avoided!).
2. Netiquette: how I behave towards others matters no matter where the encounter takes place...
It became clear to me that this medium represented a new call to be a follower of Christ in my interactions with others online; that how I behave towards others matters no matter where the encounter takes place. Through befriending people from around the world, it soon began to dawn on me there had been a gradual shift in my consciousness and that I was developing a 'global awareness'. And from a faith perspective, the stark reality was that there was much work to be done in the fields of this frontier.
Sadly, 'board wars' have become a common feature of message boards and blogs I've encountered after what is now years as a keen user of the internet. Unfortunately human nature doesn't take a holiday just because we're in cyberspace. In fact, I suspect the sense of anonymity afforded by the medium only concentrates and heightens it.
The attitude of communication administrators and managers...
The people who participate in discussion boards are often dismissed as irrelevant by those charged with communications in our Church. I believe this attitude shows that they a) are passing up a golden opportunity to bring the Good News to a hungering world and b) don't understand the nature of a cyber-community and the huge potential, and dangers, therein.
While paying lip-service platitudes about the internet being the chief medium of global communication today there is seemingly this enormous fear to actually utilise it in ways that do 'build community' and 'bring the Good News to all'.The 85% of Catholics who no longer participate in the sacramental life of the Church are no longer in the churches, but out there in the world,and no one is trying to find them, let alone listen to them and try to address the problems. And 'out there in the world' increasingly means that they can be found — and communicated with — right hereon the internet. We are called to bring Good News 'to the ends of the earth', and nothing humanity has ever devised comes even close to the opportunities opening up via this means of global communication.
It is human nature to "congregate"...
Cyberspace may have begun principally as an information tool, but it has developed to become an interactive tool enabling users to make contact with each other. And wherever you find human beings, you find us congregating — it's our nature.
Congregating on the internet.
Milly in her studio.
This need to congregate has served us well since Adam was a boy and been the chief means by which humanity has developed to this day. We are drawn together like bees to honey and we prove it every time we gather around a birthday cake and sing 'Happy Birthday'. It is the way we celebrate significant events and go through rights of passage. Those who understand that it is part of our essential nature to be spiritual beings drawn to God (by whatever name) recognise the value of gathering together in prayer/praise/worship/thanksgiving.For those of us of the Catholic persuasion, we recognise the life-giving presence of Christ in gathering together as the Body of Christ, illuminated by the living Word of God, and nourished in Eucharist.
But Jesus didn't live in the synagogue all day either. He was out and about in the country-side mixing it up with the ordinary people. In fact,his life and his stories were about reaching out to be of service to others,and then charged us with the same mission. By virtue of our baptism, every single one of us are called "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord"in our daily lives. And in mine and that of millions of others, 'daily life' includes encounters with others on the internet.
The 'spiritual searchers' increasingly spend their time congregating on discussion boards of one stripe or another, and the numbers are growing all the time. But the vast majority of them are congregating far from the so-called public 'religious' discussion boards because they so often discover a site with a fortress mentality that is intolerant of genuine questioning as well as respectful debate.
We could bemoan 'the state of things' — or recognise the problem and become part of the solution. But this means that we need to take seriously our call to be witnesses of Christ and to "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord" in the frontier of cyberspace.
Milly will continue this commentary in a few weeks time after Easter. At present there are a number of pressures in her life coming from our own nuptials scheduled for Friday week, a couple of major misconceptions she has to complete before Easter, and another family celebration at Easter time. She wants to link the issues she has opened up in these first two commentaries firstly to observations she has picked up from the study of David A. Vise's book, The Google Story, and also to Catholic theology and scripture. In the meantime perhaps the discussion can be developed in our forum. _Ed
LINK:Brian Coyne published an earlier commentary on David A. Vise's book, TheGoogle Story on 5th February. It can be found HERE.
Milly is the pen name of musician and composer Amanda McKenna. She is the wife and business and creative partner of the Editor of Catholica, Brian Coyne.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.
[Index of Commentaries by Amanda McKenna]