Why #socialmedia demands a revolution in #mission – a lecture sponsored by @youthscape and @stmellitus

This Monday I attended the 1st ever annual youthwork lecture sponsored by @Youthscape and @stmellitus .  It was held at  St. Mellitus College in Collingham Road, London SW5.  With a #SMCYS hashtag for tweets on the event its Eventbrite information was titled “The Stories In Which We Find Ourselves: Why social media demands a revolution in mission”.

The event was specifically aimed at those working with young people.  But the issues it raised on social media obviously have a wider application to all social media users the church engages with. The picture below is a mega summary of the points I took away. What follows after that is my take on the event in more detail – along with some of the slides shown and commentary provided by the speakers.  

As it happens the event coincided with some other events on similar topics this week:

Monday’s seminar in Oxford entitled Theological Futures: Digital and Ecological  – discussing issues like ‘What is the nature of the “hope” that will be required for human beings to navigate the challenges posed to us by the contemporary ecological crisis? ‘

– Tuesday’s #liedentity conference run by the Diocese of Gloucester with @BishGloucester– which addressed the growing issue of negative body image and the resulting mental and physical health difficulties especially for young people.

Today’s announcement that MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee are to investigate the impact of social media and screens on youth. “We want to determine the scale of the issues – separating out the understandable concerns from the hard evidence, and to identify what practical measures people are already taking to boost the benefits and blunt the potential harms. “


Doors opened 6pm, nibbles and drinks were available and the event started at 6.30pm and finished 8.30pm.  


After a brief series of plugs for St. Mellitus courses and some Youthscape research coming out next Monday St. Mellitus’ Alice Smith @youthworkmum – their youth work tutor – 

introduced the event and its format. There were three parts to the lecture – a short overview of social media platforms, a longer reflection on the philosophical/theological issues surrounding social media, a third section on thoughts as to what this all meant for youth workers and a Q&A at the end. 

An overview of young people’s use of social media

@lahnapottle – a specialist on 16-19 year olds from Youthscape – led this first session.  Lahna gave a quick overview of Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, You Tube, WhatsApp, Facebook and music.ly .  Common features across many of these platforms were various filters for editing pictures to allow the “perfect” selfie to be posted. 

– Some like Snapchat and Instagram only kept pictures shared for a limited time before they were deleted and gone for ever, (although as I recall other apps/phones can capture smartphone screen images – so the auto-delete functionality doesn’t guarantee pictures won’t be stored elsewhere and shared later).  

Snapchat’s Streaks feature keeps track of the number of consecutive days of messaging between friends – so people refer to a “200 day streak” – and some young people use this measure to quantify how serious their friendships are.

– Youtube’s autoplay feature starts up the next clip when the current one has finished.  So people can easily spend a lot of time on youtube watching clips served up to them by the sites’ algorithms.  90% of 13-17yr olds use YouTube and the site has created a number of new stars.  Younger people watch more youtube than cable or TV.

– A current top 10 app for 11-13 year olds is Musical.ly on which you can film a lip sync video to share within the app.  The app has created a number of musical.ly lip synching stars.

– Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat users were 3-4 times more likely to come across cyber-bullying, (compared with twitter and you-tube users)
– Facebook and Instagram were the worst in terms of their impact on well-being and mental health.

Lahna had limited time to cover a vast subject.  So by necessity there must have been much she’d have liked to say but didn’t have time for.  From my perspective I guess I’d add the following three points to her overview of social media apps …

1) social media platforms are not neutral.  Of course they market themselves as a neutral platform that individuals can use to interact with others and express themselves.  But they are also businesses which promise advertisers, (and those seeking to influence elections), highly targetable options to get their message to the right people.  All of this functionality uses the data we reveal via our online interactions and which we often don’t knowingly give specific and explicit permission to be used.  (Thus the well known social media quote – “If the product is free you are the product”).

2) social media apps amplify our own unconscious bias.  They use algorithms to work out what we like and view and then serve up more of the same to us.  So they magnify our unconscious bias to follow and listen to those with views and tastes similar to our own.

3) the larger social media companies behave just like monopoly suppliers.  Their owners promote themselves as innovators and entrepreneurs facilitating a better and more informed world.  But as they become big capitalist businesses they tend to behave like a monopoly – creating expensive barriers to entry to markets and/or buying out any competitors before they become a threat.  So for example  – Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012 and acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion.

How can philosophy and theology help in understanding social media

Dr John McDade, ( former Principal of Heythrop College, University of London ), then talked through some of the philosophical and theological issues around social media. 

In doing so he shared various quotes from other thinkers on some of the deeper issues around understanding ourselves and our self image.  I’ve arranged some of John’s insights around some themes that I discerned when reviewing his slides and points.  ( I make this point as John didn’t explicitly have “headings” to sections of his lecture).

The modern world and Christianity

Towards the beginning of his lecture John made a comment something like “people don’t want to feel about themselves the way they think Christianity will make them feel”.  He also showed the quote below to make the point that the current pope – unlike the previous two – isn’t fighting with modernity. 

Later on in the lecture one of his slides had the following quote “God is missing and is not missed” – and after that the slide made this point –  “Many people now live in a de-sacralised world in which God is not mentioned, but in which digital versions of reality are increasingly pervasive.  Are these related?”  

What I took from these points was that christians need to recognise that the world has changed and it won’t be changing back to some fondly remembered arrangement in which traditional approaches to mission worked.  So if we want to engage with the world – mission – we need to change how we do that.

Humans – wonderfully made but imperfect

On one slide John wrote “The worship of false gods in which we invest our intention is only to be expected”.  On another slide, (below), he reflected on humans’ imperfections.

On the theme of idols his slides had several quotes …

“Recognising idols for what they are does not break their enchantment” WH Auden

“A society whose members are helpless need idols” Erich Fromm

– “Man differs from the other animals in his greater aptitude for imitation” Aristotle

John summarised some of this on a slide which said that – for Girardimitation is closely linked to desire, desire is linked to need (neglect), need drives us toward idols and unreality.

Believe in your Selfie – What I took from these points is that although made in the image of God humans are pre-disposed to replace God with idols – which they then try to imitate to feel needed. Social media is just the latest tool that allows us to replace God with idols. 

The impact of digital culture on the sense of self and the sense of God

Using a combination of slides and commentary John described how as a child he had played cowboys and Indians – and in that make believe world he had “killed” hundreds of Indians.  He pondered whether virtual/digital reality might infantilise us with its elements of play-acting (masquerade).  Pre social media this “playing” was evident in how pop-stars, (think Madonna or Bowie), reinvented themselves several times.  The arrival of social media created a way for more people to re-invent themselves in an imagined second self.

John quoted Pascal (1623-62) and his insights on :

– our dissatisfaction with our lives “we are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and our own being.  We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others and so to make an impression”

– how imagination allows us to escape that dissatisfaction – imagination is the dominant faculty in people, master of error and falsehood, all the more deceptive for not being invariably so”

He also quoted D Bromwich on the physical self, second self theme – “It is not enough for us to be real to ourselves within ourselves.  We want to be completely special, yet we want to be completely normal.”

Briefly John also looked at the use of avatars in digital games and realities – how quickly people identified with their avatar and how some people thought that together – the physical and the digital  – “we make one complete person”.

He also relayed a story from 2007 of a married couple who – separately – using false names in an online chat room   thought they had found their soulmate who they could pour their heart out to.

Sonia 27 (“Sweetie” in the chatroom) – “I was suddenly in love.  It was amazing, we seemed to be stuck in the same kind of miserable marriages”

So they arranged a physical date with each other – only to discover that the other person was in fact their current partner.  In 2007 they were getting divorced and accusing each other of being unfaithful.

Adnan 32 (“Prince of Joy” in the chatroom) – “I still find it hard to believe that Sweetie, who wrote such wonderful things, is actually the same women I married who has not said a nice word to me for years”

All of these observations led to some questions

and some observations ….

also …

– what we attend to is what we worship,

– how do we help people develop a truthful sense of self?

And now for some theology

Across a number of slides John summarised James A Smith’s “Desiring the kingdom; Worship, Worldview and cultural formation” and his four features of our nature ….

1. Humans are intentional creatures whose way of ‘intending’ [directing their focus and purpose] is LOVE or DESIRE.

2. This love (often unconscious and non-cognitive) is always aimed at some particular version of the good life.  (We aim always to flourish even though we make bad choices).

3. There are always sets of habits and dispositions that prime us to be oriented, and to act, in certain ways.  (What your body does your soul registers).

4. Affective, bodily means, such as bodily practices, routines and rituals, grab hold of the heart through the imagination and form the person.  (We always shape or condition ourselves: and the way we do this folds back on the way we are).  You are never without your conditioner!  We create a culture that express our nature, and in turn that nature comes back and re-models us.

So as John sees it – 

– Smith offers a perspective on the formation of identity that shifts the focus away from an issue of ‘knowledge’ (what I believe at the level of ideas) to one of ‘affect’ or ‘affection’ (what or whom do I love?)

– Generally religious people place too much emphasis on what people believe conceptually. ‘Hope’ is a more interesting opening on the human heart.

– What do the rituals of your body tell you to be?

– The task for humans is how to find our way to non-idolatrous worship.

– “These days, most people do not name as ‘gods’ the gods they worship” (N. Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence 38).

– Love requires practice, and practices confirm and express love.  Smith thinks of two kinds of practices or habits

In more on thin practices John set out that ,,,

– Thin practices might have unintended consequences such as their effect on the way we think and feel.  We can be shaped by trivial matters.

– No practice is neutral – there is always some goal (human flourishing in some fashion) and there is always some effect.

– Is dependence on digital reality a ‘thin’ habit?  Or ….

On more detail on Thick habits John set out that …

– Smith analyses and evaluates a range of activities as ‘liturgies’, ‘rituals of worship’

– Liturgies are ‘ritual practices that function as pedagogies of ultimate desire (87)
(Note: ped . a .go . gy  – n. 1) the art or profession of teaching, 2) preparatory training or instruction)

There can be ‘secular’ activities that are in fact ‘rituals of worship’

Thoughts as to what this all means for youth workers

In the final session @martinsaunders shared some thoughts on practical ideas from the various points and observation in the lecture.  He had four points:

Young people need space to find the real them … without the filters that social media apps provide.  A chance to look at their “1st attempt selfie”.  Of course for youth workers this equally challenges them to ask whether they have found the real me.

Teenagers find adventure and purpose in online communities … and we need to help them accept the adventure of a radical Christian life.

The non-stop digital life is exhausting … provide refuge experiences of meditation, fasting and silence to allow people to unhook and reflect.

The world of young people has changed … we need to understand those changes to gain an insight into how young people experience life.

via Blogger http://bit.ly/2omKDUF


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s