Social media as formation

Adam is right that what we do on social media has analogies with liturgy. But it’s that analogy which highlights the problems with his broader argument about the aimlessness of those liturgical practices. Liturgy is not merely vain repetition, dead ritual. It forms us; it trains us in particular habits of body, of affect, of mind. Liturgy is social, and so it is political. That’s not to say it’s good – for every politically radical celebration of the Eucharist there’s a counter-example of liturgy functioning to maintain an instrument of kyriarchal domination – or even necessarily transformative – it can function to maintain a status quo as easily as to create a new kind of social order. But it is formative.

In some ways it’s true that, on Twitter at least, I inhabit a kind of social and political bubble. It didn’t take me long to get over the liberal desire to ensure that my timeline was a nice balance of people I agreed with and people I disagreed with: I no longer think I’m going to learn anything of value from paying attention to Tories. But it’s also true that, over the last ten years or so, my Twitter community changed me than almost any other group I belong to. It’s not just that my political views are different. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that Twitter rites have changed my affective response to the world around me. I no longer feel safer when I see police walking around my neighbourhood. I no longer feel sentimental and inspired by Christian anti-trafficking campaigns. And it has changed my practice: I read different books than I would have done; I teach different texts; I spend my time and my money and my energy differently.

Of course, Twitter didn’t have to change me, at least not as much as it has. I probably could  have joined a more familiar kind of community there, one where I already knew the appropriate words and movements by rote. But the problem isn’t routine as such. If there’s anything my charismatic evangelical upbringing taught me it’s that when you try to reject liturgy in the name of constant, personal and original engagement, what you tend to end up with isn’t spontaneous and authentic invention, it’s just shoddy ritual. Communities develop habits over time; they produce shared practices and affective responses. What if the choice isn’t between liturgy and meaningful action in the world but between good liturgies and bad ones?

6 thoughts on “Social media as formation

  1. Yes! The oft-lamented “social media echo chamber” effect is not remedied by a “both sides” liberality that maintains the binary in which I occupy one pole reinforced by its opposite. There is no good that comes from that kind of balance; I am as reinforced in my beliefs by their opposites as I am by those who agree with me. The polarization reproduces itself on both sides. We become different people, hopefully better people, by hearing truly other voices that enable us to be critical of ourselves and our self-reproducing formations.

  2. Using social media as a systematic tool of education is a real phenomenon. I could share similar stories of how I have been impacted. But that seems almost like a counter-use of social media, and I wonder how long it can remain sustainable. Yes, the frontiers of social justice are always expanding and you can always learn more about how different communities are articulating their struggle and strategies, etc., but it still seems to me that it’s the very nature of social media to have a HUGE inertial effect toward the kind of dynamic I describe in my post — reinforced by the fact that both major social media services do a terrible job of preserving safe spaces for the kind of social media education you describe. Similarly, I would suggest that it’s not some weird statistical anomaly that most celebrations of the Eucharist are not politically subversive.

  3. What is it about social media specifically that you think makes it tend towards inertia, as opposed to any other kind of social interaction? Don’t the majority of human interactions tend to reflect and therefore reinforce the status quo?

  4. Marika Rose, my two cents/sense… There isn’t a qualitative difference between social media and say, reading a newspaper. Why social media is further along the spectrum is that it is better able to serve our immediate sensibilities. Take for example the fact that you are able to prune Tories from your feed.

    It is better able to serve our immediate sensibilities due to technology recording our interactions and distilling our preferences, social media offers us click bait in order to serve us as the product for advertisers.

    I think education requires, in some sense, a consistency of application which is not always pleasurable. And so, minus institutional force to keep one on track there is nothing inherent in social media that tips individuals towards learning growth.

  5. I think it depends on the social media! I’ve been exposed to a much wider range of political and social perspectives on twitter than pretty much anywhere else; on Facebook, not so much. Both are to some significant extent what we make of them: we have some freedom to pick the kind of community we want to be part of. And sure, social media companies aim to maximise profitable interactions, but depending to some extent on the platform that’s not necessarily what happens: it’s interesting to me that Twitter is the platform that’s felt most educative and transformative and also the one that’s consistently struggled to make a profit.

  6. In an STS ethnography of cattle farming, John Law and Vicki Singleton define ritual as patterned and patterning repetitions of heterogenous relations. I think this definition is generative insofar as it reminds us that digital practices are as world-building as any other; it provokes a sense of the materiality of social engagement online. If “ritual” is actually a call to remain accountable to the relations that we shape and are shaped by, then social platforms (and their limits, omissions, and shades of neoliberal “choice”, clicktivism, Ahmedian “happy stories,” homonational “multiculturalism,” etc…) can also act as fertile sites for ethical engagement beyond the strictures of Christian-colonial/capitalist individualism. In part, this may also be an exercise of imagining ways to intervene in the format, to disrupt the expected use, to spam, to contest representations, to post poetry or glossolalia, etc…

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