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Social media and engaging rightly: in conversation with Megan Powell du Toit

Monday, 27 November 2017  | Matthew Anslow

Megan Powell du Toit’s recent contribution to Engage.Mail - in which she discusses engagement with and within social media - is well worth a read for those who may have missed it. This is particularly the case for those like me who, though users of social media, experience social media exhaustion and semi-regularly fantasise about deactivating all their accounts.

In her article, Powell du Toit points to the increasing popularity of fasting from social media. Her response to this trend of ‘social media asceticism’ is to acknowledge the legitimate place it may hold while also pointing to its potential pitfalls. Further, Powell du Toit rightly argues that social media, though fraught with potential problems, can be a genuinely relational meeting point - rather than simply a means of publication - whereby we can engage meaningfully with others and be transformed in the process.

I think it undeniable that social media can be a force for positive transformation. The recent #MeToo campaign is a case in point: Women across the world using social media to publicly identify that they had experienced sexual harassment or assault has, for many women and (especially) men, vigorously brought issues of patriarchy, sexual violence and rape culture to public attention in an unprecedented way. The discussions I witnessed on social media were, for the most part, respectful and transformative, with many men publicly acknowledging their shock and complicity, as well as committing to enacting various forms of change. The conversation continues, and a new normal regarding our response to violence against women is being forged, thanks in no small part to the communicative possibilities offered in social media.

Where Powell du Toit is perhaps most incisive in regard to criticisms of social media is in her call for accountability:

Social media is often accused of creating echo chambers. But let us take accountability for our own actions: it becomes so if we choose it to be so, just as in our physical communities we can have cliques and tribes.

Too often we complain about the character of interactions on social media without seeking to be disciplined in our own use of the medium, becoming passive onlookers rather than embodying the kind of alternative approach we call for.

I could go on, but Powell du Toit’s article speaks for itself, and I would encourage you to read it.

There are, however, several things that I think should be said about social media in response to Powell du Toit’s article.

The first is that, at least in my view, Powell du Toit draws too wide a distinction between fasting/asceticism and engagement. I am inclined to think that this distinction has been intentionally exaggerated in order to counter overly negative views of social media, and to this I am sympathetic.

Still, Powell du Toit’s characterisation of asceticism as a spirituality of detachment from the world is problematic, mostly because it seems to suggest that detachment equates to withdrawal. But the various traditions that champion spiritual practices such as fasting do not necessarily advise withdrawal (although, of course, some do). Rather, the purpose of ‘detachment’ is that the one who fasts learns to master their most basic desires, such as for food or comfort, so that they can learn to master their deeper and more harmful desires - greed, lust, envy, anger and so forth. As Thomas Merton writes:

We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. (New Seeds of Contemplation)

Fasting is rarely, if ever, permanent (try eating air indefinitely), but is a periodic act that trains the one who fasts to return to a particular practice without allowing it to control them.

To this end, I often advise regular fasting for Christians in a range of areas, including social media. I myself fast from social media regularly, though it would be a far cry to suggest I am unengaged with it. Protestants have been cautious and, oftentimes, uninformed about fasting and other ancient spiritual practices - not that I am suggesting Powell du Toit is uniformed - but it is to our detriment that we ignore them. To call for fasting from social media is not to advise non-engagement with it, but rather to call for social media (or whatever else) to be seen in its proper place, and for it to be denied the opportunity to master us. This is particularly relevant given the increasing rates of addiction to social media.

This brings me to my second point: The corporate nature of social media. While I agree with Powell du Toit’s call for a practice of meaningful activist engagement through social media, my concern is that this call on its own neglects careful attention to social media’s corporate purposes. Powell du Toit says:

At its best social media isn’t just a place of memes and chit-chat, but is relational, a place to love and be loved, to transform and be transformed. I would suggest that if we started calling it this – relational media – we will also transform our practice of it.

I do not disagree with this assessment, except to say that it is only part of the picture. It is easy to use social media daily as if it were a neutral platform, a blank slate on which we can meet one another. But this is naïve. Social media platforms are, at the end of the day, businesses. They collect data. They house advertising. They sell products. They promote preferred content via algorithms. And their owners benefit from our increasing rates of addiction (so-called ‘surveillance capitalism’), while we are, generally speaking, seeing our emotional well-being suffer. Whenever we log on to our social media accounts, we are being influenced by technocrats in ways we mostly do not understand.

None of this necessarily means we ought to withdraw from social media - after all, I met Megan Powell du Toit on Facebook! But it does mean that we ought to recognise our engagement there as occurring in a non-neutral, corporately-constructed space. So long as we are cognisant of this fact, we may be able to conscientiously engage on social media.

It is for this reason, and because social media is so omnipresent, that we require sustained theological reflection on its use. In some ways, theological reflections on social media will be a microcosm of our broader reflections on the Church’s engagement with the world, and will require us to ask similar missiological questions: Is the world/social media, as it stands, basically good or evil? What is the relationship between God and the world/social media? What is the telos (end purpose) of the world/social media? Who are we called to be, and what constitutes our witness in the world/on social media? If/when we are forced to choose, should we prioritise engagement or purity? And so forth. I do not claim these questions are profound, only that they are among many questions we must ask in regard to mission, including as it relates to social media.

Among my concerns is that we do not so esteem the practice of ‘engagement’ that we forget that we are meant to engage rightly, and I know I share this concern with Megan Powell du Toit. My suggestion would be twofold: First, that we can only engage rightly in an online community if we are accountable to an offline community, namely the church. Individuals detached from communities of faithful practice have consistently demonstrated their inability to engage civilly on social media, especially on platforms like Twitter. Christians must be mutually submitted to those in their churches if they are to be more than what they can be on their own. Second, we need to fuse our engagement to robust spiritual practices, including fasting. It is only through such practices that we can become detached from ourselves and our kingdoms, and be formed into the kind of people who engage the world in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Indeed, the contemplative tradition reminds us that who we are becoming is equally as important as what we are doing. Such wisdom is prescient in our current moment - a moment obsessed with self but lacking self-understanding - when we are constantly tempted to engage in the world without much awareness for the internal and external disorder we carry into it.

Matt Anslow is on the ministry team at Hope Uniting Church in Sydney, and is a founding organiser of Love Makes a Way. He recently completed his PhD in Theology, and along with his wife, Ashlee, and three children he is in the process of setting up an intentional community and permaculture farm in Kanimbla, NSW. Previously Matt worked for TEAR Australia, including as their social media coordinator.


Response from Megan Powell du Toit

Matt Anslow has followed a good and generous practice of sharing his response with me before publishing. Thanks Matt, and just the kind of gesture I would expect from you from our online relationship. I am glad you have engaged with the article, as this is precisely what I was hoping for – a more nuanced and in-depth discussion of a spirituality of social media.

I would accept your two main critiques of my piece as valid. As you suggest, I was indeed writing it as a corrective to what I had perceived as the previously quite one-sided treatment social media spiritual practice was receiving. Therefore, I say little about the benefits of practices of withdrawal, though I do think they exist. I would say my reaction is not so much against these practices per se, but against the previous characterisation of social media engagement as devoid of spirituality. A thoughtful use of both withdrawal and engagement as you suggest is in my mind a helpful approach. I suspect I’m biased towards engagement spirituality by inclination. Maybe you could challenge me to a social media fast, and we could share the results? In regard to social media addiction, I think many have been using the research in an unnuanced way, so there is room for further discussion and analysis there.

As for the corporate dimension, I do think this is an important issue in regard to social media, I just didn’t choose to examine it in the piece. I probably should have included some nod in that direction so that I didn’t give the impression that social media is a blank slate. My own thinking is that it has that corporate character, but that it can both break free of and transcend its own corporate masters and be used quite subversively – a thought that pleases me. I would love to discuss that more, Matt!

One final thought: You suggest we should remain accountable to an offline community. One of my practices is to set my Facebook account to show me people I meet up with day to day in real life first. In that way, I try to ground my social media experience within my other daily experiences of community. Yet, I would also say, that sometimes an online community can give us ways to interrogate unhelpful practices in our offline communities.

Matt, let the conversation continue – online and offline. Want to meet up for a cuppa?

Response by Matt Anslow

I would love to get together for a cuppa! Although I don't drink coffee or tea, and so I require some grace…

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