The New Digital Divide, Sojourners Magazine

Religion / Web/Tech

Andrew Sears charges in a new article that the online Christian world is becoming just as segregated and divided as the real world – at least in terms of which type of Christians other Christians will associate with online.

There are websites for liberal Christians with full networks of links and websites for conservative Christians, with separate and mostly orthogonal sets of links. Comments are made only within the appropriate network, and each network creates it’s own in-crowd jargon.

Sears writes:

“[A]s more people get online, they are encountering another type of digital divide: the online segregation of Christians. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, ‘Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.’ Most Christians are friends with and worship largely with people of their own racial background. We are segregated not only by race, but also by social class and income. As a result of injustice, the average income and wealth of African-American and Latino Christians are lower than that of white Christians.

As the recent book Divided by Faith points out, the segregation of the church results in a separation between rich and poor communities, which in turn perpetuates injustice. For example, a church member in a very re sourced church who is looking for a job may get 10 referrals from friends in the church, whereas someone in a church where half of the attendees are unemployed might not get any referrals.

You can see a similar segregation reflected in profiles of Christians on online social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace; most people will have friends with backgrounds similar to their own. If everyone links to people they know, the result is that a disproportionate number of resourced individuals and ministries will link to each other, while ministries serving under-resourced communities are stuck in a virtual ghetto. The rich link to the rich, while the poor link to the poor.”

Read the full article here.

The frustrating thing is that this is so obviously true within even denominations of supposedly like-minded believers. If you look at the link lists of most Episcopal websites you’ll see that there’s very little cross listing of “enemy” websites. Instead people will list only the sites they agree with and try to steer readers into staying within the acceptable online neighborhoods. (Kendall Harmon’s site is a notable exception. And in my own small way I’ve tried to do the same thing.)

The danger here is that we end up only talking and listening to people we agree with. Rather than having opinions and stances robustly challenged, we’re more likely merely to have our preconceived notions confirmed and perhaps our rapier-like bon mots sharpened.

In online parlance this is called “the echo chamber”. And its deadly to communities that fall into the trap.

You see it on tech sites all the time. Windows sites won’t actively engage the sites of other operating systems. Macintosh sites won’t do anything but snipe at windows users. And Linux users just look down their noses at everyone.

You’d think that Christians would be able to avoid this. Or at least you’d expect that Anglicans – who were formed to be as comprehensive as possible – would be alert at least to the dangers. But no.

I do think the one slightly optimistic point though is that it’s worse in my experience in the online world than it is in real life. Most parishes are likely to contain a pretty wide diversity of opinion. That’s because in real life we see each other’s full personhood and tend to have more context about the people in our community. Online we can only know what a person shares about themselves, and that only in as much as we take the time to digest the totality of the sharing.

Because we’re more likely to see each other as two-dimensional cut-out characters online rather than the fully three-dimenisional people, it’s just so much easier and faster to associate with those with whom we agree rather than take the time and make the effort to get to know those whom we are convinced are irredeemably wrong.

It takes real and perhaps more self-discipline to be able to see another online person (or avatar) as a living breathing human being with the same fears and emotional scars as we have.

Perhaps what’s needed is a new set of virtues for the online denizens of the web. Maybe like the virtue of online empathy and the application of the hermeneutic of charity.

It would be a start…

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Christopher says

    I think the problem is deeper, that we would expect listening in the Benedictine sense to generally happen in a media and format that is most geared to debate, tit-for-tat, and rarely capable of making present a person. The two types of listening are not the same thing, and yet they have too often been conflated by Anglicans in recent times, so that theological debate is equated with “listening with the ear of the heart”. As Derek has pointed out, the latter is sitting quietly as another speaks (and occasionally writes) to discern what of God and of sin is working in one anothers lives. The former can do none of this because it preordains that listening is about theological debate and by doing so sets up persons to be reduced to ideology wrapped in theological language. I think at his best Archbishop Williams was trying to delineate this difference, but Anglicans are not Benedictines and so we were not as a whole trained to do this.
    Personally, I rarely encounter a day that doesn’t challenge my existence; I don’t need to compound that with internet bombardings and arguments and often ad hominem attacks. I search out folks on the Net that have something to say about prayer and kindness and personal discipleship, about how Christ is being worked out in their lives, rather than are mostly interested in my sexuality and church politics or obsessed with ecclesiology.

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