One of the fun things about browsing the internet is that you can always find something new. But, of course, new internet discoveries are almost always a mixed bag. What are they for? What are they doing for people? Who uses this? Sometimes, even after I figure out some of that stuff, I end up realizing that it might be cool, but it’s nothing I’ll ever get any use or genuine enjoyment from.
But then there are things that might turn out to be useful – for example, Twitter and Tumblr.
If you keep up with the news you have probably heard about Twitter. With professional athletes being fined for using it, and with campaigns sending out political information on it, and with companies running their customer service transparently through it, it is difficult not to be aware of the name.
For those of you who don’t know about Twitter, here’s a quick summary. It is designed to get a short thought out on the internet quickly. People find your post in one of two main ways: they might search Twitter for a certain keyword that is found in your post, or they might be “following” you, in which they will see every new thought you post to Twitter. When I say that Twitter is designed for short thoughts, I mean short: 140 letters, maximum. For this reason, posts are often gnomic – a short quote, a joke, a witty saying – or they are links to longer articles elsewhere on the internet.
One function of twitter is that it becomes a way to discover news. When you are following people who are interested in things similar to you, they are often posting to Twitter links to articles that you might never have seen otherwise. Also, Twitter becomes a sort of ongoing commentary on world events. Something happens, and suddenly everyone has their 140-character opinion about it. Finally, if something someone says is very funny or memorable, it quickly spreads across twitter, as people “re-tweet” – post what someone else posted – to their own stream. Ideas, thoughts, comments can quickly spread and be shared.
The most unexpected recent group to step into Twitter is the Vatican. Ironically, it happened that the Vatican joined Twitter just as the New York Times began its recent series of articles attempting to link the Pope more directly to mis-handling of abuse cases. The use of Twitter did not do anything to help the back-foot response to the articles. In addition, the Vatican, especially at first, only posted once a day. This means that people who are following a number of different Twitter feeds might only see the Vatican’s posts if they happen to log on soon after the Vatican posts an item. In other words, the Vatican does not seem yet to be very conscious of just how Twitter works and how to use it better. For people to pay attention to your posts, you have to be a frequent and repeated presence. If you’re going to post once a day, it is not very helpful.
Another new service available on the Internet is called Tumblr. It promotes itself as “the easiest way to blog.” I find two features of it compelling. One is that it allows for a wide variety of eye-catching designs, that reflect the theme or the tone of your blogging. There is the quote I mentioned before from Marshall McLuhan, namely that “People don’t actually read newspapers, they step into them like a warm bath.” Design of the blog is part of the message – it says, “I’m like you,” or “I’m funny,” or it might say, “Look at this!” Tumblr makes radically various design an integral part of the medium.
The other compelling thing is that Tumblr is not limited to words. So much of blogging is wordy. I think of our own blog, WD (whosoeverdesires), as a classic blog in this sense. It is built around 1000-word columns, with a picture or two, and a link or two. But Tumblr has people posting photos, chats, text, music, a flood of interesting info dispensed in various lengths and formats. It attempts to mirror the variety of the web on one’s personal webpage.
What is the spiritual side of all this? There are a couple of things I have noticed. On the side of Twitter, I wonder, as so many people have, about the quality of communication. It is a bit like stepping into a noisy school cafeteria, where you pick up snippets of conversation, and most of it is snide or comic. Twitter is not going to be a convenient medium for deep personal contact, or, for that matter, preaching the Gospel. It is not designed for reflection and conversion, but for pithy quotes, or channeling news and information to people.
On the side of Tumblr, one of the things I have picked up is just how the visual side of tumblr has attracted a sort of low vulgarity. A common title for a Tumblr page is “#*%$ yeah, ______________!” where the blank is someone or something the blogger loves. It’s a way for a fan to post pictures and thoughts quickly for a place, a band, or a celebrity. It is also an extremely convenient way to share porn masquerading as art. As I mentioned earlier, Tumblr attempts to allow individuals to mirror on their blogs the variety and multiplicity of the internet. The internet is overwhelmed with porn, and, sadly, Tumblr reflects that side of the internet too.
As might be expected, from what I can tell Tumblr remains an outpost of the internet with very little influence from Christianity. To use the Jesuits as a specific example, Jim McDermott, S.J. has a Tumblog, but no other Jesuits that I know of. There may be a number of reasons for this. One may be the vulgarity that we just spoke of. There can be a fear of mixing it up with such a rowdy bunch of folks. What is more, Tumblr has a tendency to mix media together in a way that may not seem conducive to models of word-based evangelization. In my experience, Jesuits are often a wordy bunch — frequently not very visual.
In light of the many people who use Twitter (105 million) and Tumblr (4.4 million), a big part of me is uncomfortable with how little explicit presence there is from Christian sources. If these are the places that people gather, if this is the modern town-square, marketplace, forum, how can those who want to preach the Gospel not show up? It is passages such as Acts 17:16-17 that haunt me: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he grew exasperated at the sight of the city full of idols. So he debated in the Synagogue with the Jews and with the worshipers, and daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there.” These are the public squares, where we see people worshiping their gods – how can we not want to be with them? Is the medium inconvenient? So was the marketplace. Is it noisy with vulgarity? So was the public square.
So let’s go meet some Athenians.