Considering how much of our lives is now spent online, there seems to be remarkably little reflection by British Friends about how this might affect or be influenced by our Quaker practice. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the internet in Quaker faith & practice, which was produced in 1994, shortly before internet use became widespread in the UK.
Over the last twenty years, online tools such as email, blogs and social networking have already begun to affect aspects of Quaker culture and practice. They also exercise more subtle influences on our modes of consciousness, identity, relationships and spirituality. Some of these have been considered by Young Friends General Meeting, which has produced several 'Advices & Queries' on the use of communications technology, including this thought-provoking passage:
'Consider the value of communications technology in nurturing or re-establishing relationships and communities where physical distance or time may be barriers. Which form of technology is most appropriate? The written word or electronic images may be interpreted differently when viewed without interaction in person. Be careful of over dependence on this sense of constant connectivity and consider 'switching off' from time to time. Time alone can provide its own source of spiritual nourishment.'
Social media and other online media offer powerful tools for enabling, nurturing and re-establishing relationships. They have obvious benefits for overcoming barriers of distance, particularly for people who are geographically isolated or who have difficulties with mobility. Social media have also created new possibilities for Quaker ministry. In the USA, Quaker bloggers have had a significant influence on the wider Quaker culture through the 'Convergent Friends' movement and the blogging network at QuakerQuaker. Quaker bloggers also respond to and share each other's writings, and readers comment on posts and discuss them with each other, creating a lively shared dialogue. In some ways this echoes the vigorous pamphleteering of early Friends, which made use of the new communications technology of the printing press to create a new participatory culture of religious publishing.
As with all forms of religious ministry, blog writing requires a degree of maturity and self-discipline. Bloggers can easily be tempted by the absence of editorial oversight to fall into self-righteous or aggressive posturing. At their best, Quaker blogs offer an extraordinary range of insightful, informed and spiritually profound written ministry. Steven Davison has written about our times as a 'third golden age of Quaker theology', partly due to the extraordinary range and depth of Quaker writing online, which is becoming an increasingly important vehicle for prophetic and teaching ministry.
Many Friends are also using online technologies for conducting Quaker practices, including committee business and 'online Meetings for Worship'. These applications raise the question of how the relationships we have with others at a distance differ from those that are face-to-face. There seems to have been remarkably little collective discernment about the role of these innovations in our shared Quaker practice. There is some guidance from Quaker Life on teleconferencing for business meetings, which recommends restricting telephone conferences to matters that do not require significant discernment. This implicitly acknowledges that there may be significant limits to long-distance communication.
Meeting together in virtual space, we can scarcely avoid presenting a persona that is only a fragment of who we are as whole people. This is certainly not a new phenomenon; it has been a part of human experience since people started communicating regularly by letter (the pen is also a 'communication technology'). In modern times, however, there is a widespread assumption that any differences between long-distance and face-to-face relationships are relatively trivial, and that text-based communication or Skype conversations are effectively equivalent to meeting in person. This seems to neglect the extent to which who we are is not fully reflected by our written words. It is intimately bound up with our embodied presence.
A disregard for the significance of the body is one of the pathologies of the current technological era. There is a widespread fantasy that we are essentially disembodied brains that unfortunately just happen to be imprisoned in fleshy bodies. In reality our bodies are integral to our identity and relationships. My language-based persona can communicate with others in virtual space, and these conversations can, of course, be satisfying and helpful, and may also lead to or complement face-to-face relationships. But full human relationships, which are what we aim at in Quaker community, depend on physical presence. In a recent discussion on Quaker Renewal UK, Gordon Ferguson wrote:
“For me being a 'whole person' includes physical embodiment, emotional engagement and intimate relationships in family and friends, and in the physical place where I am. I therefore by definition cannot be a 'whole person' in social media. You only see a small (and to me relatively unimportant) part of the wholeness of body, place and relationships that is me. And in particular you only see the intellectual, rational, language-limited part of me... If you want to get to know me, you need to come to our (to know me is to know my wife, Chriss) home and share food and drink, and join us in worship, and walk with us in our neighbourhood and meet our friends.”
Quaker worship is not exclusively an activity of the rational, disembodied mind (albeit it is easy to receive this impression in some meetings). Our physical presence is not irrelevant to our participation in communal worship. Worship is the response of our whole being to the presence of God – a response which involves our bodies and the physical presence of our fellow worshippers at least as much as our words and thoughts.
It seems unavoidable that the experience of participation in an 'online Meeting for Worship' will be significantly different from worshipping together in the same place. Clearly this practice is helpful to the people who take part in it, but it is not clear to me that we should consider it 'the same thing' as Quaker worship. The growing use of online communications for Quaker business and worship calls for collective discernment about the role of these practices, rather than taking for granted that what we do online is the same as what happens in person, simply because we are using the same word for it.
Online networks are often referred to as 'communities', but this is community in a significantly different sense to the embodied relationships of our Meetings and neighbourhoods. An essential element of local community is that we cannot evade accountability for our words and actions. In our Quaker meetings we know that what we do and say will have potentially long-lasting consequences for our relationships with each other, which may affect our lives beyond the Meeting House. Purely online relationships do not necessarily have this characteristic. Participants in an online group or discussion can instantly disappear, and may choose to be anonymous or adopt an alternative identity. It is this capacity for anonymity, combined with the increased potential for misunderstandings and lack of contextual information, that encourages such widespread hostility and argumentativeness in online discussions, including in Quaker forums.
Online discussion forums seems to work best when they are related to physical communities and maintain some connection with face-to-face relationships. Local or area meeting blogs can function extremely well as forums for sharing ideas and discussion for this reason. The Sheffield Quakers blog, for example, has been running continuously for ten years, with a consistently high level of considerate and thoughtful contributions, even when discussing the sort of controversial issues that invariably give rise to hostile exchanges in more anonymous contexts. When writing for this blog, or posting on the Quaker Renewal UK group, I am conscious of the Friends from my own and other meetings who might read it, and the potential effect on our relationships in other contexts. This awareness has been a helpful restraint when I have sometimes been tempted to express myself in an overheated or ungenerous manner.
The effect of ubiquitous communications technology on the quality of our consciousness is controversial. Claims of 'internet addiction' and reduced attention span are controversial, but there does seem to be a strong tendency toward compulsiveness in our relationship with tools such as email and Facebook, including excessive checking of emails and feeling anxious when deprived of internet access. Whether or not we call this kind of behaviour 'addiction', it is something that anyone who is trying to follow a spiritual practice should be concerned about. We are all aware of the way that email and social media can easily invade our mental worlds; creating a sense of information overload, a pressure to read and respond to ever-growing volumes of communication, and social anxiety about how we are regarded by others. It is easy for us to dismiss such concerns as trivial, or shuffle them off into a mental compartment that is separated from our spiritual life. But our spiritual practice is the whole of our life, and anything that affects our consciousness, behaviour and relationships is a part of our spiritual life, for good or ill.
The condition of our consciousness, and our capacity for sustained, concentrated attention, is of particular importance for Quakers, whose spiritual practice is grounded in a continuous awareness of the Inward Guide and sensitivity to the 'promptings of love and truth' in our hearts. Where we find that our relationship with any technology has a tendency to disrupt this balanced awareness, we need to take it seriously. As with other practices, we are free make conscious decisions about the way that we use technology, rather than accepting the typical patterns of our culture as inevitable. Having recognised this in my own life, I have established the discipline of a 'Sabbath rest' from online communication each Sunday. I find that having at least one day each week without checking emails or social media helps me to regularly detach from the impulse to become dependent on constant connectivity. This helps to re-establish a quality of consciousness that is not restlessly seeking stimulation and distraction. Some Friends find other ways to avoid getting lost in distraction, such as choosing internet passwords that remind them to be mindful or take a break from the screen, or even restricting their computer's internet access at certain times.
What is your relationship with online media? Do you have practices that help to keep it in balance? Are there ways that social media supports your spiritual practice or ministry?