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From celibacy (my last post) to dating. I hear a lot, in pastoral conversations, about how difficult it can be for single people to meet others; or, having met them, how hard it is to take the relationship to a deeper and more committed level. But the extra difficulty today, it seems, is that many people don’t even know what they are looking for in a relationship; and if they do, they are psychologically hard-wired – because of mobile phones and social media – to undermine the very relationship they want.

Rebecca Holman moves from examining her own relationships to some more general points about why dating is so difficult today.

I have called myself single for the past decade. Strange then, I realised recently, that I have rarely been properly on my own. I haven’t lived with a boyfriend, introduced anyone to my parents, or been on a mini-break. Yet even without an official ‘boyfriend’ there are normally several text conversations with potential beaus buzzing away on my phone.

I also tend to have a few guys on a low-level stalk on Facebook, and there’s always that frisson of excitement when an attractive man retweets one of my ‘LOLz-ier’ status updates. I might be missing out on love, but I’m never short of intrigue, and right now intrigue seems more fun.

Some of this intrigue even becomes actual, real-life, human interaction and perhaps… more. But mostly I’ve found myself in a perpetual state of limbo – stuck somewhere between first encounter, a hook-up and a full-blown relationship. It’s thanks in part to social media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have turned the dating world upside-down, changing how we meet people, what we know about them before we do – and introducing a new layer of ambiguity into single life that generations before us never had to contend with.

I am not in a relationship – or in what someone 20 years older than me would consider a relationship – yet rarely am I definitively single. There is not quite a word for what I am. Our vocabulary is straining as much as we are to encompass the world of modern dating.

What’s going on historically/psychologically here? It’s partly the fear of commitment, the need to endlessly keep one’s options open, and the mismatch between unrealistic fantasy and reality. Holman explains:

If, like me, you’re a ‘millennial’ (born between 1983 and 2000) you will have never known adulthood – or adult relationships – without a mobile phone. Like me, you are probably so used to keeping your options open – and not deciding what you’re doing on a Friday night until about 6.59pm that evening – that the idea of ‘dating’ seems pretty foreign. Actually phone someone up to ask them out and agree on a date at some point in the future and put it in my diary? Unthinkable. What if I get a better offer? Instead, millennials like to keep it vague. Instead of dating (an American term anyway) we might be ‘seeing someone’, ‘having a thing’, ‘hooking up’. Increasingly, we ‘hang out’ – and not necessarily as a twosome.

Ours is a generation of contradictions. We bravely (recklessly?) let the rest of the world into our online world with gay abandon: you’d like to see 50 pictures of me on a bikini on the beach? Go ahead! Want to know how I’m feeling at this exact moment? Here you are! But in the world of endless options, where nothing seems permanent, and you never have to interact with anyone face to face if you don’t want to, me actually picking up the phone, telling someone how I feel about them, or even asking them out for dinner seems like too big a risk. Why make a phone-call or suggest a date when you can send a non-committal text that merely dangles the possibility of meeting? If they’re keen, you’ll see each other; if not, they’ll plead prior plans. No one’s feelings get hurt.

But at least one of you can end up feeling confused. The social psychologist Ben Voyer warns that while texting and online messaging are perceived to be easier than face-to-face contact or a telephone conversation, in the medium to long term they can make things more difficult. (Was last Friday a ‘date’? Your guess is as good as mine.)

‘Face-to-face contact is much richer. We have more visual and audio cues to help us form an impression of someone.’ Of course endless texting will never offer the same insight into someone’s personality as even a single face-to-face conversation. The I-don’t-know-what-is-going-on phase of a proto-relationship can continue far longer now. You can become vastly experienced in the heady yet confusing dance of Early Days – I have had years of it, and know all the steps – yet remain an ignoramus about the mysterious state of proper Girlfriend and Boyfriend.

Yet it’s so easy to get carried away with texting or instant messaging. Having just counselled a friend through an ambiguous ‘relationship’ characterised by furious text conversations and the occasional meet-up, I then found myself helping another friend decide what to wear when she met up with a man whose activities she’d been obsessively following on Facebook for months. So, how did it go? ‘It wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped it would be…’ admitted my friend afterwards. ‘I think he was a little tired.’

Such disappointment shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Emma Weighill-Baskerville, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist. ‘The person may not fulfil the fantasy created through literary communication alone – this is only one piece of an individual. With texts, you are allowing a large space for fantasy to take over.’

The common business of ‘researching’ potential dates on Facebook, Twitter and Google can lead to similar disappointment – especially for a generation like mine, who curate their Facebook pages to PR-worthy standards. One friend furiously edits her Facebook page when a man she likes accepts her friend request. ‘I don’t bother to use Facebook the rest of the time, but when someone interesting pops up I’m all over it, uploading flattering pictures, subjecting my friends to a barrage of witty status updates.’

As Voyer explains, ‘People are increasingly constructing two identities – their online identity, and their offline identity.’ He points to Twitter in particular, saying that ‘new ways of interacting have widened the gap between our actual selves – who we actually are – and our “ought” selves – who we think other people want us to be.’

So, proper, honest, face-to-face communication is key. Unfortunately, for a generation practically weaned on telecommunication devices, person-to-person communication is not exactly our strong suit…

You can read the whole article here – which has some extra paragraphs about how technology can actually help a relationship as well as hinder it.

What do you think – all you single people out there? (And all the non-single people who have been dating recently…)

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They really are tracking you. It’s not just the information that you knowingly put on the internet. It’s also the information that your friends knowingly put there; and all the other embedded information that neither you nor your friends realise is being shared. See this video (sorry about the advert…)

The simplest example, which I had no idea about, is the global positioning info that is automatically uploaded from a digital camera with some photographs. So if you are tagged by someone else on a photo, your time (to the second) at a particular location (to within three metres) is there for everyone to see. Then it just needs the analytics to bring all this data together, and work out what it says about known past behaviour and probable future behaviour. Put this together with your Tesco Club-Card and Amazon buying history and the Google analytics on your recent searches, and they know more about you than you know about yourself.

I’m not exaggerating. When did you ever really reflect on what your movements and searches and purchases say about yourself? Do you even remember what you bought or searched for last month or last year? Well Tesco and Amazon and Google and now apparently Raytheon certainly do.

Ryan Gallagher explains:

A multinational security firm has secretly developed software capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites.

A video obtained by the Guardian reveals how an “extreme-scale analytics” system created by Raytheon, the world’s fifth largest defence contractor, can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare…

Using Riot it is possible to gain an entire snapshot of a person’s life – their friends, the places they visit charted on a map – in little more than a few clicks of a button.

In the video obtained by the Guardian, it is explained by Raytheon’s “principal investigator” Brian Urch that photographs users post on social networks sometimes contain latitude and longitude details – automatically embedded by smartphones within “exif header data.”

Riot pulls out this information, showing not only the photographs posted onto social networks by individuals, but also the location at which the photographs were taken…

Riot can display on a spider diagram the associations and relationships between individuals online by looking at who they have communicated with over Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and sift GPS location information from Foursquare, a mobile phone app used by more than 25 million people to alert friends of their whereabouts. The Foursquare data can be used to display, in graph form, the top 10 places visited by tracked individuals and the times at which they visited them.

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This is a couple of weeks old now, but it didn’t get as much traction in the news as I expected. Isn’t it an absolutely astonishing historical landmark, that over one billion people are now voluntarily connected on a social networking site?

Yes, there are more people in China, in India and in the Catholic Church; but these ‘groupings’ (I can’t find a good generic term that covers a nation-state and the Catholic Church) have taken a few years to get going, and a large number of their members were born into them.

Facebook doubled it’s size from a half billion users to one billion in just three years and two months!

See this report by Jemima Kiss.

And watch this very clever promotional video, entitled “The Things that Connect Us”, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose film credits include Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Notice the beautiful bridge images, very close to my blogging heart.

And remember Susan Maushart’s warning in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect (p6):

So… how connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family… I started considering a scenario E. M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

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Bridges and Tangents is on the shortlist for the ‘Most Inspiring Leadership Blog’ (!!) at the Christian New Media Awards.

Why not take a look at the other nominees in the various categories below. I know that many of the readers of this blog are Catholic, so it might interest people to see the fascinating things that go on in the largely non-Catholic (I think) new media world represented by these awards.

People’s Choice

- Free Bible Images
The Light Project
Christian Medical Comment
Busbridge and Hambledon Church
CSW – Take Action

Best Christian Blog

- Emma Scrivener
Missing Generation
Threads
What You Think Matters
God and Politics in the UK
EpilogueTV

Best Christian Blog by someone under 25

- Dean Roberts
Miriam’s Fusion Blog
Blogging with Tom
Arianne Winslow
Becca is Learning

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog

- benleney
Learning and Growing
Biblical Preaching
Bridges and Tangents
Rev’d Matthew Porter

Best Newcomer Blog

- Flame Creative Children’s Ministry
Believer’s Brain
Ed’s Slipper
Blogging with Tom
God and Politics in the UK

Micro-Blogger of the Year

- OneVoice
Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove
Restored
Richard Littledale
The Church Mouse

Best Christian Organisation Website

- Sunday Night Live
Wazala
SGM Lifewords
Relationship Central
Green Pastures Housing

I hope to go to the Christian New Media Conference which takes place the day after the awards on 20 Oct 2012, and try to do some serious (and fun) thinking about faith and the new media. It looks as though it will be a good day. Details copied here:

The Christian New Media Conference 2012

Date: 20th October 2012
Time: 9.15am Registration, 10am Start and 5.20pm Finish
Venue: King’s College London, Waterloo Campus, Franklin-Wilkins Building, Stamford Street, London SE1 8WA Directions
Tickets:   £30   Book Now!

If you want to make a greater impact in the digital world, to get to grips with new media technologies, or simply tweet, pin and post better, then the Christian New Media Conference 2012 is the place to be. It will inspire you, equip you and connect you with like-minded people – whatever your level of experience.

Now in its third year, the conference has moved to a new venue with more space, four new seminar streams and 25 expert speakers ready to give practical help and an opportunity to delve deeper.

Whether you come as an individual, a church, charity or business, you’ll be spoilt for choice with 20 breakout sessions available.

The Theme for 2012

The digital revolution has transformed the art of story-telling, bringing it once more to the fore. If you think about it, much of what we are engaged with online is story-telling. We might be telling our story, our church or organisation’s story – but ultimately, as Christians, we are telling God’s story. This will be the theme of the main sessions this year and will have a dedicated seminar stream.

This year’s Theology stream will look at the concept of ‘Depixelating God’ – exploring how we as Christians can help make the image of God clearer to people in the online space.

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I’ve just given a study day about the internet and new media, and it forced me to get my head around some of the jargon and the ideas. Here is my summary of what these terms mean and where the digital world is going.

Web 1.0: The first generation of internet technology. You call up pages of text and images with incredible speed and facility. It’s no different from strolling through a library, only much quicker. The operative verb is I LOOK. I look at pages on the screen just as I look at pages in a book. All content is provided for you – it’s a form of publishing. It may be updated in a way that is impossible when a solid book is sitting on your shelf, but you can’t change the content yourself.

Web 2.0: The second generation of internet technology allows for user-generated content. You don’t just look at the pages, you alter them. You write your own blog; you comment on someone else’s article in the comment boxes; you edit an entry on Wikipedia. And then, by extension, with basically the same technology, you share your thoughts on a social networking site, which means you are commenting not on a static site, but on something that is itself in flux. You have moved from action to interaction; from connection to interconnection. If Web 1.0 is like a digital library, Web 2.0 is like a digital ‘Letter to the Editor’, a digital conference call, a digital group discussion. The verb here is I PARTICIPATE.

Web 3.0: People disagree about the meaning of Web 3.0, about where the web is now going. I like John Smart‘s idea of an emerging Metaverse, where there is a convergence of the virtual and physical world. In the world of Web 2.0, of user-generated content and social networking, you stand in the physical/natural/real world and use the new media to help you around that world – the new media are tools. You talk to friends, you share ideas, you buy things that have been suggested and reviewed by others. But in Web 3.0 the new media become an essential part of the world in which you are living, they help to create the world, and you live within them.

The border between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 is not tidy here, because Web 3.0 is partly about Web 2.0 becoming all-pervasive and continuous, so that your connection with the web and your social network is an essential part of every experience – it doesn’t get switched off. The mobile earpiece is always open to the chatter of others; the texts and status updates of your friends are projected into the corner of your Google Glasses (like those speedometers that are projected onto the car windscreen) so that they accompany what you are doing at every moment – the connection between real and virtual, between here and there, is seamless; the attention you give to every shop or product or street or person is digitally noted, through the head and eye movement sensors built into your glasses and the GPS in your phone, and simultaneously you are fed (into the corner of your glasses, or into your earpiece) layers of information about what is in front of you – reviews of the product, reminders of what you need to buy from the shop, warnings about the crime rate on this street, a note about the birthday and the names of the children of the person you are about to pass, etc. This is augmented reality or enhanced reality or layered reality.

It’s no different, in essence, from going for a stroll in the mid-70s with your first Walkman – creating for the first time your own soundtrack as you wander through the real world; or having the natural landscape around you altered by neon lights and billboards. But it is this experience a thousand times over, so that it is no longer possible to live in a non-virtual world, because every aspect of the real world is already augmented by some aspect of virtual reality. The verb here is I EXIST. I don’t just look at the virtual world, or use it to participate in real relationships; now I exist within this world.

Web 4.0: Some people say this is the Semantic Web (‘semantics’ is the science of meaning), when various programmes, machines, and the web itself becomes ‘intelligent’, and starts to create new meanings that were not programmed into it, and interact with us in ways that were not predicted or predictable beforehand. It doesn’t actually require some strict definition of ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘consciousness’ for the computers; it just means that they start doing new things themselves – whatever the philosophers judge is or is not going on in their ‘minds’.

Another aspect of Web 4.0, or another definition, concerns plugging us directly into the web: when the boundary between us and the virtual world disappears. This is when the virtual world becomes physically/biologically part of us, or when we become physically/biologically part of the virtual world. When, in other words, the data is not communicated by phones or earpieces or glasses, but is implanted into us, so that the virtual data is part of our consciousness directly, and not just part of our visual or aural experience (the films Total Recall, eXistenZ, and the Matrix); and/or, when we control the real and virtual world by some kind of brain or neural interface, so that – in both cases – there really is a seamless integration of the real and the virtual, the personal/biological and the digital.

If this seems like science fiction, remember that it is already happening in smaller ways. See previous posts on Transhumanism, and the MindSpeller project at Leuven which can read the minds of stroke victims, and this MIT review of brain-computer interfaces. In this version of Web 4.0 the verb is not I exist (within a seamless real/virtual world), it is rather I AM this world and this world is me.

Watch this fascinating video of someone’s brainwaves controlling a robotic arm:

And this which has someone controlling first a signal on a screen, and then another robotic arm:

So this is someone making things happen in the real world just by thinking! (Which, come to think of it, is actually the miracle that takes place whenever we doing anything consciously!)

Any comments? Are you already living in Web 3.0 or 3.5? Do you like the idea of your children growing up in Web 4.0? What will Web 5.0 be?

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Those of you who are not on Facebook can ignore this post and luxuriate in your non-dysfunctional psychological maturity and in your general being-at-ease-with-yourself-and-your-neighbour-and-your-world-ness.

For the rest of us, the hard question is: how often do we fiddle around on our Facebook page, not through an uncomplicated desire to share and communicate, but because we are subconsciously desperate to put ourselves at the centre of everyone else’s attention, to receive some kind of social networking version of approval, to be liked, and if not at least to be noticed?

Put more simply: is Facebook making us more narcissistic? Or – because we don’t know what is the cause and what is the effect – is our increasing narcissism finding a ready-made outlet in Facebook and other forms of social media?

Narcissus falling in love with his own image. Detail from a painting by John Waterhouse.

Damien Pearse writes about some recent research on the links between narcissism and social networking.

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.

People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.

The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.

The latest study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, also found that narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site’s public walls and changed their profile pictures more often.

Researchers concentrated on the two socially disruptive forms of narcissism: ‘grandiose exhibitionism’ (self-absorption, vanity, superiority, exhibitionistic tendencies, a need to be constantly at the centre of attention), and ‘entitlement/exploitativeness’ (which includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”).

Carol Craig, a social scientist and chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, said young people in Britain were becoming increasingly narcissistic and Facebook provided a platform for the disorder.

“The way that children are being educated is focussing more and more on the importance of self esteem – on how you are seen in the eyes of others. This method of teaching has been imported from the US and is ‘all about me’.

“Facebook provides a platform for people to self-promote by changing profile pictures and showing how many hundreds of friends you have. I know of some who have more than 1,000.”

Dr Viv Vignoles, senior lecturer in social psychology at Sussex University, said there was “clear evidence” from studies in America that college students were becoming increasingly narcissistic.

But he added: “Whether the same is true of non-college students or of young people in other countries, such as the UK, remains an open question, as far as I know.

“Without understanding the causes underlying the historical change in US college students, we do not know whether these causes are factors that are relatively specific to American culture, such as the political focus on increasing self-esteem in the late 80s and early 90s or whether they are factors that are more general, for example new technologies such as mobile phones and Facebook.”

What is cause and what is effect?

Vignoles said the correlational nature of the latest study meant it was difficult to be certain whether individual differences in narcissism led to certain patterns of Facebook behaviour, whether patterns of Facebook behaviour led to individual differences in narcissism, or a bit of both.

But don’t worry – it’s not all negative. This is just one study, and the researchers are not denying that there are real benefits of social networking.

Christopher Carpenter, who ran the study, said: “In general, the ‘dark side’ of Facebook requires more research in order to better understand Facebook’s socially beneficial and harmful aspects in order to enhance the former and curtail the latter.

“If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them. Ideally, people will engage in pro-social Facebooking rather than anti-social me-booking.”

I suppose the most narcissistic response to this article would be to terminate your Facebook account in a blaze of online soul-searching and self-publicity, a final fire-storm of frantic pre-termination reflections, posts, de-tagging and emotional farewells. But that leaves you with a problem: what will you do to feed the narcissism tomorrow?

(And do you notice how silent I am on the links between Facebook narcissism and blogging narcissism! Perhaps that needs another post…)

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After my talk at St Andrews Catholic Chaplaincy last week we all went to the pub round the corner, and inevitably the conversation turned to the topic of what people could give up for Lent. It goes without saying that Lent is about much more than just ‘giving up something'; but it was interesting to throw around some ideas about what forms of digital fasting and penance could be fruitful over the 40 days of Lent.

Here are the broad categories that came up:

(1) RADICAL DETOX: Just dump it all for the next 40 days. Computers; internet; email; mobile; texting; tweeting; blogging; Facebook; all forms of social media; iPods and mp3 players. Do you include TV in here as well, which is now digital? This is the shock and awe strategy. Total blackout. Everyone said this would be impossible, unrealistic, unwise, not living in the real world, asking for trouble!

(2) SELECTIVE SWITCH-OFF: Choose one form of digital media or communication and let go of that for the whole period of Lent. E.g. No Facebook, or no internet use at all, or no texting. Nearly everyone said this would be impossible, but one or two were open to it.

(3) TARGETED TIME-OUTS: Take all forms of digital media, or choose just one form of digital media, and fast from using them for a pre-determined period. E.g Fridays of Lent; or every day after work, or after 6pm, or after 9pm; or Sundays of Lent. E.g. I need to use the internet at work, but I’ll try not using it in the evenings. E.g. I won’t use Facebook on Fridays, or on Sundays. E.g. one hour a day, perhaps the morning, perhaps the evening, when everything electrical and digital is switched off. E.g. I won’t listen to music on the iPod while travelling but I’ll read instead.

(4) GEOGRAPHICAL SAFE-ZONES: Deciding not to use some or all forms of digital media in certain designated geographical areas; creating ‘safe-zones’, sanctuaries of silence and stillness. E.g. I have enough internet at work, so I don’t need to use it at home. E.g. I’ll use the internet at the desk, but I don’t need to be using it on the mobile constantly. E.g. I switch the phone off for twenty minutes when I sit down to eat at table.

For most people, the third idea of having some kind of digital time-out, on a Friday or a Sunday, will probably be the most realistic – just an hour each week, or an evening or a day, when they are not at the mercy of digital information overload, when they are brave enough to experience being unconnected or just slightly underconnected.

What’s interesting is how much people protest even at the suggestion that one of these options might be possible: the arguments that people throw up, the resistance shown (much of it very rational and reasonable) – it shows how attached we are to this stuff. And just raising the question about how we use digital media, and how they use us, is part of what a prayerful reflection on fasting and penance is meant to cultivate. The important thing is not just to adopt a rule suggested by someone else for the sake of it, but to think of something that could really make a small but significant difference in one’s own life – and see what comes from it.

It’s important to put all the qualifications in here: You don’t take on any of these disciplines because you despise digital media or think they are inherently evil – any more than you fast from food or abstain from meat or chocolate or alcohol because you think these things are bad in themselves.

On the contrary, you recognise that these are good things that can be used for good purposes; but you also recognise that you can become over-attached to them, that they can become idols or addictions, that they can be occasions for sin as well as for good, that their over-use can dull or extinguish the joy they are meant to give, that letting go for a little while can deepen your appreciation for them, that having a discipline and a restriction in place can sometimes make you more free in your approach to something, that there are other good things in life that get crowded out and forgotten in the digital onslaught, that digital noise can make stillness, silence, prayer and even ordinary relationships more difficult, that you are so locked in you don’t know who you really are any more, that it’s important to share in the digital poverty that many people experience as a normal part of life, etc.

All I’m saying is: you don’t need to be anti-digital technology to recognise that there is some value in stepping back and letting go for a while each year – and this is one part of the meaning of fasting and penance for Catholics each Lent.

I like these terms: iFasting, iPenance, and iLent. Of course I thought I invented them, but so far on Google I’ve managed to find this iLent site. I’m still hoping to copyright the first two terms, but you can shatter my illusion of originality by sharing any previous examples of their use you have come across in the comments below.

Or will I get sued by Apple for even mentioning an iWord?

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