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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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I was using this book a lot in a recent talk I gave: Brandon Vogt’s The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activitsts, and Bishops who Tweet.

Vogt himself writes a helpful introduction (about the way the Church has used different media at the service of the gospel over many centuries) and conclusion (about where it’s all going: some of the possibilities, and some of the dangers).

But most of the book consists of short articles and reflections by cutting-edge practitioners, people who have taken the plunge and got stuck in – perhaps making many mistakes along the way, but learning to see the huge value of using the new media.

There are four main sections that deal with evangelisation, Christian formation, building community, and serving the common good. So it’s not a narrow discussion about blogging and tweeting, but a rich and broad presentation of the multifarious ways that people are using new media to good effect.

There are huge and well-known projects that have already had an international influence, like Fr Robert Barron’s Word on Fire and Shaun Carney’s online pro-life work. But there are also lots of stories about how ordinary parishes can improve their use of digital media by getting involved in social networking or simply learning to connect with their parishioners better through websites and texting. So there are small and practical tips for ordinary Christians as well as big flashes of inspiration for those sensing a call to step out as evangelists.

Lots of information for the uninformed; lots of ideas for those who feel they should be doing something. It’s well worth getting a copy.

See Vogt’s website here. Which has this blurb – full of links if you have nothing else to do for the next hour!

The Church finds herself in the midst of a technological revolution, the biggest communication shift since the advent of the printing press.

The printing press created an information explosion, allowing people to absorb tremendous amounts of knowledge. But this modern, digital revolution brings a new type of communication. It pairs content with dialogue, discussion, and relationship, moving beyond a one-way flow of information.

New tools have burst onto the scene to provide this dual-offering of knowledge and community. Nicknamed “New Media”, these tools include social media, blogs, podcasts, video-casts, mobile media, and interactive websites.

Finding herself in a world that has dramatically embraced these tools, the Church is at a crossroad. If her missions of evangelization, formation, community-building, and social-justice are to continue in future generations, she must harness these tools and utilize them now. Thankfully, many Catholics are doing just that.

The Church and New Media brings together innovators, visionaries, and experts on the relationship between faith and technology, packaging their wisdom into the definitive book on New Media and the Church. It shows not only how the Church can exist in the digital age, but how she can effectively proclaim the Gospel today.

In addition to profiling many New Media innovators and relevant Church teachings, the book features chapters by the following New Media experts:

Foreword
*Cardinal Seán O’Malley*

Introduction / The Digital Continent
*Brandon Vogt*

Part One / Put Out Into the Deep: New Media & Evangelization
Chapter One / The Virtual Areopagus: Digital Dialogue with the Unchurched
*Fr. Robert Barron*
Chapter Two / Into the Light: Sharing the Spiritual Journey
*Jennifer Fulwiler*
Chapter Three / Speaking Their Language: Connecting with Young Adults
*Marcel LeJeune*

Part Two / That the World May Know: New Media & Formation
Chapter Four / Modern Epistles: Blogging the Faith
*Mark Shea*
Chapter Five / New Wineskins: Fresh Presentations of Ancient Tradition
*Taylor Marshall*
Chapter Six / Digital Discourse: The New Apologetics
*Fr. Dwight Longenecker*

Part Three / Fostering the Flock: New Media & Community
Chapter Seven / Innovative Shepherding: New Media in the Diocese
*Scot Landry*
Chapter Eight / High-Tech Community: New Media in the Parish
*Matthew Warner*
Chapter Nine / That They May Be One: Cultivating Online Community
*Lisa Hendey*

Part Four / To the Ends of the Earth: New Media & Mission
Chapter Ten / Changing the World: New Media Activism
*Thomas Peters*
Chapter Eleven / Moving Mountains: Building a Digital Movement
*Shawn Carney (40 Days for Life)*

Conclusion / To Infinity and Beyond: The Future of the Church and New Media
*Brandon Vogt*

Afterword
*Archbishop Timothy Dolan*

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I don’t use Twitter much, although WordPress tweets my blog posts automatically. But I’m aware of the changes taking place in people’s views about what is socially acceptable. Many people, today, would answer a call mid-conversation, or check a text, or text back – all without interrupting the flow of the discussion, or with a half-acknowledged pressing of the pause button.

The desire to tweet not just later but while you are still within the experience is part of the nature of Twitter. It’s about sharing the ‘now’ and not just the ‘yesterday’ or ‘a few minutes ago’.

But how does this affect, socially, those experiences that are traditionally meant to be uninterrupted – like going to the theatre? Is it just rude?

And at a more philosophical level, am I changing the nature of the experience, distancing myself from it, and perhaps distorting it, if I’m already sharing the experience with others and providing my own commentary even before it has finished?

There is something to do with quantum physics and the uncertainty principle and waves collapsing into particles and dead cats here – but I don’t have the time to get my creative thoughts straight.

David Lister writes about the morality of tweeting in the theatre:

Which brings me to Twitter. For here the etiquette of polite concentration in the auditorium is being challenged. People have been tweeting at the theatre. In a cinema, a light from a mobile phone is also irritating, but it does happen, and to no great protest. However the thought of it at a live performance is rather more disturbing.

It turns out that theatre tweeters are not chatting aimlessly on Twitter, but trying to be the first to post a reaction to the performance they are seeing. And this seems to mean getting it posted before the curtain comes down. It was reported at a performance of the current run of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, and raised in a Q and A after the performance. And I have seen it happening, not always that discreetly, in London’s West End.

There’s little doubt that it disturbs other audience members, and probably even cast members. And, of course, one hopes that people are too busy concentrating on the action to fish their mobile out of their pocket or bag. On the other hand, they are engaged enough to want a post a review.

Is the answer, I wonder, a relatively recent American phenomenon, the tweet seats? This started at a theatre in Los Angeles and has spread to a number of other big cities, with at least one theatre on Broadway now threatening to get in on the act. A section of seating on the side of the auditorium (so that the lights from the phones – in theory – don’t disturb the rest of the audience) is reserved as tweet seats.

The first instinct of any regular theatre-goer is to foam at the mouth. But perhaps we should acknowledge the inevitable. OK, I’d be much more inclined to put them in the balcony, as the side of the stalls feels a little too visible. Why not make a small part of the balcony a silent tweeting zone for those who want it?

A few decades ago it would have been near unthinkable to take drinks into the auditorium. Now it’s commonplace. I suspect that in less than a decade tweet seats will be commonplace too.

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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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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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There are lots of these videos floating around that show some aspect of faith or the Christian story through the lens of social media. This is one of my favourites, from Igniter Media. Called ‘Follow’, it shows very simply and very powerfully how the events of Jesus’s life might have been communicated if there had been Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. The immediacy of the messages brought to life for me not just the story itself, but the ordinary humanity of the people involved – people I treat too often as just characters in a book.

It’s not specifically a Christmas video. But anyway: Happy Christmas!

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Cyber-scepticism: not that we are actually unplugging and switching off, but that more and more people are questioning whether our frantic social networking is really helping us to connect, to deepen our relationships, to share our lives.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is one of many people wondering where we are really going in the information age. Her new book is appropriately titled Alone Together. Paul Harris reports:

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared last week on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggested that use of the internet was altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Another strand of thought in the field of cyber-scepticism is found in The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that social media has bred a generation of “slacktivists”. It has made people lazy and enshrined the illusion that clicking a mouse is a form of activism equal to real world donations of money and time.

Other books include The Dumbest Generation by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein – in which he claims “the intellectual future of the US looks dim”– and We Have Met the Enemy by Daniel Akst, which describes the problems of self-control in the modern world, of which the proliferation of communication tools is a key component.

Turkle’s book, however, has sparked the most debate so far. It is a cri de coeur for putting down the BlackBerry, ignoring Facebook and shunning Twitter. “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” she writes.

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