Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Bouncer at the Echo Chamber

I'm troubled by echo chambers – and it increasingly feels like that's all there is at the moment. Maybe it's 'cos I spend too much time consuming and thinking about digital content, where the MO is 'throw a million things at the wall, see which ones get pageviews, then do more of that' (see Facebook groups, HuffPo, YouTubers, Daily Mail online, any content producer really). Perpetuation and reinforcement is the name of the game.

I'm starting to feel like everyone has a private club going on in their head, complete with a gruff bouncer who surveys all the 'stuff' (opinions, articles, research, conversations etc) that wants to come in. This bouncer has a limited set of possible responses:

  • The warm welcome
    Here comes some content that agrees with your preconceptions. It reinforces your worldview, it validates your arguments or vindicates your prejudices. It adds power to your 'side'.
    This designer's client doesn't understand typography either! Michael Gove made a maths gaffe! That benefits cheat had an Asian-sounding name! This religious moraliser was corrupt all along!
    It doesn't matter what the 'side' is, the dynamic's the same – just gleefully thrilled to be able to welcome another person to the party. Even better if they're a VIP.
'Ello, mate! How ya doin'? Love the get-up! Come on in, the gang's all here. You'll be right at home.'
  • The grudging let-off
    Hmm. Next in the queue is some content that definitely isn't the right type. It doesn't align with your preconceptions. It's decidedly shifty. It makes you feel uncomfortable just looking at it. It's trainers in a shoes-only establishment.
    Actually, I'd vote Republican. But Donnie Darko was a masterpiece! Jesus loves you. Everyone in power is part of a massive conspiracy against all that is good.
    Thing is, though... you like the person the content's coming in with (yes, I'm mixing my metaphors, get over it). So it's grudgingly allowed in – but it's definitely not allowed to request any music or order any funky cocktails. The opinion can exist, as a favour to your friend, but mustn't change anything.

    'Alright, I won't chuck you out just yet. But I've got my eye on you, sunshine. And you'd best leave when she does.'
  • The hostile shut-out
    And then there's, well, everything else. Everything else is terrible. A blot, a stain, a disaster, an 'undesirable' that mustn't be allowed to darken your door or spoil your party. This content, at best, doesn't coincide with your preconceptions. At worst, it actively opposes them. And it doesn't have have any redeeming features, like having been brought along by a person you have a crush on.
    If you're feeling generous, you will just fix this content with a hard, disapproving stare from across the street and then glower at it until you're sure it knows its place and has retreated far out of sight again. If you, or it, are feeling a bit more facety, then it's time to get tough. Bring on the aggro. Chuck that despicable different opinion forcefully out on its backside, in full view of everyone else, to make an example of it. Maybe give it a few kicks for good measure. Your friends will back you up, no doubt.

    'Get OUT. And don't even think about coming back. Scum.'
  • The didn't-even-leave-the-house
    Last, but probably not least (though how would you ever know?), there's actually everything else. Because for any of the above to come into play, you need to at least be aware of the content in the first place. And with things like the press's sheeplike clustering around a handful of identikit stories and issues, Facebook's EdgeRank, Twitter's 'follow-unfollow' setup, even the way geography and income severely limit your exposure to people unlike yourself, the chances are that you are only ever seeing a very tiny, tailor-made tip of an unimaginably massive iceberg of 'stuff'.
    There are entirely different categories of situation, thought and experience that you'll simply never come into contact with. To stretch the bouncer metaphor, it would be like having an amoeba or an alien or a dinosaur rock up in the queue. Do they get to come in? Fortunately, you never have to worry about such a bewilderingly bizarre and category-smashing decision because it will never cross your path. Phew, right?
I know this is nothing new. I'm sure I could find plenty of content 'on my side', expressing the same concerns, from all through history, probably. And the world's still turning, so maybe it's all fine. But it still troubles me. Where's the room for challenge? The preconception bouncer is so strict and the guest list so short – does anything different or new ever get in, or actually are we fated to be Guardianistas or Sun-readers all our life?

I don't know when these preconceptions get set but, I tell ya, it puts a serious dent in one's confidence in ideologies of individual choice, free will/strong volition, man-as-rational-actor etc... (like, all the ideologies that characterise 21st century Western life).


Or maybe reassure me with a story of open-mindedness, embracing challenge and a time your outlook was changed. Unless valuing all of those things is just another echo-chamber typology into which I'm already locked! The plot thickens...

Friday, 18 October 2013

''''''Cool''''' Christians'

At school, I prided myself on fiercely resisting - so I thought - the sheeplike rise and fall of social cliques (neither a 'trendy' nor a 'goth' or 'geeky kid' be...). But now, I fear I find myself riding a wave of a sort of faithy hipsterism. I think I might be part of a tribe I'm going to sardonically label ''''''cool'''''' Christian'. (There aren't enough scare quotes in the world for that phrase).

Here's how it seems to work. Us '''''cool'''' Christians' are followers of Jesus who find ourselves living in a post-religious context. The people around us – you, probably – are lovely, good, smart people. That aside, you're pretty similar to us in most ways we can observe, but are somewhere on a spectrum between 'meh', 'if it works for you' and 'convictedly anti-' when it comes to anything faintly Christian or churchy.

We desperately want you to like us - or, in fact, not us but JesUS (yeaaaahhhh! See? We're not above a pun or a meme, we're so with it).

We like what you like: we'll get nostalgic about the same cartoons, share the same right-on outrage about whatever is today's political scandal, enjoy the same alcoholic beverages at the same pubs.

We go clubbing and to the theatre and on holiday with you – crazily, just because we think it's fun. We'd never be crassly driven by some insidious proselytising agenda.

When it comes to the God stuff, we can roll with your punches. Yeah, you're right, various bits of the church have had some shockers. Your critique of hellfire street preachers is, like, totes legit. Young Earth Creation? Ha! We're with you, that is rubbish science...

We welcome your critical thinking and your hard questions. Bring on the Dawkins and the Hitchens and the /r/atheism. We don't believe in the god that they're so cross about, anyway.

We even dance in fusty, formal-looking church wedding services, would you believe?! OMG, so ZANY! (The G is for goodness – we're still a bit tentative about casually taking the Lord's name in abbreviated vain.)

And, perhaps above all, we write blog after blog, tweet upon tweet – heck we'll even get on Snapchat or Vine to show how down with digital media we are – busting myths like there's no tomorrow. (Though, ho ho, let's be clear: there IS a tomorrow. None of us are worried about anything so silly as that Harold Camping imminent flying-Christian rapture stuff).

We churn out piles of words, so very earnestly longing to be shared, to be 'talkable' and 'relevant' and 'connect to where you're at'. Sometimes showing but more often telling you how God/church/the Bible/Christianity doesn't look like you think it does, how your preconceptions are way off-beam, how we blow your stereotypes to smithereens:
  • '50 Shades of Song of Songs: why kinky sex is super-Christian' 
  • '10 ways church should be more like TED' 
  • 'On monarchists, republicans and the REAL Royal Baby' (yep, it's Jesus) 
  • 'What Murray Mania can teach us about worship'

Because if we could just get a foot in the door of your attention, if we could just redeem some of that entertainment time for a higher purpose, if we could just MAKE YOU SEE...that God is love, that faith is reasonable, that church is good, that the Bible is relevant, that we love you, then maybe it would all be OK.

(And, for what it's worth, this desire is totally heartfelt and, I think, totally valid.)

But do you know what? Mostly, as far as I can tell, you don't care. In fact, scratch that - THEY don't care. Because, let's be honest, this post won't be any different either. It might, if I'm lucky (oop, controversial, a Christian using the word 'lucky'), do the rounds of you, my fellow '''''cool'''' Christians' (hello! [wave]).

But, really, is it ever going to even be a drop in the same ocean as the huge tide of BBC News or Buzzfeed or TalkSport or funny pics on Facebook or celeb chat on Twitter or whatever else? Let's be honest, on these audiences' terms, Christians trying to be more interesting than the alternatives is surely pretty Cnut-ish behaviour.

That's not to say I have a solution right now. Maybe there isn't one; maybe it has to be about drip-drip-dripping away, starting in my little corner and hoping something will eventually overflow into someone else's peripheral vision. But I really, really don't want to be a '''''cool'''' Christian' in a closed loop, talking to myself. I want to be available to the world out there. World, if you're out there, just tell me how...