In the digital world, transmitting information increasingly means making it known within a social network where knowledge is shared in the context of personal exchanges. The clear distinction between the producer and consumer of information is relativized and communication appears not only as an exchange of data, but also as a form of sharing. This dynamic has contributed to a new appreciation of communication itself, which is seen first of all as dialogue, exchange, solidarity and the creation of positive relations. On the other hand, this is contrasted with the limits typical of digital communication: the one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence.
Certainly, communications over the last decade or two have changed the playing field so to speak in how we all interact with one another. Shifting to computers from the fax machine, learning to email, social networking sites allowing us to blog and tweet; Facebook suggests we can acquire "friends" by the hundreds and our personal communication devices whether they be cellphones, ipads or others mean that we are never really out of reach, accessible 24/7.
Of course with any communication comes pros and cons. How many of us have sent that email to the entire address book mistakenly or wished we had read the content of our message (not realizing the CAPS BUTTON WAS ON?) one more time before hitting "send"? Would we be comfortable speaking the words of an angry "cyber" message to someone in person? Has our reliance on technology eliminated the personal nature of our relationships? Instead of that phone call to one we settle for a mass communication that doesn't quite have that personal touch?
These are challenges we all face. At the same time, the technology allows us to reach audiences we could never have imagined, share information literally as it unfolds and use communication tools to enhance safety, respond to charitable appeals and help those in developing nations communicate in ways they'd never imagined.
At a local level, we try, each year to recognize World Communications Day by enhancing relationships with our colleagues in the secular media. A few weeks ago, we held our annual Breakfast with the Media where we invite reporters and producers working in the secular press to come together for a morning of fellowship and prayer. Hosted by the Archbishop, we try and keep the gatherings intimate - this year just over 20 people came together in the chapel at St. Basil's for such an exchange and it was a morning filled with blessings. Reps included those from the CBC, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Sun, Globe & Mail, 680 News to name a few.
Building relationships with those in the secular press when we're not in the midst of a story is refreshing. No one is suspicious of any "agenda", there's no specific deadline we're working towards and we can move away from the "story" and focus on listening to the individual, hearing about their families, joys and struggles in their own work and recognize that at the end of the day, these journalists are sincerely trying to do the best they can.
Apart from the secular media, there are increasingly more and more bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers out there sharing all sorts of information on any number of subjects including, of course, the Catholic Church. On the heels of the Beatification of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican held its first ever "blogfest" where they brought together 150 diverse bloggers from around the world. More than 750 applied for a space which included bloggers running the gamut: those who work for the church, priests who blog, mom bloggers, young people, insiders, outsiders, etc. etc. There was a separate "blognic" the next day in Rome, organized by bloggers who felt the Vatican meeting might be a little too formal or stuffy, held at a local pub where the beer flowed freely and 25 or so had the chance to reflect on the role of the blogosphere in the Catholic world.
I'm grateful to all those who are so passionate about the church and choose to share their thoughts and views in an open forum. There are certainly unique perspectives that come from their writings. I have no doubt that they love the church and want to see it thrive in our world. They bring their personal joys and struggles to the table and on more than one occasion, their insights have given me pause on a particular issue or provided a tangible suggestion on a way forward.
On the flip side, we've seen tangible examples where an independent blogger or tweeter could have used a filter or editor before the publish button was hit. Hitting the publish or send button has ramifications. My concern is when opinion is blended with a creative interpretation of "facts" and the line is crossed. That's when things can get tricky.
As a church communicator, we're certainly criticized from time to time from those who consider themselves independent of the church infrastructure or its protocols. How do we respond when faced with queries related to information that comes from a blog or other social media? On the one hand, Twitter gave us the first photograph of the US Airways flight landing in the Hudson River? On the other, it also (falsely) reported the death of Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords, following a tragic shooting in Arizona, misinformation that was picked up and reported by mainstream media outlets. Her family heard these reports and only later learned that she had not, in fact, succumbed to her injuries. Not just an innocent "tweet" anymore.
Some Catholic blogs are intended to highlight the good works of the church, others quite openly serve as "watchdogs". My sense is that even within the blogosphere, there is not agreement on the rules of engagement so to speak. And of course, the reality for those of us working in this milieu, there just aren't enough hours in the day to have a rapid response to all that's being discussed in the social mediasphere. Somehow, I don't think those engaged are really looking for our input - we're kind of like the Vatican meeting instead of the pub. It's their freedom to express their views openly and candidly that they most relish. And through all the challenges, let's celebrate the fact that people are engaged about their faith, one way or the other. Having said that, the Holy Father's words seem like a good guide in how we approach the medium.
Another snip from Pope Benedict's World Communications Day message:
In the final analysis, the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks. Believers who bear witness to their most profound convictions greatly help prevent the web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolize the opinions of others. On the contrary, believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived. It is precisely this uniquely human spiritual yearning which inspires our quest for truth and for communion and which impels us to communicate with integrity and honesty...
...When people exchange information, they are already sharing themselves, their view of the world, their hopes, their ideals. It follows that there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.
We're not just communicators, we're Christian communicators and it should show in how we treat one another. Perhaps we can find inspiration in St. Francis de Sales, patron saint, among others, of communicators. Pope Clement VIII once told St. Francis, "Drink, my son, from your cistern, and from your living wellspring; may your waters issue forth, and may they become public fountains where the world may quench its thirst."
There's a lot of thirsty folks out there. So whether you're having coffee over breakfast at St. Basil's church hall, sampling prosecco at a Vatican meeting on the blogosphere or sipping pints at the Rome blognic, may all our drinks be filled with honesty and openness, responsibility and respect. I'll drink to that...Photos: Zazzle, Matsu