New Media (and) Ritual

Travis Cooper is a PhD candidate in anthropology and religious studies at Indiana University. His research interests include method and theory in the study of religion, discourse analysis, social media, critical ethnography, digital anthropologyand social theory. He’s currently dissertating on the boundary maintenance strategies of emerging evangelical communities after the New Media turn.

I recently read and re-read Connor Wood’s post, “Social Media is Toxic. Religious Studies Tells Us Why,” and found my initially troubled impressions confirmed. Wood’s account of social media, by my reading, is fourfold. According to Wood, (1) The Internet is largely free of filters, barriers, or standards for etiquette. The second argument gives rise to the first: (2) The Internet is absent rituals. Wood suggests that (3) unfiltered, toxic communications online are leading toward societal chaos. Lastly, the blogger uses the discussion of the Internet’s ritual lack to (4) argue for the necessity of the interdisciplinary field of religious studies.

I’d like to commend the author for plugging for both of my own disciplines of training—anthropology and religious studies—as well as for contributing a short and provocative think piece that makes some bold claims and ultimately fueling productive conversations on the study of new media. Although I emphatically endorse Wood’s fourth point, that social science-informed religious studies has the tools to theorize such changes, theses one through three are less than compelling. What follows is a bit of rationale on why the claims are problematic.

(1) #NoFilter Communication. According to Wood, “There are no filters,” which leads to a gap in which “disinformation and opinion spread like brush fire.” Because as new media communicants “our thoughts go live, just about as soon as we’ve thought them (and sometimes before),” the author interprets social media as “a massive soup of heaving disinformation and groundless opinions.” I’ll admit that such claims find scattered anecdotal confirmation in my own experience. But the idea that social media are a domain of human communications entirely without filters is misleading. What about the form, design, and structure of the new media platforms? Every software comes with its own systematization, user interface, and underwritten rules of the game. Each platform provides communicative affordances. Consciously or not, users find themselves shaped and constrained by the ideological, linguistic, and technical patterns written into the social media system. I’m not dismissing that users experience a relative degree of freedom when they fire off a scathing Tweet or post an extended Facebook rant. What I want to convey is that limitations and structures and filters exist by design. One Tweets within a medium that has itself been shaped by all sorts of vested power brokers and ideological authorities. As one theorist puts it, “users, audiences and producers, institutions, policies, rules, routines, professional hierarchies and ethics, aesthetics, and technologies” all compose digital media sites.

(2) The Ritual-Free Internet. Wood stresses that “rituals are everywhere” and in fact “make social life possible.” Rituals are ubiquitous to human communication, with the one exception of the black hole that is the Internet. Again, I track with Wood for the most part: social media are a nascent domain of sociolinguistic interaction; hyper-cohesion, disinhibition, and amplification effects are in play; and sometimes people appear to produce content in online arenas in less than disciplined ways. But it’s quite another thing to argue that the Internet is absent of ritual. I disagree on several fronts.

First, Wood submits that effective ritual is embodied ritual and that the Internet’s preclusion of physical presence or connection confirms the absence of ritual. I’m currently dissertating on American evangelical social media practices. Wood’s claim mirrors the theological agendas of new media suspicion circulating within evangelical domains of authority. Online church communities aren’t “real” churches; as some authorities argue, in strenuous veins of boundary maintenance, virtual rituals can’t be “authentic” since digital networks are unable to afford for physical or immediate interaction. The author’s claims about materiality and communication evidence a media ideology and reify pervasive Western and Protestant semiotic ideologies about the necessity of face-to-face speakers and immediacy.

Second, what about the increasing attempts of various sorts of social authorities to ritualize the Internet? Religious authorities produce vast amounts of literature, whether digital or in print, for shaping communicants into virtuous and disciplined Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram users. Bloggers construct social media etiquette guides, offer metapragmatic commentary on how to appropriately engage other readers in comments sections, or complain about the social erosion of morals and politeness. If rituals are “socially constructed standards for behavior that ask us to act in certain ways regardless of how we’re feeling internally”—Wood’s preferred definition—then ritual-like processes happen all over the Internet. As scholars have documented, in multiple research projects, religious authorities have been theorizing the Internet as a ritually effective site and strategizing about extending authority and influence since the emergence of the Internet.

Third, Wood artificially divides between the so-called “online world” and whatever human communication occurs “in real life.” As an ethnographer, I’m interested in the ways in which new media communications extend other communicative forms by enmeshing with norms and mores preexisting the Internet. Internet etiquette is certainly still in process, but people “develop their beliefs about media and ways of using media within idioms of practice,” as one of my colleagues here at Indiana University aptly puts the matter. Human beings operate within networked webs of sociocultural and linguistic significance, and the Internet is hardly immune to such forces. With its algorithmic structures, software systems, and “meaning machines,” if anything social media platforms compound and intensify rather than eliminate the complexity of ritual’s role in a post-human era. Is social media truly “bereft of ritual or established set of conventions” that “structure our self-expression”? I’m not convinced. Social media utterances have recourse in the “offline” world. Educators and parents work to instill in adolescents that what one does online matters. College students experiment with ritual protocols in dating practices mediated by dataphones and social media. College professors lose tenure over tweets deemed inflammatory by institutional and bureaucratic powers.

(3) Chaos Rhetoric. In Wood’s determination, we are as a society “descending” into nothing other than “real chaos.” New media amplifies “self-expression.” “We blurt out our political opinions on Facebook. We emote on Twitter. We tell people what we think of everything.” The Internet becomes, Wood continues, a “roiling melée of opinions and emotional outbursts, each picked up on, retweeted, and amplified.” Social media is a source of the “enormous problems we’re facing.” In short, not only does the author offer a veritable media ideology—thus constituting data, in other words, for scholars of religion and new media—but he also performs what one religious studies scholar has called chaos rhetoric, or a “declension” narrative intended to “persuade an audience by stressing an imminent threat to a beloved entity.” It’s not exactly clear what that entity is. Wood appeals to “society,” but it appears he has in mind some imagined golden age of unmediated communication, where ritual and decorum arbitrate difference and people are congenial with each other all of the time, even with they disagree. Has such a situation ever existed?

To conclude, Wood’s post is well-intentioned. I agree that social media, along with any other inchoate technology, evolve and reconfigure communication techniques and habits. And I enthusiastically concede that religious studies scholars are prime candidates for the study and documentation of these developments. But we should be studying ritualization processes and the strategies of ritual extension that surround social media rather than prematurely mourning ritual’s extinction. The study of participatory media can be better served not by leveraging our own claims to communicative authenticity but by analyzing how our informants are discoursing about and constructing the social media turn.