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Twitter and the Printing Press

What books have shaped your life?

“There is something in the very form of reading—the shape of the action itself—that tends toward virtue,” writes Karen Swallow Prior, writer, thinker, and research professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  

“The attentiveness necessary for deep reading (the kind of reading we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or reading instructions) requires patience. The skills of interpretation and evaluation require prudence. Even the simple decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.”

But social media has accelerated the decline of attentiveness, patience, prudence, and temperance, so they now seem to be old-fashioned, antiquated attributes.  

This week, David French and I are joined by Karen on the Good Faith podcast, who talks about the current state of affairs in social media, particularly Twitter, and compares its impact on culture and the church to the printing press. 

In this podcast, we also discussed:

  • How modern technologies are impacting our brains;
  • How church “elites” are being affected by Twitter;
  • How the alacrity of social media has a damaging effect on users;
  • How we can push back against social media’s negative effects through the simple act of reading, especially the (necessarily slow and contemplative) reading of literature;
  • The positive attributes of social media;
  • The benefits of narrative stories;
  • What to start reading if you want to engage with literature;
  • And, our favorite life-changing reads.

DAVID FRENCH: Let me start with a big question: what is Twitter doing to the church?

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR: That is a big question. I want to begin answering it by talking about how I see Twitter in our historical and cultural moment, especially as it relates to my own field of literature and reading. They might not seem like they go together, but the modern age begins with the printing press and widespread literacy. 

We all know the church’s role in developing the printing press and spreading literacy. In this historical moment, Twitter plays a very similar role. The printing press was key to the Protestant Reformation (which I love, by the way, being Protestant), but also it was scary and scandalous and spread misinformation and disinformation. This powerful technology shaped the next 500 years of the church and the culture.

I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that Twitter, which is another kind of technology, is doing a very similar thing. That’s why I’m so passionate about it. It’s that important and powerful, and it’s changing the church in a similarly dramatic way.

I just don’t know if we’ll be able to see that in our generation. It’ll be up to the historians to really look back and say, “Wow, this is what Twitter did to the church, in the same way the printing press did.”

CURTIS CHANG: In what ways are you beginning to see signs that it’s having this kind of disruptive change? What symptoms are you experiencing in your own experience and in the experiences of other church members?

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR: Well, I’m just going to sort of list some of the ones that are good and bad.  To me, it’s all one package.

We could look at, for example, the Church Too and Me Too movements. The exposures and truth coming out about abuse and cover up of abuse would not have been possible without social media and –  largely – Twitter. This is an area of major reformation we are undergoing because of this technology.

On the other hand, Twitter and social media are really changing our attention span. They’re changing our brains and the way they think.  They’re hindering our ability to read well.

While the printing press helped to cultivate literacy and deep reading, Twitter and other social media spread information quickly and broadly. It’s shaping our brains, so that we aren’t as deep and as good as readers. We make snap judgments.  Since things are happening so fast, they’re causing damage in the meantime.

Those are two broad answers, but I could go on and on.

DAVID FRENCH: Let’s get more specific. We’re going to have a couple of categories of listeners. Some listeners are very familiar with all the Twitter back and forth battles. You can mention something that’s very online – like drag queen story hour – and someone will know immediately all of the history about that. There’s a host of these things. You can list them and people will have some sort of instant recall about the whole Twitter news cycle about it. That’s one category of listener. Another category of listener will think this is all absurd and ridiculous.  They believe people need to get out and experience the real world. There’s a lot of truth to that.

Maybe you can help listeners understand how Twitter has a very specific effect on the leader class: pastors, denominational leaders, maybe even seminary presidents, if we want to go into all of that. My general view is that it tends to make people within this church leader class much more contentious, much more sort of prickly, maybe paranoid, and very sensitive to criticism because they’re getting it constantly.

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR: Yeah, that’s a really significant phenomenon. For those [leaders] who are using social media in some professional or pastoral way, Twitter is a platform.  That’s good and bad.

A physical, literal platform is something that you stand upon so people can see and hear you better.  You rise above the crowd.  If you’re saying something important and true, that’s a good thing.  But if you’re saying something destructive and untrue, that’s a bad thing.

The idea of a platform is neutral, but how it’s used is not neutral. What it does to us is not neutral.

There are many leaders out there on Twitter who are raising their platform by being more shocking, divisive, and controversial.

That phenomenon is a misuse of technology.  But, we could say the same thing about books from the 18th and 19th century. We could say people exploited that technology by writing books that were doing a similar thing.

To me, I find it helpful to see the parallels, because Twitter is a power for both good and bad.

Marshall McLuhan is famous for saying – in his half century old work, Understanding Media – that our tendency is to be so enamored with technology that we only look at what we gain from it.  We don’t look at what we lose.

We have to start looking at what we’re losing.

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Kris Carter

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.

Image Credit: Aminiee, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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