Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Anonymity, gossip, and the internet

Someone wrote to me last week wanting to know more about the 'Terra story'. I took it as a compliment, but declined for a variety of reasons.

But I have to admit that in thinking about it, there are real questions about anonymity, privacy and the internet perhaps need more discussion.

What is gossip about?

Firstly the request did remind me that as humans we bond and form connections on the basis of who is doing what and why stuff - in short gossip! Gossip has a negative connotation these days, but the word actually derives from 'God sibb' - a close friend or companion related to one in God. The more positive view of it sees it as ways of building relationships and groups, teaching and reinforcing shared values, and resolving conflict.

Some of the research on gossip is intriguing. Firstly it suggests that it is a myth that women are the gossips - men gossip just as much as women. Secondly, most gossip - 95% of it - is not actually negative. And most negative gossip is actually about building or negotiating on shared values, deciding what behaviour and opinions are and are not appropriate/acceptable.

The difficulties arise firstly when the gossip is about things that are actually sinful as opposed to ordinary action (detraction); when things move from gossip to rumour (with the potential for culumniation); from commenting on opinions or actions to judging the person; and from essentially constructive to destructive.

More fundamentally, there is a real problem when the discussion isn't, at some appropriate point, brought to the attention of the person who is the subject of the gossip.



The internet

So how does this all fit in with the internet? Well of course, blogs, facebook, youtube, forums and much more provide a lot of vehicles for gossip (or more positively, newsharing, discussion and critique). It can be pretty brutal at times.

But if you think of it as a testing out process, aimed at aiding our progress in creating a new catholic culture, then what can sometimes appear carping and negative takes on a different perspective.

Of course it is repetitive and irritating when people repeatedly attempt to assert their view as the norm, or find fellow true-believers - but it can equally lead to others forming or modifying their opinions, choosing new and better paths.

On anonymity

Perhaps the biggest issue around the internet is that information that might previously have been restricted to quite a small circle is spread far and wide by pseudo-anonymous people such as myself! We like to think of ourselves as reporters, our identity nothing more than a by-line in a newspaper.

But as with 'real' journalists, there is a certain asymmetry in the process that can generate some resentment...Of course, the simple solution if you don't like what you are reading is either stop reading, or to start your own blog, and get your own view out!

The demand to know

One of the curiosities of the web from mmy point of view is the frequent demand that people sign with their own name, or reveal their identity to moderators of email groups. In an environment where a name will mean little to most people, I don't understand the insistence on it.

It is worth pointing out is that the extent to which people reveal who they are has varied historically dramatically. Think of all those centuries when gregorian chant was composed - we know only a handful of the names of composers prior to the fifteenth century for example, but the name and something about the vast majority of composers whose music has survived from the seventeenth century onwards. There are similar cycles in writing.

Ande on this, one of the things that fascinates me is the way the internet is changing our attitudes towards privacy. Think about Benedictine monasticism for example. At times in the past, individual monks and nuns have become quite well-known - St Hildegard of Bingen was famous in her own lifetime, doing the twelfth century equivalent of speaking tours; so to of course her contemporary St Bernard of Clairvaux. In the seventeenth century, the English Benedictine Congregation monasteries published the works of Dom Augustine Baker and Dame Gertrude More in part in order to defend themselves against attacks on their approach to spirituality from the Jesuits.

But in the last few centuries, virtually no one outside the monastery and immediate relatives knew the names of monks of a particular monastery. If the monk wrote a book, it was published as 'a Benedictine of x', at least until after they died.

In the contemporary world, traditionalist Le Barroux has continued to follow this practice to some degree, only recently revealing that a number of books they published were by Dom Gerard Calvet (although at least one of his books was published under his name during his lifetime).

But other monasteries have gone a long way in the opposite direction. The Abbot of the thriving Christ in the Desert monastery, for example, has been sharing little bios of each of his monks in his newsletter as the basis for asking us to pray especially for that person that week. His newsletters are very frank and open about his own travails as well as those of the monastery and the monks. I have to admit I found it shocking at first, to read things like that Fr X of monastery y was visiting to try out his vocation as he was looking for a more contemplative lifestyle. But while I wouldn't personally want that sort of information out in public if it was about me, I have increasingly come to appreciate the rationale for sharing information of this kind.

We lack examples....

In an earlier age where catholic culture was entrenched, this kind of information didn't have to be shared. Because the shared consciousness already knew what people needed to know.

People knew, for example, that monks did - albeit rarely - swap monasteries. They knew the vocation stories of their own relatives and friends. They knew at least something of the day to day struggles of living the catholic life.

The problem we face today however, is that most of these exemplars and the tacit knowledge that went along with them is missing. Many of us didn't grow up in fervently practicing catholic households - indeed a very high proportion of traditionalists are converts. Today, for example, we are lucky if we distantly know of one religious brother or sister - and we are mostly unlikely to know how they ended up in the monastery, let alone how they have found it once there...

Sharing information about the progress or struggles of friends and fellow travellers - vocation stories of priests, information on special events and visitors to our shores, and who is doing what - helps all of us, I think.

The internet, provided it is used wisely, is in a way perhaps recreating those old tight knit communities in many ways, and helping rebuild our culture.

But at the moment we are in a point of transition. Some of us retain an old-fashioned reluctance to chronicle our every move on facebook, or be judged on the basis of what we have done previously rather than what we say now, even if we avidly read and respect those who are much more comfortable in sharing the details of their lives with others! And we are all still feeling our way, I think, on what it is and isn't appropriate to share and/or comment on.

3 comments:

Son of Trypho said...

Well, I tend to agree with this - a few folks in the traddie community may have sussed out who I am, however I'm more than willing to discuss my "story" if asked. :)

Terra said...

That depends on whether your story is edifying or not!

If you like, send me an email offline and we can discuss.

Anonymous said...

"People knew, for example, that monks did - albeit rarely - swap monasteries. They knew the vocation stories of their own relatives and friends. They knew at least something of the day to day struggles of living the catholic life.
The problem we face today however, is that most of these exemplars and the tacit knowledge that went along with them is missing. Many of us didn't grow up in fervently practicing catholic households - indeed a very high proportion of traditionalists are converts. Today, for example, we are lucky if we distantly know of one religious brother or sister - and we are mostly unlikely to know how they ended up in the monastery, let alone how they have found it once there...
Sharing information about the progress or struggles of friends and fellow travellers - vocation stories of priests, information on special events and visitors to our shores, and who is doing what - helps all of us, I think.
The internet, provided it is used wisely, is in a way perhaps recreating those old tight knit communities in many ways, and helping rebuild our culture.
But at the moment we are in a point of transition. Some of us retain an old-fashioned reluctance to chronicle our every move on facebook, or be judged on the basis of what we have done previously rather than what we say now, even if we avidly read and respect those who are much more comfortable in sharing the details of our lives with others! And we are all still feeling our way, I think, on what it is and isn't appropriate to share and/or comment on."


This all resonates with me powerfully.
I am usually semi-anonymous, (consistent sobriquet,) but I am fearful of lack of privacy, (in the past I lost a job because of intemperate but principled remarks in a semi-private forum.)

At the same time, you are right that the current culture is such that what was once "common knowledge" is no longer common.

This is a factor in our dealings in real life as well.
An example - though it physically sickened me to open up that much I discussed with a number of my nieces that I was a virgin on my wedding night, despite having reached the advanced age of 32. I thought they needed to know that the examples society and the media give them are not the only way to live their lives.

And now maybe I have said too much.