Some weeks ago you'll recall that Benedict XVI became the first twittering Pope, tweeting under the name of @Pontifex.
That of course attracted much media interest, despite official assurances his tweets will not be infallible.
But late last month Benedict issued a somewhat less publicised message on the possibilities of online social networks that I thought was rather more interesting. The message, Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization, published for the Catholic Church's World Communications Day, is an exceptionally clear and balanced consideration of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of online communications, and well worth a read.
I've written before about the frustratingly slow pace with which churches (and many other traditional institutions) are coming to terms with the brute fact of the centrality of the web to contemporary public life. The Catholic Church certainly isn't exempt from that criticism - witness for example the state of the Vatican website, unchanged since I first encountered it in the late 1990s - but Benedict's message begins with refreshing openness regarding the new possibilities for communication afforded by the web. Referring to social networks as 'a new “agora”, an open public square in which people share ideas, information and opinions', he writes:
These spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate which, if conducted respectfully and with concern for privacy, responsibility and truthfulness, can reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family. The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friendships, and connections facilitate communion. If the networks are called to realise this great potential, the people involved in them must make an effort to be authentic since, in these spaces, it is not only ideas and information that are shared, but ultimately our very selves.
That said, he then, I think, gets to the heart of the potential shortcomings of social media:
The culture of social networks and the changes in the means and styles of communication pose demanding challenges to those who want to speak about truth and values. Often, as is also the case with other means of social communication, the significance and effectiveness of the various forms of expression appear to be determined more by their popularity than by their intrinsic importance and value. Popularity, for its part, is often linked to celebrity or to strategies of persuasion rather than to the logic of argumentation. At times the gentle voice of reason can be overwhelmed by the din of excessive information and it fails to attract attention which is given instead to those who express themselves in a more persuasive manner. The social media thus need the commitment of all who are conscious of the value of dialogue, reasoned debate and logical argumentation; of people who strive to cultivate forms of discourse and expression which appeal to the noblest aspirations of those engaged in the communication process.
I like the distinction drawn in that paragraph between 'the logic of argumentation' and 'strategies of persuasion'. Argument and persuasion are not the same thing, but are often conflated. Authentic argument is conditional on openness to the possibility of truth, to acknowledging the possibility that one's current opinion on a matter might be wrong, and require amendment in light of the superior reasoning of others. Persuasion, however, need not have truth in view. Rather it seeks to compel others by a show of rhetoric and style. It convinces by subjective rather than objective means: clever words, compelling imagery.
I think it's fair to say that the very nature of the web makes it a medium peculiarly susceptible to 'strategies of persuasion'. For one thing online communications technology is designed to encourage short, sharp, staccato information exchanges: tweets, of course, are limited to 140 characters; Facebook and Google+ interfaces are designed for brief snippets of text; and lengthy blog posts and comments are uncomfortable to read. For another, the presentation of information online is at least as, indeed more, important than content. Improved screen resolution is making it easier to read long passages of digital text, but we are still much more inclined to scan information when presented on screen. Users are more likely to trust a well designed website, even if its content is shamelessly promotional.
It's an interesting exercise, I think, to contemplate that distinction because so very much of what we are subject to on the web, or do ourselves, involves persuasion rather than argument. So much so, we're scarcely aware of it. As has been well documented it can be surprisingly difficult to properly engage offline with the rigour of a densely argued book once one has become used to the brief, rhetorical style of good online copy.
There's a significant market for courses and books that teach the skill of writing for the web. Nearly all of them teach techniques of persuasion: the crafting of text designed to make maximum impact with as few words as possible.
Now that so much discussion and exchange of opinion takes place online, I wonder what effect this widespread adoption of techniques of persuasion is having on our ability to engage in 'logical argumentation'. I'm certainly not one of those who blames the web for any perceived corruption in the quality of public discourse. As Benedict's message says, it is a powerful medium that can be used wisely or otherwise. We just need to be aware of its tendency to encourage us to employ less rigorous patterns of reasoning for the sake of brevity.
I like the message's final paragraph, which can be appreciated whatever one makes of the references to Christian theology:
In the digital environment, too, where it is easy for heated and divisive voices to be raised and where sensationalism can at times prevail, we are called to attentive discernment. Let us recall in this regard that Elijah recognised the voice of God not in the great and strong wind, not in the earthquake or the fire, but in 'a still, small voice' (1 Kg 19:11-12). We need to trust in the fact that the basic human desire to love and to be loved, and to find meaning and truth – a desire which God himself has placed in the heart of every man and woman – keeps our contemporaries ever open to what Blessed Cardinal Newman called the 'kindly light' of faith.