Whose Digital Culture Is It Anyway?

In CPR Connects by Anna GolladayLeave a Comment

By: Rev. Nathan Webb, Digital Ministry Senior Fellow

It started innocently enough. I went on a Google rabbit hole researching for a conversation around masking identity online. The next thing I knew, I discovered sociologists’ work digging into the postmodern concept of participatory culture. As a digital native, I was hooked by this concept and had to learn what I could. This led to reading a dialogical narrative book called Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. I’d recommend reading this book in full, but here are some key factors that caught my attention that I think digital ministry practitioners must consider.

Technology Is Not Culture

Frankly, the bulk of the conversations in this book were around the truly lacking definition of culture. It’s a sort of ‘know when you see it’s situation, but pinning down an adequate definition leaves so much nuance on the table.

Nevertheless, there were some aspects of digital culture that were not culture. One such element is the technology itself. This goes for hardware and software alike. Facebook is not culture. YouTube is not culture. They are no more culture than a city street or a coffee shop. The thing does not imply the culture but the living bodies within and around the thing. 

So then, there is a distinct difference between beckoning your digital community to use your Facebook group or to participate in your culture on Facebook. Facebook wants participation on its platform, but that participation is not indicative of culture. On the other hand, you want to build a participatory culture that exists regardless of the platform of choice – it should transcend the technology.

Participation Is Inherently Anti-hierarchical

As the authors acknowledge, hierarchy is an essential aspect of culture. Much to their chagrin, even the lowest barriers of entry into a culture are still incapable of eradicating hierarchy. However, one way to observe the participatory culture in the community you’re forming is by analyzing the hierarchical structure. The denser the hierarchy, the less participatory the culture. 

Take, for instance, the membership participation of an organization like To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA). In and of itself, it is the TWLOHA community that gives it social and political power. Yes, some board members must maintain the organizational structure, but those members need to be more faceless in the grand scheme of the vibrant volunteers and supporters of the movement. Thus, the leadership is acquiescing much of their hierarchical power to those with the lowest barrier of entry and, therefore, demands a relationship that creates participation online.

The Kids Are Alright (Without You)

This one shouldn’t shock anyone actively involved in digital ministry, but the revolution of participatory culture is happening among the youngest among us first. That’s not to say that the youth created it–participatory culture has been around for decades, if not arguably longer. However, these subcultures within our mainstream culture are being formed by a lack of inclusion of the younger generations in ‘adult’ conversations. They argue that the ‘invention of the teenager’ was political and that the youth’s propensity to create culture via technology is a similarly political response.

As someone forming a digital-first church for nerds, geeks, and gamers, this is the precise reason I saw the demographic’s influential culture. The nerds are an outpouring of young people socially segregated from society by choice of hobby, fashion, or career. The subculture exists, and my church plant is tapping into the rich vein of people seeking religion. 

This is likely why the flashy lights and hip pastors aren’t the proper response to the evangelism of young people–it’s a longing for participatory culture. The attractive megachurch provides a culture of participation via a disconnected church leadership that serves so many people that a volunteer must be formed to sustain the work. If your church, like mine, desires a more relational model of church, then the question is not, “How can we look like the megachurch?” but is instead, “How can we inspire a participatory culture like the megachurch?”

We must reject the hierarchy.

We must embrace the participation provided by technology instead of simply technology itself.

We must steady successful participatory cultures around us. 

This shouldn’t feel unfamiliar to those of us in the church. We built a hierarchy when one already was in place. We are called to be a participatory Body of Christ with many parts, none more significant than the other. If Facebook can do it, then indeed, we can, too.

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