Debating the effects of social networking on community life

An English archbishop’s recent warning about social networking sites has been getting a lot of attention in news stories and blogs — to the tune of hundreds of Google search results.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminister told the Telegraph that the Internet and cell phones are “dehumanizing” community life, and that sites such as Facebook and MySpace promote transient relationships for teenagers and place too much emphasis on the number of friends you have.

“Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships,” Archbishop Nichols said. “They throw themselves into a friendship or network of friendships. Then it collapses and they’re desolate. … It’s an all-or-nothing syndrome that you have to have in an attempt to shore up an identity — a collection of friends about whom you can talk and even boast. But friendship is not a commodity; friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it’s right.”

The archbishop has gotten a lot of criticism from social networking fans. Mostly, though, reaction has shown an understanding of his concern, but also an understanding of the benefits of social networking sites, wrote Luke Coppen, editor of the Catholic Herald in London, in an e-mail to Catholic News Service.

“My own view is that the decline in community life in Britain began decades ago and that online networking is a reaction to this decline rather than a cause of it,” Coppen wrote. “I imagine that our communal life would be even more impoverished if we didn’t have tools such as Facebook, Bebo and Twitter to draw us out of our solitary routines. The archbishop is right that online communities are fragile, but they are surely better than having no community at all.”

He added that the church should use online communities to draw people into the deeper community of faith.

That’s the idea at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Don Clemmer, assistant director of media relations, in an interview with CNS. The conference uses its Facebook , Twitter and blog to get the church’s message out through the most popular media.

But when it comes to personal networking, Clemmer also warned against letting online habits become superficial.

“Like so many tools, it can be used to build up or to tear down,” he said. “Relationships are supposed to be built on love and a deeper sense of authentic community.”

But if used in constructive ways, networking sites can actually enhance communities, said Bill McGarvey, chief editor of Busted Halo, an online magazine for spiritual seekers. The archbishop’s comments should not be interpreted as a ban on Facebook, but as a warning sign to be careful online.

Jonathan Wynne-Jones, the Telegraph religious affairs correspondent who wrote the original story, followed up with an Aug. 5 story about the criticism floating around the Internet.

“If people actually bothered to read the story and read the quotes they would see that the archbishop actually has an impressive grasp of modern culture and cares deeply about its future,” Wynne-Jones wrote. “Much of the criticism of Nichols derives from a hostility to the Church and a drive to have its leaders’ pronouncement pushed from the public square, no matter how pertinent their comments are. Some also no doubt comes from those who are addicted to these sites and don’t want to face the facts.”

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One Response to Debating the effects of social networking on community life

  1. The Archbishop is right – these networking tools can be effective but they can be just as destructive. They do create a fragile and sometimes false reality. At the end of the day it gets back to the same thing – you have to take responsibility for yourself and your actions – sadly many people do not.

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