(n)ethnography: A christian community on the net

Believing in something in religious terms has changed during the last century and can now be seen as something special instead of being a normal part of life. This is at least the case for our north european hemisphere, but if we widen our perspective it becomes clear that religion, as a motive and belief as a motor, influences and changes political, social and cultural powers. Religion is therefore a highly relevant topic and has to be observed with caution, especially when tending towards the fanatical areas (1).

THE_LORD__S_PRAYER_by_navalatanjjnn

In this blog post I would like to analyse a specific Christian community (2) and their ways of communicating with their peers and how others communicate about them.  I therefore use the methods of ethnographical studies and try to understand their behaviour from an outside perspective.

When entering this subject the Christian communities website is a good starting point. As an official website it has a highly selling character with the purpose of attracting new members. There is a lot of information gathered which presents an overview of the communities values, representation and events. The focus relies on information on how to meet and gather in the physical world (such as services, activities, groups etcetera). An interesting aspect is the use of targeted representations of active people in this Christian community, who step forward and present a personal opinion about their belief and the values of this Christian community. The chosen ambassadors are picked so that they attract a specific target group with their message. Here are for example a young mother who writes about the combination of church, daily life and children or an older man with an academic background standing for not questioning the bible but instead accepting and embracing it. Another ambassador is the charismatic leader of the community who tries to attract all members in different areas. Just by searching through the website it becomes clear, that there are some unequivocal signs for an hierarchic structure which might even be part of the Christian community itself. The community embraces their belief as the only valid truth and condemns all other ways of believing. Nevertheless is the general tone of the website very welcoming and inviting. At multiple places the website authors invite the websites reader to participate and join to their activities and to be part of their community. I therefore expect the handling of newcomers into this community as being even over-friendly, as those communities always need members in order to spread their word.

Until now I have focussed on the website and therefore their online self-representation, and now it will be interesting if this first impression can be verified in connection to online communities. I couldn’t find a forum which is directly connected to the Christian community, besides related blogs as for example a youth channel. In those young members describe a positive picture of happened activities and events. In general it seems to be very difficult to find any negative or critical comments of members themselves.

If the perspective is changed and the community is instead the object of discussion, the attitude towards them changes drastically. The Christian community shows up in many forums, blog posts and other forms of online discussion, and is here often described as a cult or sect. Here notions become visible were any objection or criticism is seen as unacceptable and punishable. This is showing a different picture of the clean and pure image the website tries to proclaim. In all of the forums analysed the action of different discussion partners show that they either had made bad experiences with the community or they on the other side defending it. Lampe and Johnston (2005) see that “participation outcomes for new users are affected by a mix of previous experiences, observation of other members, and feedback received through ratings and replies. Each play distinct roles in whether and how a new user will participate on the site, and how that participation will be viewed by the larger community” (3). In this case discussing users can be classified in three categories: either they are supporters (defending the matter), opponents (against the matter) or undecided/questioning (asking). Especially users from the first and second category come with a defined opinion of themselves and the other parts. And even if users “believe [that] they bring unique skills or knowledge to the group” (4) the discussions in various forums and blogs show the same pattern. The opponent users rise problematic subjects and incidents, draw facts and intend to publish the flaws of being part of this Christian community and supporters (often members) deny all allegations and show arguments for the positive work of the community.

The description in forums differs strongly from the presentation on the website. First with the help of those forums and even other media it becomes clear that the Christian community stand for very specific values, a limited world-view, as well as a fundamentalist understanding of the bible. But instead of taking this discussion in an open forum or in openly accessible discussions, the community chooses to provide just positive information on their official website as well as on connected sites. Questioning and doubt doesn’t seem to be part of their belief. It might be the attempt to block unwanted discussions, but in the time of digital media, being quiet and secret about parts of your online and offline behaviour just fuels a bad reputation.

The comparison in this blog post not just shows how different online and offline perception of things might be, but also about the power digital media can have a supportive and at the same time in a destructive effect.

In order to understand both sides, the supporter and the opponent of belief I created a list of possible aspects connected to belief/church

personal positive possible aspects connected to belief/church:

  • can provide a place where you belong
  • feel at home
  • feel accepted
  • feeling as one
  • understand the tradition
  • finding like-minded people
  • gaining trust
  • soul counseling / personal counseling
  • fills the urge of believing in something bigger/higher

personal negative possible aspects connected to belief/church

  • feeling pressure
  • belief as a prewritten role
  • forced tradition
  • narrow minded people
  • forced opinions
  • takes away the freedom of free thinking
  • tries to enforce the religion on you
  • former bad experience connected to it

____________

  1.  Dawson, Lorne L., and Douglas E. Cowan, eds. Religion online: Finding faith on the Internet. Routledge, 2013.
  2. the name of the targeted online community nor the forums are not named (safety reasons)
  3. Lampe, Cliff, and Erik Johnston. “Follow the (slash) dot: effects of feedback on new members in anonline community.” Proceedings of the 2005 international ACM SIGGROUP conference on Supportinggroup work. ACM, 2005.
  4. Ludford, Pamela J., et al. “Think different: increasing online community participation using uniqueness and group dissimilarity.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. ACM, 2004.

picture “THE LORD’S PRAYER” by navalatanjjnn from deviantart.com

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