[Apologies for typos or multiple posts of this blog. WordPress seems to be having a technical issue preventing me from updating it successfully.]
Winning the Internet: Religion and the New Media
In the circles of the New Media, you couldn’t have assembled a bigger set of rock stars than the panel K. Reklis gathered at this year’s American Academy of Religion. Here was the lineup:
Kathryn Lofton, Yale University
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, The Huffington Post Media Group, New York, NY
Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Social Science Research Council, Brooklyn, NY
Diane Winston, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
The simple by-lines don’t really quite capture the value of this panel. Raushenbush, for instance, built the Huffington Post’s Religion division from the ground up. He’s the senior editor of a unit that gets 250,000 hits a day for topics on religion.
Jonathan VanAntwerpen has been more instrumental than any other figure in facilitating pushing the scholarly dialogue on secularism into the public sphere. The Immanent Frame, the Social Science Research Council’s multi-faceted blog, contains some of the most dynamic thinking on religion anywhere in print or online.
Kathryn Lofton edits one of the affiliates of The Immanent Frame: Seek | frequencies. This is collaboration with unconventional religious webzine Killing the Buddha (whose editor Jeff Sharlet was scheduled to appear but was replaced with Winston) extends the topics to prayer and spirituality. Lofton also has her hands into the editing side of Religion in American History, Religion Dispatches, and once upon a time was a contributor to Patheos.
Diane Winston, perhaps more than any of the previous figures, was on the ground floor of the development of earliest online collaborations between religion scholars and journalists. She is now the head of Religion Dispatches, which has become part of USC’s Annenberg School, and I have a feeling she’ll find a way to make RD an even more critical online magazine for religious studies informed discussions of faith and politics.
These folks are at the heart of the New Media. They are expanding the boundaries of journalism, publishing, academic writing, and religious studies. Of all many issues they raised during the panel, however, one stood out: Paul Raushenbush’s claim that HuffPost Religion’s goal is to “win the internet” by being at the top of the list when people search for religion.
Raushenbush made an excellent case for why it is vital for someone to want to “win.” It is necessary, he said, to preserve the quality and integrity of information. This is the internet as the Wild West. Can a dark stranger ride into town and save the day? Will they bring righteous violent justice? Will they offer tempered lawfulness? In short, will our savior be benevolent?
The issue with HuffPost, as so many colleagues perceive, is not just the danger of a for-profit journalism source funded by tabloid gossip. It is the danger of a consensus by what so often appears to be mob rule or whimsy or click-bait. It changes content—“explainer” pieces are the HuffPost’s most popular—and it changes the kind of people who are entitled to create the content. In some ways, what HuffPost has done for content and creator is radically progressive. They put basic educational content, often by insiders, at the forefront. That has value.
The desire to win, however, strikes me and many others as off-putting. Is religion something we win with? How does that make our scholarship any different than evangelism? Or in less coded language, aren’t we risking putting the popular reception of our work ahead of the work?
Then again, perhaps one of the reasons the humanities is in so much trouble (and the academy generally) is that we haven’t fought to win. [I’m not even sure we all agree that we’re playing the same game.] We’ve been content to pretend that sincere work merits attention on its own, and we have far too often forgotten to frame that work in a way that will attraction attention. This is more than vinegar and flies. Playing to win means taking control of the rules of the game. HuffPost undoubtedly uses meta-tagging and writes its posts to please search engines. Search Engine Optimization is a part of the game that can be rigged and cheated.
Of the rules that the HuffPost has set for its victory, one of the most curious is that its authors and content be relentlessly positive. Don’t disparage other faiths, Raushenbush advises his authors, elevate your own faith. This is not turn the other cheek; it’s pretend you aren’t being slapped. It’s a very significant obstacle to serious journalism. Criticism is necessary. An attempt to identify the truth, to pursue it aggressively, is the hallmark of excellent writing. Being positive is mostly okay. In most circumstance and for many things, we should attempt to elevate the good and not denigrate the bad. (My wife would say I’m terrible at this.)
The problem comes when your desire to be positive limits your ability to be negative when negativity is called for. Sometimes one must call a spade a spade. Homosexuals do not cause climate change. Or, given the recent announcement of the Supreme Court birth control case, one must recognize that scientifically the morning after pill is not an abortifacient.
As a religious studies scholar who specializes in American history, I have a variety of ways of being cautious. I give my subjects the benefit of the doubt. I validate their perspective and write about it honestly. In my work my goal is never to disparage the groups I’m studying. It’s counter-productive. It doesn’t get at the truth of the questions I’m asking.
The crucial thing about the New Media, however, is that if it is really attempting to win the internet, then its questions have become the kind that make truth claims possible for authors. We have room to make these as secular citizens writing about religion. It is no longer the domain solely of religious believers to make explicit the faith claims of their analyses. (Sure, ethnographers have been doing this for longer, but religious studies has always had a confessional problem.)
Winning in the new media means asking questions that are winnable. As far as I can tell, those questions aren’t the ones that we’ve been trained to ask. This placed us (religious studies) at a disadvantage. We’re on our way to overcoming it. We’re certainly not there yet, nor do we want to casually let others determine where we end up.
So take this time to consider your participation in the new media’s reconstruction of discourses about religion. No doubt some are exceedingly positive; others have hidden risks that reveal the costs of this new landscape. Explore freely, but tread carefully. And don’t forget to SEO your site.