Thursday, February 10, 2011

Listservs, now that's kickin' it old school!

Campbell, Heidi. Exploring Religious Community Online: We Are One in the Network. Peter Lang Publishing, 2005, 213 pages.

This well-researched and helpful book illustrates how quickly the landscape changes in the digital world. Just about the time you think you have scaled the mountain and reached the peak, the mountain itself changes locations. In this case, Campbell’s book is a dissertation on religious communion online, and she uses three e-mail based groups (listservs) as her ethnographic research base.
I remember the heady days of listservs. I was on a few throughout the nineties, and was sometimes a passionate and even over-zealous participant. I remember one listserv in particular, something on theology and the emergent church, that kept me coming back to my computer every few minutes to see if a new comment had been posted. The amount of intellectual energy and emotional ardor invested in the discussions was extraordinary. Some debates would get my heart racing, and it is definitely the case that many of the discussions (conducted during the years while I was in seminary and on the field in global missions) shaped how I think of faith and the church yet today.
So reading Campbell’s book was like an exercise in nostalgia, the only problem being that I would not have expected to feel nostalgia reading a book written in 2005 and research in the early part of the 21st century. It is moments like these when I realize just how quickly our culture and media are changing around us.
On the other hand, things may not be changing as quickly as I think. I was also reminded while reading Campbell’s book of all the wonderful collections of correspondence (letters) I have read over the years, like Flannery O’Connors Habit of Being, the letters exchanged between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, the massive collection of letters Melancthon wrote to statesmen, scholars, and clergy all over Europe, and so on ( People have been writing letters to each other for millennia, and in doing so were typically seeking the same list of attributes of community listserv participants seek in their listserv participation: “relations, to be connected and committed… to be see as valuable as an individual and as part of a community… consistent communication, intimate communication, where individuals share open about their believes and spiritual lives… and gather around a shared faith that influences how they see others and how they see connections between the epistolary relationship and their other relationships.”[1] Which is simply to say that it seems to me that people by and large use listservs for the same relational purposes they made use of letters for in the past—as a “supplement rather than a substitute for an individual’s involvement in the local.”[2] Interestingly, “also used as a baseline… to describe or even critique [the world beyond the letter exchange].”[3]
Campbell takes the wise approach of an ethnographer, asking not whether an online group can be a community, but “What type of community does an online group represent?”[4] The majority of the book is a report on and analysis of three listserv’s she observes over a multi-year period, including a Pentecostal-charismatic group on the gift of prophecy, an evangelical group that offered care and support for its members, and an Anglican listserv that functioned as a way for far-flung Anglicans to interact around a range of issues. If you have never participate in a listserv before, these chapters can make essential reading for understanding the content and function of listserv groups.
In the early part of the book, Campbell sets the stage for clarifying how we are to think of such groups as online community. I found her reference to Michel Bauwens taxonomy of emergent spiritual practices on the web to be especially helpful (see the full essay at Bauwens defines three emergent types of web-based spiritual practice. I offer definitions here, and since I’m a sci-fi nerd of a fairly major sort, I also include reference to movies or books that I think portray these:

1. God Project- Technology is seen as having God-like aspects, a crude substitute for godlike powers. One very recent example of this would be the movie Tron:Legacy (, where his dudeness Jeff Bridges sits in Zen-like meditation for decades waiting for release from the cyber-world he constructed and then traps himself in. People who think technology can provide them with this cross between magic and tech are called, I learned, technopagans. I wish Campbell would have done ethnographic research on this group![5]

2. Electric Gaia- Technology is a necessary adjunct to make improvements in consciousness possible. I think the movie Avatar was taking a stab at this one, as was perhaps the movie Inception. In literature, one of my favorite recent novels in this genre is Cory Doctorow’s Makers. In this model, the “noosphere” emerges as a kind of global consciousness that busts people out of isolation. I find this the most intriguing category personally, even as I sometimes think most of us who envision it have to utopian a vision of what technology of this sort can accomplish.

3. Sacramental Cyberspace- Presents the internet as a place to further the aims of a particular religion. Clearly, this third category is the one most often thought of and out of in religious communities, and it is the category best represented in Campbell’s ethnographic research. William Gibson has also been working with this category in his more recent near-future novels. The movie The Social Network does as well, not furthering a religion per se, but initially it seems to say that Facebook is set up to further the aims of Harvard or Ivy League-ness.

For my money, the next ethnographic research dissertation that needs to be written (maybe it has and I just haven’t read it) needs to be researching (1) or (2) above. As far as how to apply Campbell’s research to the present era (2011 instead of 2005), we would need to take into account how participants are creating community online using the new social media of Facebook and Twitter. In this case, I think the new media has changed the content, inasmuch as everything is brief (150 characters or less) rather than the length of an e-mail. And does anybody still even subscribe to a listserv? 

[1] 187.
[2] 173.
[3] 176.
[4] Xix.
[5] William Gibson’s books beginning with Neuromancer would also fall into this category.

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