June 18, 2021

Digital Literacy: Let's put some context there

Digital Literacy: Let's put some context there

This is the fourth part of digital literacy and it's how we recreate context for what we're finding online. Christians should already "get this" because we have to do it all the time with the Bible. But for some reason, we don't use these same skills when it comes to online communication. See how to create context in the conversations you're finding onlne.

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Be good and do good.


In this episode of Balancing the Christian Life we talk about putting context on what you’re finding online.

Welcome to Balancing the Christian Life. I’m Dr. Kenny Embry. We’ll talk about how to be better Christians and people in the digital age. Let’s go.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I reread the line again. I was on Facebook and I was looking at senior pictures of the daughter of an old coworker. I saw all the usual comments. “She’s a beautiful girl” and “that’s such a great picture.” But it was the sixth comment that got me. “Well I hope she turns out better than her parents. What a joke.” Seriously? If I had to list my favorite coworkers of all time, Carrie would easily be in the top 3. She was kind, always supportive, and someone I could never see ever deserving this kind of treatment. Carrie was thoughtful and kind. She rooted for the underdog and made everyone around her better by being there. I don’t know who this guy was talking about, but he couldn’t know the Carrie I knew. So I told him that. “Hey, I don’t know who you think you’re talking to,” I wrote, “but Carrie is probably the nicest person I know, so be very careful about what you write next. She doesn’t deserve abuse.” I liked it. I mean I didn’t threaten violence but I did tell him that he was treading on thin ice, and he was. I mean, knowing Carrie the way I did, I would have been happy to argue with this guy about what he didn’t really understand. 

A few minutes later, I got an instant message from Carrie. Wow, I hadn’t heard from her in probably 15 years. “Thanks,” it read. “I really appreciate what you said, but you don’t really need to worry. This guy is my brother-in-law and we haven’t gotten along in years.” Ahhh...that was the missing piece I didn’t see. I had assumed this was a guy who didn’t know Carrie, but suddenly I had a better picture. This wasn’t a passing comment but a continuing argument. This was family, and I understand how family can be pretty tricky. I also knew what I wrote earlier wouldn’t make any difference at all.

The problem with much online communication is we are often eavesdropping on a conversation that isn’t ours. We see what’s being said, but the rules aren’t neatly defined. Social media is a weird space because it’s difficult to figure out how to classify it. Is it public or is it private? Well, there’s not a clear answer to that. Plus, so many groups you used to be able to keep separate are interacting. You’ve got your friends from church and then you’ve got your friends from work, and then your old high school friends, but on Instagram or Facebook they’re all jumbled into one thread. You know what your high school friend might say, but you also worry about what your church friends might think. Add in the odd interest group you joined about Ed Sheeran and that other group you joined to try and figure out exactly what CDB oil is and now you’ve got a lot of people you know will disagree and you’re sitting on a potential powder keg. Add in all the friend requests you’re getting from people who live in first different states you’ve never visited, then different countries. Some are asking for money, some are trying to sell you something, and some just read what you’re sharing. 

But the real problem with this is trying to figure out what’s really being said and what’s not. All conversations happen in a context. There are relationships, there are the things said before this, there is the time it’s being said, there’s the place, there are the underlying meanings, and many times we lose at least part of that when we just read something without knowing what came before. In other words, online we’re missing context, and it’s one of the major issues when we’re trying to make sense online.

As Christians, we should be able to see the problem pretty clearly because we deal with it a lot. The Bible is filled with books written thousands of years ago, to people who are long dead, and cultures which valued different things than we do with customs much different than ours. To understand what’s going on in those books, we have to reconstruct the contexts at play when they were written. We could go to a famous passage like Psalm 23 and suddenly we recognize how many things we have to unpack. It starts “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Okay, literally the second word is Lord. Which lord? Are they talking about the lord of a manor in 19th century England, or a renaissance lord? Or it could mean a landlord in the twentieth century who oversees an apartment complex. Or is the author making an allusion to Star Wars and the light versus dark side of the force? I mean lord can mean so many differen things. But you’re sitting there screaming, no, it’s not any of those. I mean everything I just referenced are hundreds and sometimes thousands of years after what’s happening in this passage. The Lord he’s referring to is God. Any elementary Bible student understands that. Yep, and he’s talking about shepherding. I’m going out on a limb and guessing you’re not a shepherd, but you’ve heard things about it. You know they oversee sheep. I’m also going to guess you don’t deal with sheep on a daily basis. I’m also going to guess you recognize you’re talking about shepherding techniques used around 1000 BC and not 2021 shepherding. And on top of all that, you recognize shepherd is being used as a metaphor. He’s not really talking about sheep at all. He’s talking about us. Everything I just mentioned is happening for Christians pretty seamlessly because we have to do it all the time.

But for some reason we aren’t as well conditioned when we go online. We forget that the people around us often live in different cultures and understanding what’s going on in online conversations and online articles need the same kind of context construction we’re used to doing with the book of Psalms. I think of this as the fourth part of digital literacy, but it should be a part that Christians should be able to do better.

I’m going to suggest there are six important parts to recreating a context and they roughly correspond to the journalistic questions. I know, this strays from the traditional three point essay, but these are important questions when creating context around what we’re seeing online. And don’t worry, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on any of these, but I think they help us recreate something sorely missing in online conversation.

First, who is making the stuff you’re seeing and to whom is it being written. When I saw the post from Carrie’s brother-in-law, I didn’t understand the relationship. I didn’t know who this was and who it wasn’t. Again, when we interpret the Bible, it makes sense to know both the author and intended audience. Ephesians makes more sense when you know Paul is the author and that he had spent a lot of time in Ephesus. In online contexts, authors count. Who is saying what to whom? Some people have more credibility. Some have no business commenting on a topic. I think one of the things most demoralizing about online communication is we often dont go to the trouble of seeing who is saying what, and what kind of credibility those people have. When I was growing up, I remember the cigarette companies going before congress and saying they did not believe tobacco use caused cancer. Well of course they would say that. They would be criticizing what was providing their livelihoods. They weren’t credible witnesses. But too often anyone with a Twitter account or an Instagram page is given the same weight as researchers who have done the legwork. Or even worse, people who have credibility in one area is being given credibility in something where they have no expertise at all. Knowing who is saying what and why their voices are any more important than the person behind you in line at the grocery. Further, there are some ideas which have become too toxic to touch because of the perceived backlash. It is truly sad when unpopular opinions are confused for credible.

Second, what’s really being said and what’s not. Again, when we look at biblical texts, it’s important to parse out what words are being used, and what content you’re trying to be communicated. In Psalm 23, for example, those first five words are conveying a relationship between God and his people. The what is the metaphor of the shepherd to his sheep. It’s our relationship with God. In online contexts, figuring out what is being communicated can be tricky. The words can mean different things to different people ONe of the things that has baffled me with online messages is the intuitive use of abbreviations. For example, ICYMI stands for in case you missed it, TLDR means too long didin’t read and IMO means in my opinion. These weren’t explained to me, but somehow I just got it. Learning online tools to help decipher the latest abbreviation, the nuanced meaning of some words can help a lot of us struggling to keep up with what’s going on in online messaging. Yes, you are welcome to complain about the abbreviations and redefined words. But don’t think for a second your complaining will change a thing.

Third, when is this being said. Again, when we interpret biblical texts, understanding the time they’re being written makes a lot of sense. For example, it’s laughable to ask about Paul’s Facebook page because Facebook wasn’t around in his time. That’s an extreme example. But understanding that II Corinthians was written after First Coringthians helps us understand what’s happening in the book. In online contexts, a lot of content is time constrained. The debate about impeaching Trump makes no sense now because he’s not president anymore. The expiration date on a lot of writing has come and gone, but many still treat it as relevant, even when it’s not.

Fourth, where is it being said. Online environments do change this a little. Not all websites are created equal because the reputation of some places precedes it. Likewise, the conversations we have in Facebook or Instagram somehow seem less formal than an article you might post in Medium or an online publication. But even online publications aren’t all created equal. Some websites have a political bias, some have a social bias. The mistake is to believe anywebsite exists that doesn’t have some bias. 

Fifith, why is this being written. Intention is one of those things often hidden from consumers. Some are pretty easy to guess. I’m guessing the Amazon Prime Day advertisements I’ve been seeing lately are trying to pique my curiosity so I’ll spend more money on Amazon in a few days. Biblical writers will often say exactly why they’re writing something. For example, Luke was trying to explain who Jesus was to Theophilus in the gospel of Luke. John wrote his gospel to convert people. And if you take them at their word, then it’s pretty easy to figure out the why. Online, sometimes this can take a little more ferreting out. Why do people write the tweets they do? Some are angry, some are looking for laughs, some just want to share information and some are desperate for attention. Some are trying to affect social change, some want you to vote differently or become interested in some cause. I don’t mind saying when it comes to recreating context, I think why is the most important question, but it’s also the one that could take a lifetime to figure out. As Christians, I think it often makes sense for us to ask why we believe in God. I think your answer changes as you get older, but I think it’s always a fair and good question to ask. Online, why do you trust the sources you do? Why are these people writing this stuff? Why do you want to read it? And why do you keep coming back to the same sources? Again, I think all of these are worthwhile questions to ask and find answers to.

Finally, how was this made. As Christians, I think one of the most important questions we should ask is how we got the Bible we have in our hands today. That’s a fair question and an excellent study. But I don’t know a lot of people who do it. Online I think it’s important to know both the history and the mechanisms keeping some websites up and running. With few exceptions, websites exist  through support mechanisms we would do well to understand better. Churches rely on donations by volunteers. The leadership are often unpaid, the bills are paid by financial donations, and the work that goes on is often accomplished by volunteers. When you understand that, you begin to understand how to make some things work within a congregation. Likewise, when you understand how a website is funded, you begin to understand what content you are likely to see and what you’re not. For example, if the website is supported by ads from Amazon, do you think you’ll see many articles critical of Amazon? Probably not.

Again, you’ll notice these six questions that help build context are traditional questions for good journalists. Journalists are trying to retell a story, and that’s probably the best way to understand what’s going on in the online space as well. These six questions, who, what, when,where, why and how put things in context. It’s a great way to figure out what a book of the Bible is saying. But it’s also a great way to figure out what’s really being said in that Facebook conversation, why that article you just read seems skewed, or how to think through an idea that just seems off.

Even as I say this, I know most people don’t do this. The reactive nature of online conversation makes for great drama, but it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t help you understand. It keeps you stupidly reactive. God calls us to better. 

So I still don’t think Carrie deserved what she got from her brother-in-law, but I understand the context better. And because I have a fuller story, I know this isn’t a problem I’m going to have to fix. That’s their business, not mine and I pray they do figure something out.

As Christians who need to be both light and salt, let’s be the ones who help bring more understanding and less mindless reactivity so we can use these tools better.

So, the good thing I’ve been thinking about lately has to do with sharing your joy. My daughter Emma is wanting to become a dental hygienist and she told us she was recently allowed to pull someone’s tooth in the dental office she’s working at this summer. I confess, that doesn’t sound exciting to me in the slightest, but she was ecstatic. I think one of the things I’ve learned as a parent is the things you end up being happy about have less to do with what interests you and more about what gets your family. So right now my daughter is excited about tooth extraction and I’m happy she’s happy. I think God teaches us a lot by the families he gives us.

If any of these episodes have helped you, please do me a favor and share them with your friends. It would mean a lot to me, and I hope they will be something which will help them as well.

Next week I plan to share my conversation with Andy Cantrell. Andy is someone who, I think, has the very best attitude toward evangelism I’ve ever seen. He’s a quiet but very smart guy and I’m excited to bring that conversation to you.

So until next time, let’s be good and do good.