This research looks at the ways in which social media, specifically Twitter, shifts the rhetoric, rituals, and interactions of religionists. Approaching this study from a “soft” technological deterministic viewpoint suggests that technology may have some influence on shaping society; here the focus is on shaping religious communities. Using ethnographic content analysis, this research examines how ten Canadian Christian churches use Twitter, how spirituality is discussed on Twitter, and whether the integration of Twitter with religious experience shifts the interactions of religionists. After analyzing 200 tweets, this research found that Canadian Christian churches are not using Twitter to interact with followers or to discuss spirituality online. Instead, they are primarily using Twitter as a one-way communication medium to advertise and promote events. This study is important to communication and cultural studies because it demonstrates that the potential for mobile digital media tools to transform religious communities and their distinctive belief systems, rituals, and organizational structures is not yet occurring.
KEYWORDS: MOBILE MEDIA, SOCIAL NETWORKING, SOCIAL MEDIA, TWITTER, RELIGION
The Integration of Twitter with Religious Experience
Social networking platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, allow users to update information about themselves or their organizations in real-time without social or geographic boundaries (Christakis & Fowler, 2011, p. 30). They provide an environment for building social bonds with other users as each person contributes to the online interaction and shared meaning (Castells, 2009, pp. 392-394; Christakis & Fowler, 2011). Furthermore, mobile devices make it possible to stay connected whenever and wherever an Internet connection is available. People regularly use mobile networking tools at home to connect with family and friends, at work to interact with customers, at school to collaborate with classmates, and even in religious settings for worship (Bosomworth, 2013; Campbell, 2010; Barna Group, 2013). However, as my research here shows, religious organizations that have a social media presence on Twitter tend to miss out on its social capabilities by choosing not to interact with others online; rather using Twitter as a static billboard for advertising.
Considering these facts about the usage and consumption of social media, this research looks at the ways in which social media, specifically Twitter, shifts the rhetoric, rituals, and interactions of religionists. Approaching this study from a “soft” technological deterministic viewpoint (Chandler, 1995; Novicevic, Hayek, Buckley, & Humphreys, 2009) suggests that technology may have some influence on shaping society, more specifically on shaping religious communities. Using ethnographic content analysis, this research examines how ten Canadian Christian churches use Twitter, how spirituality is discussed on Twitter, and whether the integration of Twitter with religious experience shifts the interactions of religionists. My study has the potential to act as a spiritual thermometer providing information about the spiritual health and spiritual influence of a religious community from its online discourse. This research will examine the following questions: How are Canadian Christian churches using Twitter today? How are Canadian Christian churches discussing spirituality on Twitter? And, is the integration of socially engaging media (Twitter) with religious experience shifting the interactions of religionists? Ultimately, this study seeks to define how new forms of mobile digital communication challenge traditional forms of religion.
This study is important to communication and cultural studies because of the way mobile digital media tools potentially transform religious communities and their distinctive belief systems, rituals, and organizational structures. Socially engaging media such as Twitter “may not simply be a place to find out about or discuss religion” (Mahan, 2012, p. 20) but a location for new religious perceptions, beliefs and rituals – a place where digital religion intersects and challenges traditional ideals.
Considering the vast number of religious organizations and large amount of content online, very little research has been conducted to study ways mobile technology maybe shifting the rhetoric, rituals, and interactions of religionists. The majority of past research focuses on how religious organizations are integrating technology into everyday routines, worship or spiritual settings. Examples of this can be seen in studies of how the Catholic Church negotiate new media (Campbell, 2012) or how pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark respond to the Internet (Fischer-Nielsen, 2012). My research is different because it looks at ways Twitter potentially shifts the rhetoric, rituals, and interactions of religionists.
The Mobility of Social Media
In “User Interests in Social Media Sites: An Exploration with Micro-blogs,” Banerjee et al. (2009) argued that social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, allow users to “mimic their real life networks online” and eliminate spatial boundaries (p. 1823). The ability to share real-time personal experiences as they happen in the form of pictures or posts creates a strong sense of community and social belonging. Also according to Banerjee et al. (2009), users of social media are motivated to participate online because of the convenience and instantaneous connection of mobile social media applications. According to Sankar and Bouchard (2009) mobile devices such as laptop computers, smartphones, or tablet computers, when connected to the Internet, “extend the ubiquity of the Internet, offering anywhere, anytime access to information” (para. 1). This connection allows mobile users to capture photos with their mobile device and instantly share them with family and friends via email or to a social media site such as Facebook. Adeyeye, Ventura, and Foschini (2011) describe this “convergence of the Internet, broadcasting, and telecommunications” as Web 2.0 (p. 185). Similarly, Multisilta and Milrad (2009) identified from past research that a growing number of mobile social media users are sharing real-time life experiences by tagging video, photographic, and sensory data with their phones because of the connective experience mobile applications bring and the “freedom of time and place” (p. 2). Users of mobile social media can share their thoughts and experiences in real-time as long as there is an adequate network connection. The freedom and ease of use that mobile tools and applications provide allow users to always feel connected and engaged with family and friends.
Clearly, social networks create a sense of community and social belonging as individuals connect and share together. Furthermore, Web 2.0 has enabled a real-time mobile connection to the experiences and thoughts of family and friends that motivates many social media users to participate online. This is relevant to my argument that religious organizations tend to miss out on social capabilities of Twitter by choosing not to interact with others online because it identifies a strong sense of community when used for personal reasons that is not evident when used by religious organizations.
Why Religious Organizations Use the Internet
Dawson & Cowan (2004) provide a deeper understanding of how religious communities are using online technologies, looking at the impact digital media is having on contemporary religious life and practices. They argue that religious organizations are flocking to the Internet attempting to establish their presence online because “individuals using the Internet for popular or nonofficial religion have embraced this medium as a new environment where freedom of religious expression rules supreme” (p. 23). In other words, religious organizations are challenged by the “openness” of the Internet and have begun to address the need to maintain an active online presence to protect their identity, mission, and authority. Another important point shared by Dawson & Cowan (2004) is that “religion on the Internet includes a multiplicity of activities that fall at various places along the spectrum that extends between information and participation” (p. 94). In other words, the Internet invites people to participate in religious dimensions of life online.
As an example of how the Internet is used as a “multiplicity of activities” Cantoni & Zyga (2007) look at ways Catholic congregants worldwide are using Internet Communication Technology (ICT) as a tool of institutional communication. The results of the research were collected by first identifying Catholic churches that had an active Internet connection (2,285) and then emailing a questionnaire to the identified congregants. The 437 questionnaires returned revealed certain regularities among the monastic institutes and convents regarding online use and activities showing that, email is the first choice for communicating information quickly and it is rare for websites to have interactive services such as online chat.
Similar to the research conducted by Cantoni & Zyga, Fischer-Nielsen (2012) conducted research to explore the interrelationship between online media, secularization, and church life. An email survey was sent to 1,040 pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark that asked questions about how they use the Internet in their personal and professional lives and how their churches used the Internet. The results of this research showed that 95% of the pastors are online daily and that the Internet is having a positive influence in their lives. Furthermore, the pastors reported the Internet allowed them to maintain greater contact with parishioners on a regular basis. This is primarily referring to email contact which pre-dates Web 2.0 forms of dynamic communication such as social media.
Interestingly, Fischer-Nielsen (2012) discovered that a real church experience is most important for religious rituals and building community that online technologies can’t replace (pp. 115-130). She stated that online church experience is “artificial, casual, and superficial pseudo-community or a replacement church with surrogate services” (p. 127). In support of Fisher-Nielsen’s research findings, Lundby (2012) argued that online religious activities supplement religious life rather than substituting for offline religious life. Perhaps this is why Twitter continues to be used as a broadcast medium by the religious organizations studied in this research.
Heidi Campbell, in her book When Religion Meets New Media (2010), focused her research on the ways religion shapes technology, contrary to the deterministic view of scholars like Marshall McLuhan who argue that technology shapes our existence and religion (McLuhan, 1999). While there are examples over the years of technology being rejected by religious organizations, Campbell argues that for the most part technology is adopted and reshaped by religious communities to serve and enhance their own purposes that are guided by past history and current ideals. She furthermore states that any new technology to be adopted must first be examined by the religious organization to carefully consider what aspects of the technology run counter to their belief system and mission. She (2010) states that, “resistance leads to reconstruction of the technology” so that how the technology is used or presented fits within the organization’s minimal requirements and structure (p. 60). While traveling to many countries and regions as a participant observer, Campbell encountered numerous examples of how religious communities negotiate and reshape technology such as kosher cell phones (that have Internet features removed) used in Israel by ultra-Orthodox Jews (Campbell, 2007, pp. 195-197; Campbell, 2010, pp. 162-163), and an application for Muslims to help them perform daily prayers anywhere they are located (Campbell, 2010, p. 127). She observed that while the Catholic Church is embracing new media up to a certain point, it imposes regulations and boundaries on such media use to preserve foundational values, practices, and beliefs (Campbell, 2012). Campbell (2010) writes, “religious people are not anti-technology, rather they are constrained by a number of social and faith-based factors which inform and guide their responses to the possibilities and challenges offered by new forms of media” (p. 6). In other words, religious organizations recognize that technology has its place in religious settings and practices however; technology must harmonize with the mission and identity of the organization.
In the article “Dreams of Church in Cyberspace” Lundby (2012) asks an important question: “How do new forms of digital communication challenge church and mission?” The direction of this question is very much in line with the scope of this research. However, Lundby (2012) focuses mainly on the website presence of churches and the concept of church in cyberspace without attending to mobile digital media interactions. In so doing, Lundby (2012) makes a very insightful observation about church in cyberspace, saying that “the quality of church in virtual space and on the Internet depends on the relevance and credibility of its ongoing day-to-day interactions” (p. 37). The Internet offers alternative means to connect, expand and interact religiously while still focusing on traditional approaches to mission.
Evidently, religious organizations recognize that technology has its place within religious settings and they tend to reshape technology to better serve and suit their own environments. While many religious organizations admit that the Internet allows them to maintain greater contact with parishioners, some feel that an online experience can’t replace a real church experience. This is very important to my study because it identifies ways in which religious organizations are adapting technology and new media within their accepted context. For instance, my research identified that religious organizations tend to bypass social aspects of Twitter to suit their need for a one-way advertising platform.
Social Activity on Facebook
In, Voting “Present”: Religious Organizational Groups on Facebook, Mark Johns shared the results of an online study he conducted from Facebook observation. Johns collected data by monitoring the online activities of seven publicly available Facebook groups of a variety of religious communities. The purpose of his study was to “examine and describe the religious activities taking place on Facebook” (Johns, 2012, p. 153) and to look for 4 categories of online religious activities identified by Heidi Campbell (2006) in a review article entitled, Religion and the Internet. The four categories of online religious activity that Campbell noted were: information gathering and exchange, online rituals, evangelism, and formation of online religious communities (Johns, 2012, p. 164). After a two-month period as passive observer, Johns noted that the majority of people who joined the Facebook groups did not engage in any online discussion and the four categories mentioned above seemed to be absent from Facebook. It would appear that people are more interested in “following” a religious organization to give approval or show association with it, than actually to engage with others online.
Johns (2012) argues that even though the individual is not communicating on the religious organization’s Facebook page, they are sending a strong message to everyone connected with their own personal Facebook page. The action of “Liking” the religious organization’s Facebook page is shared with a Facebook member’s Facebook friends, therefore, communicating a message of association and approval. Johns (2012) states, “there is a discourse of religious identity taking place” (p. 164) that is not noticeable on the religious organizations page as much as it is noticeable to those who view the profile and news feed of the member’s Facebook page (p. 164).
Waters, Burnett, Lamm, and Lucas (2009) conducted a similar study, in which they were interested to “examine how non-profit organizations use Facebook to engage their stakeholders and foster relationship growth” (p. 102). After a content analysis of 275 randomly selected non-profit organizations’ Facebook profiles (34 arts and humanities organizations, 50 educational organizations, 47 healthcare organizations, 39 human service organizations, 89 public/society benefit organizations, and 16 religious organizations), Waters et al. (2009) discovered that the non-profit organizations “failed to take advantage of the interactive nature” Facebook has to offer (p. 105). Each of the 275 Facebook profiles were analyzed for the presence of items representing organizational disclosure (information about programs and services, history of the organization, mission statement, website address, company logo, Facebook administrators), information dissemination (links to company news, announcements, and digital media), and involvement (methods available to contact, donate, volunteer, and engage with organization) (Waters et al., 2009, p. 103). They (2009) argued that while most non-profit organizations want to be connected, open, and transparent with stakeholders through Facebook and other social media platforms, they lack the administration and resources needed to provide adequate attention and exposure for the organization (p. 105).
In “Religion and Media,” Mahan (2012) argues that people in religious communities are “involved in projects of individual construction” (p. 20). Social media such as Facebook provide the knowledge and connection to a range of available religious beliefs and practices creating an “individualized approach to religion” (Mahan, 2012, p. 20). According to Mahan (2010), past studies suggest that “contemporary people seek out religious communities that meet their individual needs and/or adopt practices and beliefs from multiple traditions” (p. 22). Just as the Roman road system provided quick and easy access for the Roman army to move throughout the Empire, opportunity for trade to happen and information to be shared, modern forms of media such as Facebook provide easy access to a wider range of religious practices and beliefs allowing people the freedom to connect with multiple traditions online.
Today’s mobile and personalized online digital media allow people to get involved while an issue is current and most meaningful. Jenkins (2008) refers to this component of digital media as the “participatory culture” and argues that people are moving from the historic “passive” nature of audience to a contemporary “active” model of audience (p. 3). Kovach & Rosenstiel (2001) support this same argument by writing, “today, people go from passive consumers to proactive assemblers of their own journalism and views of the world” (p. 20). With the influence of commercialism people have a tendency to ask, what is useful to me, what confirms and supplements my existing assumptions (Mahan, 2012, p. 22). A very important argument made by Mahan (2012) is that when religious organizations “learn to use a new or changing medium they grow in social power” (p. 18). However, participatory media such as Facebook can create segregation (isolates the computer illiterate or those not engaged through Facebook), can become a vehicle for spreading hatred and racism (religion bashing, derogatory remarks regarding religious belief), and can create a shifting of religious authority as individuals pick and choose among the multiple religious voices and traditions. To combat this eminent threat, a growing number of religious organizations have disabled or removed social interaction functions such as comments and ranking in order to preserve their image and authority.
Supporting the findings of my research that religious organizations tend to ignore social aspects of Twitter, the research in the above section confirms the same is true with Facebook. The Facebook pages of many religious organizations lack online discussion and engagement, appearing more as static billboards rather than dynamic feeds.
Social Activity on Twitter
Cheong’s (2012) explorations of the two questions; “how is microblogging adopted for religious communication in people’s everyday lives?” and “to what extent are social media used to promote faith beliefs and missions?” (p. 192) serve, in a way, as a guide for my own research. As a response to the proposed questions, Cheong (2012) argues that Twitter is being used by some religious organizations for “microblogging rituals” such as viral dissemination of information, mobile prayer and meditation, and to build their brand. Cheong (2012) proposes that Twitter can function as a tool “to constitute and fuel the stream of lived sacred experiences, thereby ideologically connecting Twitter believers in real time” (p. 193). According to him (2012) “by analyzing emerging faith-oriented tweets” we can gain greater insights into the religious organization’s practices and beliefs (pp. 192-193). Furthermore, he (2012) suggests that studying online activities and tweets of religionists can help to better understand the development of new religious authority and the growth of new religious groups (p. 193).
In another study pertaining to Twitter, Boyle (2012) analyzed 415 tweets that were posted to Twitter over a six-month period by the Mormon Times, a weekly news publication in Salt Lake City, Utah. The purpose of the research was to examine how the Mormon Times used Twitter and evaluate the effectiveness of the dissemination of its tweets. Boyle’s (2012) research findings revealed that 75% of the 415 tweets analyzed promoted content from the Mormon Times that focused primarily on a Latter-day Saints audience. Also, the research findings determined that there was very little interaction from the Mormon Times with its Twitter followers since only 12% of the 415 tweets were replies directed toward followers and only 4% were retweets (p. 196).
My own research extends the work done by Cheong and Boyle. By focusing on Canadian churches I am extending the geographic reach of such explanations of the use of Twitter by religionists. Additionally, my study helps to solidify the understanding that religionists tend to underutilize the possibilities of a Web 2.0 medium like Twitter, treating it instead as a mere billboard and broadcast medium, and fail to think about the increased possibilities of Web 2.0 given the digitally mobile universe in which we currently live.
I developed an ethnographic content analysis of 200 publicly available tweets from ten Canadian Christian church feeds in order to explore ways in which social media, specifically Twitter, shifts the rhetoric, rituals, and interactions of religionists.
Based on principles of qualitative data collection and analysis (Altheide, 1987), ethnographic content analysis is particularly useful for this research because it not only allows me to quantitatively analyze the content for frequency and variety of messages but it also allows me to observe the online Twitter communities and the interaction that occurs within them to better understand the communication of meaning (Altheide, 1987, p. 68).
Twitter is a micro-blog social media platform that provides users with the ability to generate online contextual, real-time information of up to 140 characters in length (https://twitter.com). Twitter also provides connection to instantaneous alerts by pushing news and information from around the world out to users and broadens the potential for finding people with similar interests. To maximize and extend the communicative power of Twitter, online services are available such as URL-shortening services and content hosting services for multimedia. Twitter enables individuals to stay connected and engaged with a global interactive presence anytime and anywhere.
According to Cheong (2012) “tweets have been used for a variety of purposes, ranging from episodic communication of social events, campaigns, emergencies, and natural disasters, to the quotidian airing of personal ideas and questions” (p. 192). By default, tweets are made public; however, users can restrict access to only their “followers” if they choose.
For this study, I have chosen Twitter from the numerous other social media platforms as the online site of analysis because of its accessibility and open format. Also, I have chosen to conduct an ethnographic content analysis that blends objective content analysis with participant observation, because it is a useful method for studying online communities and the interaction that occurs within them. It also allows the researcher to become immersed in the dynamic flow of online content (Christakis & Fowler, 2011). An ethnographic content analysis will provide an opportunity to discover emergent patterns (Altheide, 1987) that may help identify the Twitter participant’s experiences, beliefs or perceptions about spirituality. It may also reveal some clues as to how the integration of socially engaging media – such as Twitter – with religious experience shifts the rhetoric, rituals, and interactions of religionists. Furthermore, the ethnographic content analysis will provide opportunity to observe how the selected religious organizations incorporate and reshape a Twitter presence around their specific traditions, ideals and larger mission.
According to Altheide (1987), ethnographic content analysis can be defined as the “reflexive analysis of documents” (p. 65) and is used to “understand the communication of meaning, as well as to verify theoretical relationships” (p. 68). Each of the 200 sample tweets were placed into content categories using an adapted version of Naaman, M., Boase, J., and Lai, C. (2010) tweet categorization scheme, which includes the following categories: Information Sharing (advertise an internal church event/program), Self-Promotion (a link to the authors website, blog post, or iTunes account), Opinions/Complaints, Statements and Random Thoughts, Me now, Question to followers, Presence Maintenance, and Anecdotes (p. 191). For the purpose of this study the Anecdote and Me now categories were removed and a new category called Spiritual Tweet was added. This new content category was added for tweets that contain reference to the bible or spiritual discussion. By spiritual I mean that which pertains to sacred things of Christianity for example mention of the name Jesus or rituals such as prayer.
The following is an explanation of Twitter items that were measured for this research. Tweets are messages 140 characters or fewer posted from Twitter. Original Tweets are messages originating from the sample Twitter account. Reply Tweets, begin with @username, are messages posted in reply to another user. Retweets, identified by the letters RT at the front, are tweets by another user that are forwarded on to others. Hashtags, identified by the # symbol, are used to mark a specific keyword or topic in a Tweet and to categorize Tweets for later retrieval. An example of a hashtag used in one of the sample tweets is #MessyChurch.
One of my goals for this research was to have a reflexive design that allows for data to emerge and be discovered. An initial sample of 20 Twitter users, whose tweets appeared in the public timeline and who identified in their Twitter description as Canadian Christian churches, was collected. In order to find this initial sample of 20, I first searched the Twitter database for keywords “church Canada” and then filtered through the results. Next, I checked the “Following” list of numerous accounts identified in the original search, which I used to generate more potential accounts to include in my sample. And finally, I was able to locate the remaining Twitter users by checking the “Following” list of the Canadian Council of Churches Twitter account @CCC_CCE. Following someone on Twitter means you are subscribing to their Tweets as a follower (Twitter, What is following? section).
The next thing I did was remove from the list of 20 those who had tweeted fewer than 100 times in total and had not tweeted in the past 30 days. This gave me a list of 16 and from that list the first 10 were taken as the sample for this research. I then collected the last 20 tweets (in text form and screen shots) from each of the 10 users giving me a working sample of 200 tweets in total. With the frequency and volume of the tweets varying widely from user to user, I decided for this study the sample would be more consistent based on 20 tweets per user rather than selecting tweets generated over a specific period of time. Also, 20 tweets per user gave me a controlled and manageable number to work with that I feel provided a more accurate picture of the tweets required for this research. For example, if I had based the sample on 60 days of tweets for each user I would have had some Twitter feeds with four or five tweets per day and others with four or five tweets per week. For research that was mainly interested in frequency and volume of tweets, a time span would be appropriate but not for this research that was primarily looking at tweet content.
RESULTS OF ANALYSIS
The ten Twitter feeds analyzed for this research are geographically dispersed throughout Canada – one from Newfoundland, one from Nova Scotia, three from Ontario, two from Alberta, and three from British Columbia. Also, the religious organizations associated with the twitter feeds are of varying Christian denominations including both Catholic and Protestant faiths – two Pentecostal, one Baptist, two Anglican, one Evangelical Missionary, one Salvation Army, one Coptic Orthodox, two non-denominational.
Tweet Categorization Results
As Table 1 (below in appendices) illustrates, the results of the tweet categorization is as follows: Information Sharing (79), Self Promotion (54), Opinions/Complaints (10), Statements and Random Thoughts (27), Question to followers (16), Presence Maintenance (8), Spiritual Tweet (38). It should be noted that 32 tweets fit into multiple categories by the way they were written: for example, a Tweet that asked a question to followers may also have been sharing information in a second part. That is the reason the total number of tweets within the categorization results equal 232. It is evident from the two top categories – Information Sharing with 79 tweets and Self Promotion with 54 tweets – that the religious organizations studied for this research are not using Twitter to interact with followers but instead as a one-way communication channel to advertise and promote events.
Canadian Christian Churches Use of Twitter
With this study I sought to determine the extent to which Canadian Christian churches are using Twitter to communicate. I found that out of the 200 tweets analyzed 150 of them were original tweets and on average there was a time span of 29.2 days for every 20 tweets. This is significant because it gives some indication about the importance placed on frequency and content flow by those managing the sample feeds. In this case the relatively low volume of content generated demonstrates the religious organization’s lack of interest in social interaction with other users. If social interaction and engagement were priorities, then it would seem that the frequency of tweets be much greater than one every day and a half. Also, I would expect to see more retweets and reply tweets and fewer original tweets. The lack of these indicate to me a limited focus toward one-way transmission of information rather than dynamic conversation.
As Table 2 (below in appendices) illustrates, approximately 60% (118) of the 200 tweets in the sample contained links to other websites, media files (audio, video, or photo), and blogs. This is important because it indicates the type of content contained in the majority of the sample tweets and alludes to how Twitter users are adapting to a 140-character limitation. From the 118 aforementioned tweets, 35 contained a link to Facebook, 16 contained a link to a photo referenced in the tweet, and four contained video links. Evidently, tweets are regularly mixed with other online multimedia to expand communication past a 140-character restriction.
Hashtags were used 85 times, however 62 of those times were found to be in four Twitter feeds. Also, a large portion of the hashtags were repeated throughout the originating feed. This indicates that original hashtags are not regularly used because they are not viewed as necessary by those managing the Twitter feed or there is a lack of understanding about how to use them.
I found that 40% of the sample tweets were posted exclusively to advertise an internal church event/program (information sharing) such as a mission trip, ice skating, or spiritual program. Of this group, 27 tweets contained a direct invitation to “join” an event/program, 12 to join a spiritual group/program and 15 to join a non-spiritual event. This is significant because it indicates that very little effort is made to interact or engage with Twitter followers, instead the effort is to advertise an event/program. Furthermore, only 16 tweets posed a question for response and just ten were direct responses to followers. Again, this indicates lack of interaction and engagement with followers.
While there were 42 retweets, which tend to indicate interactivity, most were for promotional purposes. A few of these retweets were used to call the follower to action such as “check it out”, “bring your friend”, “retweet”, and “like us on Facebook.” However, even the “call to action tweets” were promotional in nature. This indicates that the majority of the ten Canadian church Twitter feeds analyzed for this study are used primarily as a broadcast style of communication. This social media platform, Twitter, then is not currently being used to its full potential as a medium for social interaction. As Christakis & Fowler explain, “As part of a social network, we transcend ourselves…and become a part of something much larger. We are connected” (2011, p. 30). The majority of the ten sample feeds really missed the mark of being “connected” with their followers because they failed to reach out and interact with the larger community. They failed to see past themselves.
I also sought to determine how Canadian Christian churches discuss spirituality on Twitter. Since “spirituality” means different things to different people depending on their perspective of the world, my definition in this context refers to a search for the sacred as it pertains to Christianity. For example, mention of the Bible, the name Jesus, or reference to prayer in this context would be counted as discussion about spirituality. This research found that out of the 200 sample tweets only 38 were categorized as spiritual tweets and only 26 of those contained any direct reference to the Bible. Furthermore, the majority of the 26 Bible references appeared in two Twitter feeds and were associated with recurring tweets such as a daily Bible tweet. In a few instances, questions of a spiritual nature such as, “How is it changing you?” and “Do you know Jesus?” were asked in the tweet as a way to possibly encourage spiritual thought or engagement. Another form of spiritual discussion was found in a small number of spiritually encouraging tweets that emphasized spiritual renewal. Only two tweets made any reference to prayer and praying. So I’ll now state the obvious – by way of wrapping up this section – that spirituality isn’t really a big part of how religionists are using Twitter.
Shifting the Interactions of Religionists
Finally, I sought to determine whether the integration of socially engaging media (Twitter) with religious experience shifts the interactions of religionists. I found that the ten Twitter feeds used in my sample had an average of 676 followers which indicates there is an interest from other Twitter users to connect with the religious organizations. If we consider the two-way communication of Twitter, then we must recognize the potential for Twitter users to be influenced by the social interaction taking place and information being tweeted. Furthermore, the integration of Twitter with religious experience allows a real time connection to current religious events. Tweets that are received on a mobile device and advertise/invite followers to a current program or event meet people where they are. Since local communities, support groups and common interest societies, where people engaged face-to-face, have always existed, social media such as Twitter is not creating something new but enhancing something familiar. Instead of a community being confined to a physical geographic address, social media enables people to engage as an online community, at a distance (Barna Group, 2013). While it is hard to measure the impact of a tweet, these research findings would indicate that the integration of Twitter with religious experience does have a potential to shift the interactions of religionists however, it is not yet occurring. This may be because religionists tend to underutilize the possibilities of a Web 2.0 connection like Twitter, treating it instead as a one-way channel to broadcast information.
DISCUSSION OF ANALYSIS
ComScore, Inc., a global leader in measuring the digital world, released a new report on March 4, 2013 that provides an overview of the use of online digital media in Canada. The report entitled, “2013 Canada Digital Future in Focus” identifies Twitter as one of the top three most widely used social media platforms in Canada for 2013 (Duong & Flosi, 2013). According to Duong and Flosi (2013) Canada continues to be a leader in social media use and engagement, with users spending more than 41 hours per month online on their desktop computers. Facebook is leading the way when it comes to social media use with Twitter not far behind seeing strong visitor growth rates (Duong and Flosi, 2013). In light of this recent report from ComScore, Inc., it was surprising to see so little interaction between the sample Twitter accounts of my research and their followers, since Canadians spend so much time per month online. These findings parallel the findings of Mark Johns in his Facebook study mentioned above (page 9). Johns (2012) noted that the majority of people who joined the religiously focused Facebook groups did not engage in any online discussion, suggesting that people are more interested in “following” a religious organization to give approval or show association with it than actually engaging with others online. In the case of this research, the lack of social engagement by followers on the sample Twitter accounts may indicate that the Twitter users who follow religious organizations feed are more interested in showing association with the religious organization than actually engaging online. Furthermore, the absence of social engagement on the part of the religious organization could indicate a shortage in staff resources to properly monitor and manage the Twitter account or lack of training for social media personnel. Whatever the reason, it became very obvious that without social interaction the Twitter feeds in my sample appeared more like static bulletin boards than dynamic social media platforms.
Another observation worth mentioning here is the “presence maintenance” tweets that added a personal dimension to what was being shared. Tweets such as “glad to be here” and “having a great time” advertise a program or event while at the same time alluding to missing out on something. Such tweets also indicate “offline” social interaction that cannot be experienced “online” by oneself over Twitter or some other social media platform.
A primary component emerging out of today’s digital culture is the success of digital media, such as Twitter, to enable proactive participation (Walaski, 2013, p. 40). According to a tweet sent by Shirky “no one claims social media makes people angry enough to act. It just helps angry people coordinate their actions” (Shirky, 2011). Facebook helps to organize people locally while Twitter helps to get the message out to the rest of the world. Many online technologies today allow people to “get involved” while an issue is current and most meaningful (Walaski, 2013, p. 40). According to Walaski (2013) “Citizen Journalists use social media to instantly provide information to their followers and the general public, often hours ahead of traditional media” (p. 40). It was surprising that this research found quite the opposite, an obvious lack of spiritual discussion from both the religious organization and Twitter followers. The absence of spiritual discussion could be associated with the lack of social engagement and interaction on the part of the religious organization. It may also indicate a challenge associated with writing meaningful and spiritual content that stays within the 140-character restriction of Twitter. Since this research did not analyse the content of the 118 external links embedded into the sample tweets, it may be that Twitter is used as a medium to foster greater spiritual discussion happening on the linked Facebook and blog pages. In any case, the lack of spiritual discussion within the sample tweets of this research cannot be ignored.
Finally, approaching this study from a “soft” technological deterministic viewpoint (Humphreys, 2010, p. 871; Shade, 2003, p. 433) would suggest that technology may have some influence on shaping society, more specifically on shaping religious communities. According to Humphreys (2010) “technological determinism has been an important framework with which to analyze the effects of technology on society” (p. 872). It would appear from this research that social media, specifically Twitter, does have some influence on the interactions of religionists and religious organizations in general as they adapt to changes in technology and social behaviour. This is evident in the way the religious organizations of my sample adapted to using Twitter as a communication channel to advertise programs/events and to build their brand. Also, tweets about a great time or “glad to be here!” and an emphasis on belonging or acceptance reveal personal feelings that reach out to others. While it is difficult to measure, tweets like these may have an influence on the interactions of others to “get involved” by following a link, watching a video, accepting an invitation, or joining the online discussion. Therefore, it would appear Twitter has some influence on the interactions of religionists and religious organizations however, it is not clearly evident or happening yet.
This research looked at the ways in which social networking, specifically Twitter, shifts the rhetoric, rituals, and interactions of religionists. It examined the following questions: How are Canadian Christian churches using Twitter today? How are Canadian Christian churches discussing spirituality on Twitter? And, is the integration of socially engaging media (Twitter) with religious experience shifting the interactions of religionists? Approaching this study from a “soft” technological deterministic viewpoint suggests that technology may have some influence on shaping society, more specifically on shaping religious communities. This approach suggests a somewhat passive view of technology and indicates that individuals have a chance to make decisions regarding the outcomes of situations however; technology is still the guiding force in the conclusion (Humphreys, 2010, p. 871). This research found that Twitter does have some influence on the interactions of religionists and religious organizations as they adapt to changes in technology and social behaviour.
Also, this research confirmed the findings of Cheong’s (2012) and of the Barna Group (2013) that Twitter is being used by religious organizations for the dissemination of information and to build their brand. After analyzing 200 tweets from ten Canadian Christian church Twitter feeds, this research found that religious organizations are not using Twitter to interact with followers or to discuss spirituality online. Instead, they are primarily using Twitter as a one-way communication channel to advertise and promote events.
For a future study, a technological analysis of Twitter to examine how a 140-character restriction affects the encoded message and its meaning would be very interesting. Possible research questions could include: What happens to a message in the conversion process of 140 characters? What changes occur to the content? What is lost through online technology and what is gained? Furthermore, it would be interesting to analyse the content of the pages connected to the 118 external links embedded in the tweets of my sample to see if there is a connection to greater spiritual discussion and social engagement happening somewhere in relation to the activity I analysed here.
While the frequency, volume, and use of Twitter varied widely from among the ten sample feeds used for this research, one thing was clear, the religious organizations failed to take advantage of the interactive relationship-building features social media has to offer. According to the recent Barna Group (2013) study, when social media like Twitter is fully used it “should make organizations and leaders more transparent and more connected with the people they lead” (under the heading Using Social Media in an Age of Radical Transparency). In other words, social media should enable religious organizations to have greater conversations and interactions with users to whom they are connected, not simply be used as a static billboard for advertising. My findings indicate that Canadian churches still have a way to go before they fully engage with the rich possibilities evident in social media platforms like Twitter.
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