Hegel once said, “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude toward the world either by God or by what the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows how one stands.” For most of us, the role of the morning paper has been replaced by social media. It is our go-to site for world events and more intimate news alike. For most of us, it is the first page we pull up to read over our morning coffee, and our experience of the internet is increasingly intermediated through it. We visit other sites only when social media brings them to our attention, and we then return to social media to comment on them.
This latter aspect makes social media appear very different from a traditional liturgy, but there is a ritual aspect to the kinds of comments we make and the interactions we have. Only a few naive souls genuinely hope to persuade anyone of anything — we are all preaching to our respective choirs, which means performing our membership in a particular choir for all to see. The social media space includes competing choirs, but their interactions are routinized into something like harmony, or at least a predictable call and response.
Our proclamations express our particular form of piety, praising ourselves and people like us for our wisdom (though not for our power). This praise is coupled with prayer: prayers of thanksgiving for our achievements, “prayer requests” for ourselves or for those caught up in major public events. As Ted Whalen once pointed out to me, the concrete meaning of “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is to post about it on Facebook or Twitter. It’s what we do instead of lighting a candle.
This liturgical character of social media is clearest when the general public is mourning. David Bowie was seemingly the turning point in solidifying the ritual, and when Prince followed, everyone knew exactly what to do. Public mourning is now an established ceremony, and just like a funeral in a house of worship, it trumps all other issues. Similarly, a major tragedy like the Dallas shootings dominates the atmosphere to an extent where it feels somehow disrespectful to talk about anything else. A certain type of service is going on during those times, and our own personal concerns have to take a back seat.
Mourning and tragedy bring out the “high church” element in social media. Mostly we are dealing with a very low church, however. Facebook is more formal and top-down than Twitter, though Facebook still tries to give the appearance of authentic spontaneity — not so much a high church as a megachurch atmosphere. But even the lowest church has its de facto rituals, and every morning we line up in our various competing choirs to play our small part in the endless liturgy.
For this liturgy is truly endless: both in the sense that our so-called “conversation” can never culminate in decision and action and in the sense that it has no rational end or goal aside from its own perpetuation. One could object that these sites do have a goal, namely the accumulation of capital in the form of ad revenues, but that aim seems somehow secondary or extrinsic. What they are doing, far out of proportion to any conceivable monetary payoff, is demanding our attention. And we give it to them, day in and day out.
Philip Goodchild says that piety is a form of directing attention, and if that’s the case, then we are growing more pious every day. Our worship is not directed at a creator, however, because social media only aggregates what is created elsewhere, or else what its own users create for free on its behalf. Nor is it directed at the one who will judge the living and the dead — social media’s refusal to effectively make judgments is what has let the atmosphere of harassment become so toxic. We are worshipping nothing but the very act of worship itself, world without end.