Social Networking as Spiritual School

Jul 23, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

The Internet is an unprecedented, unmediated extension of the human experience...and we are just beginning to comprehend the power and skills of being a full-on participant.

It's like being back on the school playground, our first attempts at socialization -- but with enormously powerful communication tools. There is no turning back what the Internet hath wrought.

Robert Bly, the poet, author, and spiritual elder, spoke of his trepidation about the internet in an interview nearly a decade ago. He said he feared it would destroy three fundamentals of human interaction: intimacy, accountability and syntax. Bly was both prescient and uncharacteristically pessimistic.

Social networking -- perhaps the biggest experiment in mass communication ever -- is indeed redefining these behaviors. We are all learning new "playground" behaviors. It is a daily opportunity to refine our abilities of greeting the wide range of "guests" who may show up at this enormous 24/7 party which has become our "modern pulpit."

The most basic behavioral tenet taught in my home at a very early age was to always maintain a modicum of civility. "Modicum: Middle English, from Latin, neuter of modicus moderate, from modus measure." (Merriam Webster)

"The Internet is sort of like the connective tissue of the global mind. It brings the thoughts of everybody around the world into your home and to your person just because you want to learn." Michael Jones, chief technology advocate for Google Inc.

I began managing two online groups in April 2007 for an early Boomer site, At my one-year anniversary, my two groups were thriving. E-spirations was of an inspirational nature, and the second, Daily Pulse, was for the exchange of ideas about news and current events. The former was begun because I use the Internet as a daily source for inspiration; the latter was precipitated by the news about Michael Vick's arrest for animal cruelty.

My outrage was so deep, I turned to the Internet to seek a like-minded forum and at first, found mutual comfort, and support for the point-of-view that Vick be held accountable for his egregious behavior.

The inspirational group became a heavenly feast. Each day, poems, quotations, and personal experiences poured in over the virtual transom. The sum total was awe-inspiring, moving, and restorative...the sharing of virtual manna.

But in the second group, as the issues of Michael Vick's NFL status, gambling, and million-dollar endorsements surfaced, the consensus quickly dissipated -- replaced by provocative and dissenting new voices. At first, the disagreement and baiting were welcome. It was never boring, and a potent reminder of the broad range of human wills and values. If you're going to hang out a shingle, better be ready to ply your trade.

And then -- it all began to unravel. The topics changed to gun-control, Iraq, Healthcare, the Constitution, and ultimately -- Freedom of Speech. The posts became increasingly polarized, the disagreements personal, and the "party" began to divide according to political labels: Right versus Left, Liberal versus Conservative, neo-con versus Leftist. It was a power struggle for attention -- not discourse -- and the voices grew more aggressive.

The attacks in the Daily Pulse group became personal, with accusations of being opposed to Free Speech. Labels of czarina, Stalinist, and even Nazi -- were bandied about without restraint. But beyond labels -- the tone of the discussion had become mean-spirited.

What happened in this tiny corner of the web caught me off balance. Our little group's democracy verged on anarchy. The anonymity of the web, the lack of accountability -- as Robert Bly feared -- led to a social unraveling.

As manager, it fell to me to begin censoring comments, deleting posts and blocking members from the group.

It was soon revealed that the bad behavior in our group was being perpetrated in other groups across the site by the same people. Slowly (it was all still pretty new in 2007), the solid group members began to object and refuse to be intimidated. Eventually, after several unheeded warnings from the site's management, these disruptive voices were either banned from the site or left of their own accord, having reached their desired goal of causing temporary chaos.

We all know what happened to Michael Vick -- his days with the Atlanta Falcons are officially over, he is serving the remainder of his 23-month sentence prison sentence on dog fighting charges under house arrest in Virginia, and preparing a revised Chapter 11 plan for his crumbling personal finances.

As for me -- I am privileged to be blogging for The Huffington Post. I treasure the opportunity and echo Frederick Buechner's sentiment: "Your vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world's great hunger."

So -- back to school we go on the virtual playground of social networking. Maintaining a modicum of civility -- when accountability is evanescent -- is like being in spiritual school...learning new behaviors at a meta level. And maybe, just maybe -- some if it will spill back into real life.