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In 1929 Hungarian playwright and journalist Frigyes Karinthy published a volume of short stories entitled Everything is different. One of the stories, Chains, speculated about how the world was shrinking. In it Karinthy described a parlour game whereby any one of the world’s population (much smaller then) could be shown to be linked through a chain to any other. Karinthy suggested that it would be possible to find a connection between that person and one of those playing the game via no more than five connections of the ‘friend of a friend’ variety. Thus ‘six degrees of separation’ was born.
In the era of the mighty Google, with games like five clicks to Jesus no more than a few mouse clicks away, Karinthy’s game has lost its appeal. The connections he described are as easy as searching for your groceries on the shelf of a virtual supermarket. Does this actually mean that we are more connected, though?
Physically and literally it might, but we may not understand those connections any better than Karinthy and his fictitious friends. When I teach about preaching on the news, one of the points I raise is that we may know more about what is happening the other side of the world than our forebears did, but we do not necessarily know what it means. In an era of greater connectivity, it is up to us to demonstrate biblically what that connection implies about our humanity. If a man the other side of the world can connect with me instantly and tell me that his life is in danger because of flood, famine, or religious persecution – how am I responsible for that knowledge? What am I obliged to do with it? In an age of connectivity, ignorance is no longer bliss.
There is a whole extra dimension here, too. The fact that we can connect easily does not necessarily mean that we connect well. Do we need to start thinking about digital ethics, and not just digital etiquette? There is surely more to Christian behaviour online than how you should go about “unfriending” someone? The kind of things we have been saying for years about honesty, integrity, openness and Christian virtue in physical congregations need to be translated into the virtual world.
Challenge: can we devise a set of social media beatitudes?