Persecution and the Thunder of Social Media

Today is the Feast of St. James the Greater, who among other things is one of the patron saints of Spain.  His role in the creation of that country occurred well before the age of social media.  Yet a debate which took place in Britain’s House of Lords yesterday, regarding the nexus between social media and increasing violence in the name of religion, should give us some food for thought as we reflect on the message of Christ which St. James himself witnessed.

It is believed by some that after the Resurrection, St. James (or Santiago, as he is known in NW Spain) preached in Spain in the first century before returning to Judea, where he was arrested and later executed by King Herod.  It is also believed that much later, in the 9th century, he appeared in a vision to Christians fighting against the armies of the resident Moors, helping the outnumbered Christians to win the day.  As a result, Santiago subsequently gained the sobriquet, “Matamoros”, or “The Moor-Slayer.” This is not, obviously, a term which finds much support today, but during this period known as the Reconquista (“Reconquering”), it had a tremendous impact.

Today its territorial empire is mostly gone, but the linguistic and cultural empire which Spain established still remains.  Ironically, while the Christian faith which Spain spread across the planet continues to grow elsewhere, in Spain herself the state of the Church is at present uncertain.  What is needed in Spain, and indeed throughout Western Europe, is an entirely new form of Reconquista: not one of violence, but rather of witness, winning souls in the way Christians live their lives and how they treat others. To that end, social media can and should be a significant component.

Yet all of us, not just Christians in Spain, need to take to heart what Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, said in Parliament yesterday. Noting current examples of religious violence such as the attacks by ISIS on Christians in Iraq, mob rage against Jews in France, and sectarian Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Africa, he cautioned that fiery hatreds are increasingly being stoked via digital means.   “[W]e recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one,” he noted, later going on to state that it is “the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world.”

Lord Sacks is absolutely right, of course, in that the online world can be a vicious place.  He who screams the most obscenities or makes the most outlandish statements about annihilating entire groups of people ends up getting the most attention.  What’s more, the media prefers to cover the rantings of fanatics, both religious and anti-religious, rather than the ordinary people suffering because of their faith.  I find it embarrassing, for example, to note how often secular news reporters trim their fingernails disinterestedly, or play political favorites, rather than report on persecutions of Catholics.  And while we may all point to Pope Francis as someone who not only has the will, but the popular reach to bring words of reason and charity to millions of people through online media, more of us need to be doing our part to peaceably aid in this effort, rather than stirring the pot.

On his Feast Day then, we have a good opportunity to reflect upon what happened when St. James became a bit too hot-headed in his own faith.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus realizes it is time to end His public ministry, He and His disciples begin to make their way down from Galilee to Jerusalem, passing through the region of Samaria along the way.  Jesus sends messengers ahead of Him, so that any village He may pause in will be ready for His arrival.

Word comes back that one of the villages has refused to welcome Jesus, because His destination was Jerusalem; given the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews at that time, this was perhaps not surprising. St. James, however, is absolutely livid at this news.  Along with his brother St. John, St. James asks Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to consume them?”  In doing so, the Sons of Zebedee are echoing the call of the Prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings, in his battle against the priests of Ba’al, and indeed the earlier destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis.

However instead of giving His approval, as St. James might have expected, Jesus rebukes the brothers for their suggestion.  We are not told how He did so, or what He said, or how the “Sons of Thunder”, as they were later nicknamed as a result, reacted themselves.  Perhaps the two of them were still fired up with zeal from what they had seen at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor a few days earlier when, along with St. Peter, they witnessed a glorified Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, two prophets who were quite capable of calling down fire and brimstone when warranted, even upon their own people.  In this case, that kind of holy retribution was not to be.

Whatever St. James himself learned from this exchange with Christ, and he must have learned something to die a martyr’s death a few years later, the first of the Apostles to do so, we can learn from his experience ourselves.  Taking Lord Sacks’ cautions about social media to heart, if I am honest about it, I, too, have been guilty of calling down fire online, a temptation which I suspect many of my readers who use social media have also succumbed to from time to time.  So without dampening our enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel then, or defending our faith, perhaps my fellow Christians may want to take a lesson here, from the life of St. James, the man whose memory we honor today in the Church.

Detail of "St. James the Greater" by Alonso Cano (c. 1635) The Louvre, Paris

Detail of “St. James the Greater” by Alonso Cano (c. 1635)
The Louvre, Paris

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A Million Thanks

Those of you who follow me on social media know that yesterday afternoon this blog hit one million visits!  I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank all of my readers over the years, as well as fellow writers in the blogosphere who have encouraged me from the beginning and continue to do so.  That so many of you subscribe or take the time to drop by this site, when there are far better writers than I whom you could be reading, is both humbling and a great honor to receive.

As regular readers know, I do not make a living from my writing – although if you are an editor or publisher let’s have a chat, shall we?  This blog is just something I do, usually five days a week, and in my spare time.  I bear the costs of running and hosting this site, and I do not expect that is going to change, for however long it continues.

Someone told me recently that I am more of an essayist than a blogger; this is probably true.   I do not break stories, and I generally do not share a link unless I have commentary to accompany it.  Often a news item is merely something which I treat as a jumping-off point to discuss something else entirely.

Also, the length of my average scribbling on these virtual pages is generally far longer than the typical 300-500 word post.    To date, I have written the equivalent of roughly fifteen 100K word novels.  That is a lot of thinking, typing, and editing over the years, but fortunately I work pretty quickly.

As to the “Why?” of what I do, I hope that I serve as a voice for culture, in a society which has largely forgotten what that word means.  The temporary trends of political tit-for-tat, and the needs of a celebrity-hungry media do not hugely interest me, since I take the long view.  While I criticize where warranted, I also hope that I seek to build up, not simply tear down.  Encouraging my readers to learn more about our world, and Western culture in particular, but also to look at popular culture in ways which might not otherwise occur to them, is the real raison d’être here.

By way of conclusion, I quote the patron of this blog, Count Castiglione, who in his “Book of the Courtier” rather neatly sums up what I have tried to do thus far, and will continue to do here on this blog for as long as I am able, and for as long as people are interested in reading it.

I say, then, that since princes are today so corrupted by evil customs, and by ignorance, and mistaken self-esteem, and since it is so difficult to give them knowledge of the truth and lead them on to virtue, and since men seek to enter into their favour by lies and flatteries and such vicious means, the Courtier…should try to gain the good will and so charm the mind of his prince, that he shall win free and safe indulgence to speak of everything without being irksome. And if he be such as has been said, he will accomplish this with little trouble, and thus be able always to disclose the truth about all things with ease; and also to instil goodness into his prince’s mind little by little, and to teach continence, fortitude, justice, and temperance, by giving a taste of how much sweetness is hidden by the little bitterness that at first sight appears to him who withstands vice; which is always hurtful and displeasing, and accompanied by infamy and blame, just as virtue is profitable, blithe and full of praise.

Detail of "The Suitor's Visit" by Gerard ter Borch (c. 1658) National Gallery, Washington DC

Detail of “The Suitor’s Visit” by Gerard ter Borch (c. 1658)
National Gallery, Washington DC

 

 

 

Is Social Media a Waste of Resources?

An interesting article caught my eye on the Wall Street Journal this morning, thanks to a posting from a friend: it seems many businesses are starting to asking themselves what they are getting out of social media, and whether they ought to continue to invest in that aspect of their online presence.

In a fascinating Gallup survey, a whopping 62% of respondents indicated that social media had no influence at all over their purchasing decisions. Only 5% of respondents indicated that social media had a significant influence on their purchasing decisions.  Not surprisingly, 94% of respondents indicated that the primary reason they used social media was to keep in touch with family and friends.

In response to figures like these – which a reasonable person could have predicted – it seems more businesses are considering dialing back their online investment, particularly when it comes to social media.  If a re-tweet on Twitter or an up-vote on Reddit is not, in most cases, going to result in greater sales, then the amount of spending going into a business’ presence on such sites will decrease.  As the Gallup report concludes, these venues “are not the powerful and persuasive marketing force many companies hoped they would be.”

The present situation reminds me somewhat of the first tech bubble in the late ’90’s. Back then, the term “internet millionaire” was coined to reflect the fact that, in the Wild West-atmosphere of those heady days, people were able to strike it rich by persuading investors that their online product was worth millions in potential revenue. Businesses felt the pressure to get in on the online game, because everyone else seemed to be doing it.

At the time it always seemed to be a bit of an Emperor’s New Clothes situation. Companies were spending exorbitant sums on what was often little more than hype.  When the bubble burst, millions of people lost their jobs, their savings, and so on.  If you were looking for employment back around 1999-2000, you will remember what a terrible time that was for many workers, particularly those in industries with ties to the nascent online industries.

Although time and technology have marched on, the underlying question remains the same, only this time with regard to a company’s social media presence: how is digital media going to make my business more profitable?  In order to properly consider that question, however, let me suggest that we need to weed out a few types of online experiences to examine the issue at hand.  There are profits to be made through digital media, but for many businesses it seems to me that the trick is to understand what you can and cannot achieve with your online presence.

First let’s put to one side the use of social media by those having no profit motive:  your Tumblr account about funny pictures of cats, for example.  Let’s also discard sales portals for the purchase of goods and services: companies like Amazon or Ebay, craftsmen who sell their work online, virtual travel agents, etc. These businesses use all kinds of digital media, including social media, to present the consumer with images and information on the types of products they offer for sale. Although far faster and more comprehensive than any printed catalog, when you get down to brass tacks the business model here is really not that much different from something like the old Sears Wish Book.

What we’re left with, in terms of the opportunity to make a profit, seems to be advertising, as indeed it always has been. What many companies didn’t understand 15 years ago, and which they don’t seem to have learned about social media until now, is that sites which do not engage in direct sales should be viewed primarily as public relations vehicles, not profit-generators, unless you happen to control the sale of advertisements on that site.  If you are a producer of a good or service, you want to have a consumer view your product in a positive way.  A component of your marketing strategy online should be to make your presence attractive on social media, but this is simply a variant of creating a beautiful showroom, running clever ads in magazines or on television, and so on.

There is also a question to my mind as to whether many of these companies have been more focused on building altars, rather than storefronts.  Sadly, more people today spend their Sundays worshiping professional athletes rather than God, and the profits to be made from areas such as merchandising and advertising the exploits of these athletic entertainers are enormous.  Yet whether they are cars, phones, or entertainers, the businesses that have to sell these products have done a great job of bringing together fans of their products through social media, but apparently without significant monetizing of those social connections.

Thus, while thousands may click “Like” on the Ritz-Carlton corporation page on Facebook, how many of these people are actually staying at Ritz-Carlton hotels on a regular basis? While the Gucci account on Twitter has over 1 million followers, how many of those followers can even afford to buy a pair of the company’s iconic Italian horsebit loafers?  It’s all very well to be popular in social media, with thousands of hits on your YouTube video.  Yet from a profitability standpoint, if that popularity is not generating sales, then are you wise to continue the same level of investment in it?

If the WSJ piece is to be believed then, more companies are waking up to the fact that having a presence in social media is worth some level of investment, but only up to a point.  Just as 15 years ago, companies needed to create websites in order to be part of the conversation and remain current, so too they needed to hop on the social media bandwagon when that began to roll along several years ago.  Their expectations in doing so don’t seem to have been matched, in many cases, with the anticipated level of return.

Until the next big thing comes along, however (virtual reality, anyone?), one doubts that business is going to be leaving social media altogether any time soon – even if it may choose not to spend as much on it in the future as it does in the present.

Social Media Money