Testifying across the Blogosphere
By John D. Spalding
In late 1999, Beliefnet.com, a then-soon-to-launch religion and spirituality site, approached me to write a humor column. The offer was, in many respects, a freelance religion writer’s dream job. They’d pay me to write about whatever religious oddities struck my fancy, and I’d get to work with great editors they’d lured away from magazines like Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.
I jumped at the opportunity, of course, but not without reservations. Then, online journalism was considered inferior to print, and the Internet just seemed so . . . ethereal. What would happen to my work, I worried, if Beliefnet suddenly failed? Would someone simply pull the plug on the site, causing my articles to vanish and leaving me with nothing to show for my efforts but a folder of crappy printouts? I’d written for magazines that had tanked before, but at least when they went under, I had a stack of glossy clips.
Oh, how naïve was I. Not only did Beliefnet succeed, becoming the web’s largest religion site, with more than 2.5 million unique monthly visitors, but Internet journalism soon earned the respect it deserved. Now, virtually every print publication has a web edition, and it has been years since any editor I know has asked writers to snail-mail them writing clips rather than shoot them some links.
Faith sites allow people to don the cloak of anonymity and boldly opine.
I say all this is to explain why, when an aspiring scribe asks what I consider to be the biggest difference between writing for print and online publications, I give an unexpected answer. “Reader response to your work,” I say, without hesitation. When you write for print, months can pass before a magazine runs two, three, maybe four, letters they’ve selected and edited for clarity and length. Not so with the Internet, where readers can post unlimited—and unedited—responses to an article as soon as it’s published.
This took me some getting used to when I started writing for Beliefnet. One of the first responses I ever got to a piece began, “I haven’t read this article, but I want to comment on it anyway.” Fortunately, the reader went on to defend me against previous detractors. Well, he defended me, I should say, as best as he could without actually knowing what he was defending.
Several of my essays have received scores and even hundreds of posts—many of them vitriolic, and only vaguely related to the article I’ve written. Invariably, these comment boards, or “threads,” take on a life of their own, as posters bicker among themselves, usually along predictable lines: believers vs. nonbelievers, traditionalists vs. progressives, conservatives vs. liberals.
Which raises an intriguing question about online religion: To what extent does the Internet encourage open and profitable debate among people of different beliefs? It’s clear that religion sites attract people with opposing views. But are their interactions constructive?
It’s hard to say. I recently visited some comment boards and discussion lists at Beliefnet, and I recognized several old familiar usernames, and they’re still hammering away at the same points they were pressing at the turn of the millennium. That’s one downside to faith sites: They allow people with deeply entrenched views to don the cloak of anonymity and boldly opine in ways they wouldn’t dare if their identity was known.
Paul O’Donnell, my former editor at Beliefnet and a contributor to the site’s “Idol Chatter” blog, contends that the anonymity of these boards allows people to play a role in which they come across more hard line than they really are. “Say a person goes online and launches a harangue against historical Jesus scholarship, without conceding an inch,” Paul says. “For all readers can tell, the guy was unconvinced by the other side of the debate. But later that night, he might caution his wife that we can’t be sure Jesus really said everything attributed to him in the Gospels.”
In other words, when you visit a discussion board you often only get to see the debate itself—not its impact on the participants.
The truth is, most people don’t frequent religion sites and blogs to encounter the other—either to sway or be swayed by people of different beliefs. Just as they do when they go to their church, synagogue, or mosque, most venture into the world of online faith seeking their own—kindred souls who share their values and with whom they can exchange ideas and experience a sense of community. This phenomenon, too, is amply displayed at Beliefnet. Most of the big “battleground boards,” if you will, are the ones accompanying the most recent essay, review, or column. Visitors enter Beliefnet via the homepage, where they check out the latest articles—and perhaps join in the fray on the comments sections—before heading off to their respective faith or community board.
Not that you’ll find any less bickering at these destinations; the acrimony is simply all within the family. Ironically, the Baha’i section that meets at Beliefnet provides a perfect example of this. The Baha’i, who believe in the unity of all humankind and that all faiths teach the same truth, are often considered beacons of religious tolerance. Yet if you visit their discussions at Beliefnet, which are open to guests but don’t permit criticisms from non-Baha’i, they’re usually smacking each other around like the cattiest of posters, regardless of the topic, from what it means to accept Baha’u’llah as God’s messenger to whether or not Baha’is are too sexually promiscuous.
At one point, a Baha’i proposed “Avoid Backbiting” as a discussion topic, and it sounded like an understandable plea.
Of course, if all online responses were reactionary and combative, those of us who write for the Internet would probably retreat permanently to print. At SoMAreview.com, the religion site I run, for instance, the comments, though fewer than at Beliefnet, generally reflect an informed and appreciative readership. And it’s the regular insights and contributions of these visitors that represent what the Internet will always have over print, by making it a truly living, interactive entity. Snarky at times, perhaps, but dynamic.