Monday, March 23, 2009

A quick response to Shane Hipps

Shane Hipps is an expert on digital media and spirituality, author of Flickering Pixels.

He was interviewed recently at the National Pastor's Convention in San Diego, discussing "virtual community" and "Second Life Church."

In this video, Shane says that "virtual community" is not really community because it does not have:
1. shared history - establishes identity & belonging
2. permanence - matters because it's "how you tget shared history" - transient communities don't have it
3. proximity - "you have to be with one another"

What it tends to have is: shared imagination of the future (much easier in virtual than in real life community).

Shane here is largely right in criticizing virtual community - his criticisms also describe problems with many ministries inside Second Life. I do believe, however, that our own ministry shows that the above three are very much possible. These points actually are very close to my own thoughts on why online community is often so impoverished, and reflect some of the goals I think we were trying to achieve.

I won't be able to address all, nor anything in detail, but in the video Shane singles out "shared history."

We do have a shared history, since we are primarily a community of "regulars" - people who have been coming together since September, in contact with one another usually more than once a week. In particular, we have that shared history by praying together with people and seeing the progress that they make in life. We see moments that we've come together with people, and seen them either accept Christ at that moment, or come back and tell us how they've accepted Christ. We've had special moments of prayer for people, and followed up ... and heard how they are doing in life.

We've seen people "open up" who previously battled insecurities which made it difficult to relate to people.

This is much more than thinking about "that time that guy posted that thing on the site" when we think of our shared history - they are moments when we were together, acting, speaking, observing. Just a few days ago I had a discussion with one of our members, starting with ... "remember when we were sitting in a skybox together with Able, and Kay came by?" ... We were discussing such a difference - how she, at that moment, showed that she had gotten over certain insecurities, compared to other times when she had been with us. Events in SL are quite memorable, and do establish a shared history ... sometimes positive ... and sadly, often very negative as well.

Here, as so often in Second Life, I would say that prayer is key in "breaking through" the barrier of the virtual, so we are reaching out not to avatars, but to "real people," in community.

Shane says SL is like Televangelism in its "disembodiment" of the gospel - he first mentions televangelism, and then radio, and calls Second Life a "disembodiment on steriods" - "utterly detached from your physical experience of life and reality."

Here he makes a mistake. First of all, he is comparing Second Life to two types of broadcasting. Our own Second Life ministry is not primarily about broadcasting, but conversation. Not one message sent out to zillions of people, but people interacting and inspiring one another in the Word.

I think that he is right when it comes to problems of disembodiment in coporate worship - that corporate worship can be done in SL, but that it misses something we have with the real life Eucharist.

There is indeed a big problem with continuity and permanence in many Second Life ministries I've seen - I've often thought of trying to bring sim leaders together more to try to address this - help one another when someone is about to "drop out" of ministry for whatever reason - find someone who can learn about the ministry on time, take part, and transition into it. Shane's criticisms are indeed valid for many Second Life ministries.

But I do believe that our own ministry shows that this type of "community" is indeed possible.

There are also some other ministries in SL which, I believe, also have this kind of shared history.

I think that one weakness here is seeing Second Life ministry as part of the general paradigm of "website ministry / community." The communities in Second Life do bear some similarities to forum boards - but some critical differences - and these differences are a great help to community permanence and history, and proximity, if the medium is approached in an informed manner. But his thoughts here are valuable in sharpening my own - I do believe too many SL ministries think in terms of the "website ministry" model. When we are dealing with Second Life, we really need to step away from thinking of a "website" and embrace more of the actual concerns we have with "real life" ministry involving time and space - since events in SL occur in "real time" - in a spatio-temporal format. Space and time are much more important in community - and as a result, other things, like considering what should be said where - are crucial. It's also much more important that we have designated "leaders" and that these leaders reflect Christ and what Christ teaches. Second Life is much more like traditional "incarnate ministry" than typical virtual community website ministry. Allowing one's self the latitudes one might on a website - a published meduim - causes problems in SL.

I don't wish to criticize Shane here, since I haven't read his book and do not know his full thoughts on the matter. However, I do think it's important to point out that this one important hallmark of community - shared history - can indeed occur in Second Life ministry if it is planned well and carried out responsibly.


Mark Brown said...

I totally agree Wilf, excellent response!

Anglican Ecumenical Bible Study in Second Life said...

There's a clarification in another interview Shane does at

He's clarifying that he's not "anti" but recognizes that a diet of exclusive online spirituality is unhealthy - with which I heartily agree.

However, he continues to use metaphors which don't seem to really do online community justice - at least the type that we experience.

Mike Crowl said...

Interesting comments, Wilf. I don't have any real experience of Second Life (and no time to do so) but there are obviously many people who find it a place to meet others they can talk to in a way that they don't in the 'real' world.
Think Shane Hipps' clarification improved his take on virtual community, but I suspect he's still not enamoured of it!