Interview: New Media, New Expectations

Heidi Campbell teaches media studies at Texas A&M. Her book When Religion Meets New Media (Rout- ledge, 2010) examines the use of media technologies in the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. Her blog,, gathers many of her articles on religion and digital culture and posts news about a growing field of academic inquiry.

REFLECTIONS: Is the web changing religious practice?

CAMPBELL: New media is accentuating changes that are already happening in religious culture. Religious practice traditionally was “place-based”: to practice, you had to go to a certain space or a particular institution; it was often geographically situated. Be- cause of network technologies religious community doesn’t have to be that way now. What new media allows is increased personalization of our information-gathering and information-sharing. People have new options to engage their faith – online prayer groups, e-devotions, Second Life, blogs. And those options will increase as new media gets more and more embedded into daily life.

For instance, I practice centering prayer, and when I can’t get to a prayer gathering I will often visit an online prayer chapel to facilitate my practice. Ideally, centering prayer is an embodied experience with other people. But it’s possible for me to go to a website and hear a recorded voice that guides me through a similar experience.

REFLECTIONS: Is new media simply the latest communication tool, or does it represents a decisive historical turn?

CAMPBELL: In several ways, digital culture is unique. It encourages us to be always on and to stay connected with others and information. It’s become an expectation that the practice of information-sharing should always be happening or possible. Engagement is often valued over contemplation. The sheer ability to connect and share becomes a valued commodity – even more than the actual content. So the process becomes more important than the out- come. There’s an expectation of publicized privacy. Your information is never your own. Boundaries are fluid and what was once private conversation or information is openly accessible to the world.

REFLECTIONS: How does this translate in religion?

CAMPBELL: What we see is that digital immigrants import offline religious expectations and values online – social etiquette and protocols, respect for the sacred text – which shape their expectations of how religion online should function. Whereas digital natives are first learning how to build social relations

or form and express their religious identity online on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere and then import those patterns into their offline life. These groups are starting in very different places and leading them to see religion in different lights. Online communication is marked by great informality, so engaging with sacred texts online does not require the same sense of respect or protocols. This approach challenges traditional expectations and responses.

REFLECTIONS: Are online and offline traditions des- tined to go their separate ways?

CAMPBELL: The question is whether there will be dialogue between the immigrants and natives – between traditional religious institutions and em- powered religious individuals. Will they negotiate and learn from each other about how religious community and identity does and should function in digital culture? Which elements of tradition can we relinquish in order both to stay in the community and function within this new media culture? And which elements are core to our identity, elements that young people will have to adopt if they want to stay true to their religious community?

Take an online prayer group meeting in a chat room in real time. What you miss online is of course the physical presence of others, the nonverbal cues, the social accountability to other people. However, many people online don’t see this as wholly problematic. People do feel connected. They adapt them- selves to that environment. With some traditions, connection via the spirit is more important than physical proximity anyway.

REFLECTIONS: There’s 1.0 and 2.0. What is 3.0?

CAMPBELL: Web 3.0 is still being worked out, still emerging and being defined. It relates to features of cloud computing and the semantic web, new ways of storing and standardizing information. It relates to the “smart revolution,” the concentration of doing multiple things on one device. Web 3.0 will further accentuate 2.0 themes – personalization, decentralization, deprivitization, integration, the convergence of technologies and industries and cultures. There are ramifications for religious traditions. Religious communities will continue to face questions of hierarchy and decentralization. Increasingly, individuals expect their religious practice to be co-created and personalized: you give me a tool kit and I’ll decide what I will add to it. Yet this is a controlled inter- activity where digital platforms present you with predetermined options, and the intent and values of the designer set the stage for what kind of future we can create.