A couple of weeks ago, I saw a New York magazine report on Whisper, the latest in social media. Whisper users post their updates, secrets, and statuses anonymously. Other users can “heart” or reply. User stats aren’t public, but the company says it gets over 3 billion page views per month.
The article’s author, Kevin Rose, views Whisper as an advance in honesty. On Facebook, “with our names attached to the things we do, we curate vainly, posting and tagging only what makes us look good, and removing what doesn’t.” Whisper permits “the transparency that anonymity can breed.” Exactly what we are supposed to see through the transparency isn’t entirely clear. We certainly don’t get to see the person behind the status. Perhaps Whisper is honest because it’s transparency all the way down.
After trying Whisper for a few days, Rose admits it doesn’t escape the Facebook temptation: “Despite the site’s guarantee of anonymity, there is still a pressure to perform. Users who want their posts to be popular will be tempted to embellish their own secrets, or appropriate someone else’s.”
Pressure to perform is one of the few constants of online conversation. We talk all the time, says sociologist Sherry Turkle in a recent interview, but “all of this talk can come at the expense of conversation.” Web communication “favor[s] showmanship over exchange, flows over ebbs. The Internet is always on. And it’s always judging you, watching you, goading you.” Online, we talk “ at each other rather than with each other.”
Person-to-person conversations, by contrast, “are messyfull of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness.” Turkle, the author of Alone Together, doesn’t think this is a design flaw: “The messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the timeand, just as important, the permissionto think and react and glean insights.”
The German-American thinker Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy agreed that speech is always a two-step, and that the listener’s role is never merely receptive or passive: “Language is not [only] speech, it is a full circle from word to sound to perception to understanding to feeling, to memorizing, to acting, and back to the word about the act thus achieved.” Silence is as essential to conversation as speech.
When I moved to a small town in Idaho fifteen years ago, the stillness spooked me. The only nighttime sounds were coyotes and owls and the breeze through the leaves. Now moved to Birmingham, Alabama, I see the cars zipping down Interstate 65 from my back deck, and I’ve had a hard time finding any place where I can’t hear the hum of traffic.
Surrounded as we are by blustery buzz and clattery chatter, equipped with our always-tuned-in devices, we’re tempted to nostalgia for the hush of past ages and isolated prairie towns. But silence as such is not a Christian value. We serve a chatty God, as Robert Jenson has put it, a God who creates by word, redeems by an incarnate Word, whose Spirit delivers long, complicated texts to a community whose assemblies are full of words.
In such a world created by such a God, silence is not an unalloyed good. Walter Ong got it right when he observed that sound is the key sign of life. You can see, touch, smell andif you so choosetaste a corpse. You will never hear it. For the Psalmist, God’s silence is terrible, as is His wrath that overawes the whole earth. Living men and women talk, shriek, sing, call, command, cry; the shades of Sheol are in a world beyond groans. Even the most mystical of Christian mystics practiced silence so as to attend more closely to the ever-speaking God. They were still because listening is the first movement of prayer. We cultivate silence not for itself but to master the art of conversation, which is, as Turkle says, a dance, “slow, slow, quick-quick, slow.”
Social media break the rhythmic silence of listening and so all too readily become tools of anti-social bravura. Whispers turn into Look-at-me! shouts. That’s worrisome, because there’s no conversing at all unless our talk is answered with a smile, unless telling corresponds to remembering and teaching to learning, unless command is met with obedience, argument with understanding, prophecy with zealous and active repentance. There’s no society worthy of the name unless our speech dances with another’s silence, and with our own.
Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History, forthcoming from Baylor University Press. His previous articles can be found here.