Last week, Stephen Fry was awarded his fourth honorary doctorate. “You’ll have to address me as Dr Dr Dr Dr Fry from now on,” he said afterwards, sounding typically indulged. How do I know this? Well, because Fry posted that message on Twitter, a social networking website where his every word is read by some two million people, including (very occasionally) me.
Two million people. Even Goebbels might have been shocked by that raw power. Imagine: a sentence that you absently tap out on your laptop reaches the equivalent of a national newspaper readership. It would very quickly go to your head. And in his defence, Stephen Fry isn’t the only celebrity to broadcast nasty tantrums online when “followers” choose to dissent from the fawning masses.
There are, plainly, risks to social networking, as Pope Benedict acknowledges in his World Communications Day message. On entering cyberspace, he writes, one must avoid “enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world”.
The dangers are real. At university, I knew students who spent hours cultivating their Facebook pages every day. They had to look popular and busy on the website, because on some level they thought it would translate into real life. But strangely, it was always those with hundreds of Facebook “friends” – or thousands of Twitter followers – who seemed to be the most lonely. And it was the supposedly busy who were truly bored with themselves. A “parallel existence” online means sitting, on planet earth, in front of a computer screen.
What the Pope called “excessive exposure” to the virtual world is more difficult to grasp. But the facts help: there are 500 million users of Facebook. Collectively, they use the website for 700 billion minutes every month. That’s more than 23 hours per person, per month. An hour a day: gone.
This should worry parents of young children, in particular. Facebook was designed by a Harvard student for other Harvard students. Now, according the the website’s terms and conditions, anyone can sign up as soon as they are 13 years old. The silly obsessions of the grown-up students I encountered would be far more sinister in a Year 10 environment – and potentially damaging to a child’s development. The Pontiff says: “We must be aware that the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its ‘popularity’ or from the amount of attention it receives.” Parents and teachers would be wise, I think, to pass that on.
Tempting though they are, however, draconian measures against these problems rarely pay off. Many schools have blocked social networking sites from their IT centres. Some parents do the same on their family computers. But this is like Mr and Mrs Bogtrotter padlocking their fridge, instead of working out why young Bruce is so fat and greedy.
Which is why Pope Benedict was spot on to invite Christians “to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible.” With responsibility, he recognised, the internet can be a great connector – even a Christian one.
The Catholic Church is beginning to set an example on this front. But there is one rather embarrassing problem: the Vatican’s website. It looks like it was designed by an artistically challenged librarian. That is to say, the information must be there somewhere, but it’s totally unfathomable and – due to the awful brown background – very difficult to read. The Pope must find CatholicHerald.co.uk a bit of a relief.