Critically Approaching Human Connectivity and Participation

The above discussion holds multiple implications for human connectivity, including aspects of digital participation and feminist empowerment. First, scholarship in internet studies and recent evidence from the development of religiously-themed apps highlight how celebratory notions of friction-free involvement and empowerment need to be considered within the context of their adoption and appropriation. To be sure, new media affords a myriad of opportunities for personal expression and the enlargement of one’s networks, contacts, and resources in some spheres that allow for freedom apart from past institutional control. Digital media connections in many ways also help level the proverbial playing field, criss-cross established domains and territories, and facilitate swift horizontal flows of information and services. Consequently, wired resources and spaces possess great potential to improve the social participation and economic well-being of traditionally marginalized and disadvantaged groups, including females, in many countries. If the telecommunication infrastructures, hardware and software are available and accessible, previously marginalized populations including female and minority groups can connect to an increasingly plethora of online resources and social media to build bonding and bridge social capital.

Yet even while we recognize and celebrate the emancipatory affor- dances of Web 2.0, due attention needs to be paid to the political nature of technology and strategic management of digital media by established authorities. As mentioned above, a growing chorus of scholars and practitioners in digital religion are urging for a broadened focus on social change, beyond a myopic gaze on the so-called Web 2.0, “open databases,” “Twitter revolution or Facebook revolution,” and the more recent app culture or tellingly, the obsessive hunt toward the “killer app.” As research on religion online demonstrates, the stained glass ceiling still exists and may be even elevated in ways by the vigorous efforts of prominent religious leaders to incorporate the use of the wide spectrum of digital and social media to enhance their credibility and enlarge the number of their “likes” and “followers.” In other words, while the bulk of early rhetoric and research has focused on the emancipatory potential of “online anonymity” and the libera- tory benefits that online facelessness entails for marginal or oppressed voices to participate in the public sphere, we need to be sensitive to the “online authority” that can be intentionally constructed and promoted though highly visible and iterative efforts of institutional leadership to reinforce the status quo and structural inequalities.

We may also need to recall how earlier research on the digital divide has highlighted the pertinent role of gender associated with skill-based and social-psychological factors like motivations and perceived efficacy with technological use, and how gender may interact with the use of social media. According to Jose Van Dijk, gender constitutes a part of the deepening digital divide as the relational, categorical pair of male-female are linked to particular patterns of access to temporal, material, mental, social, and cultural resources that are reinforced by social exclusion, exploitation, and control mechanisms that may perpetuate inequalities in connected online-offline milieus.33 The conceptualization of internet adoption as a process of diffusion over time has also been critiqued as being overly optimistic and mechanical by critical scholars who highlight the need to understand the role of motivation and the differences in masculine and feminine enthusiasms toward technology as a basis of engagement with the internet.34

At the same time, however, it is interesting to observe how strategic arbitration works to construct authority online discursively. This may open new avenues of influence for minority and marginalized populations, including female religious leaders, to persuasively reach and connect with their constituents. For example, in a study among

Won Buddhist monks and nuns, Joonseong Lee found that some nuns began blogging for practicing their spirituality and self-cultivation.35 These blogs also functioned as “open diaries” to open up new spaces of persuasion for them to strengthen ilchon (virtualized kinship) to blog visitors as well as to share challenges they face including issues of gender inequality (mandatory celibacy for nuns but not for monks) and unfair normative images and expectations of nuns (that they are always pure and pious). In another interview I conducted with a husband and wife pastoral team, I recalled that the wife was the one who shared that she actively uses social media to send personalized birthday greetings to congregational members as an expression of her care and encouragement to them. In the above and other ways, it would be interesting for future research to observe if there are gendered patterns of digital labor associated with social media and apps, and if these apps are appropriated in gender-specific ways to build community, voice doubts and concerns, or even resolve conflicts.

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