Is the internet a means for individual empowerment and collective upheaval against oppressive powers, or is it a tool to monitor and control people in the hands of authoritarian rulers? This article addresses what can be called the double nature of the internet. That is a dualism that goes back to the origin of internet with its roots simultaneously in American West coast counterculture and the cold war militarism of the 1960s (Turner 2006). It seems to be a question that cannot be solved. It is almost a religious question; similar to the question about the nature of Christ. Is He purely divine, or is He human, or both? As with the internet, it is commonly accepted within both the Catholic and Protestant traditions that His nature is dual or "diophysite." Understanding the diophysite nature of the divine has been a source of discussion and division over the years. To be diophysite is not to be either divine or human, but, as the answers (in a theological sense) often have been, it is to be somewhere in between.
Within the Christian community, the internet is viewed in a rather paradoxical matter. It spans from those who see the internet as an opportunity to reach out and communicate withpeople, to a source to temptations, misconduct, or a waste of precious time. As Quentin J. Schultze puts it, "The medium [the internet] is a two-edged sword", and he continues, "largely because of its highly interactive, decentralized character as a networked rather than a mass medium, the Internet implicitly persuades in both directions, from faith and doubt, doubt to faith - and everything in between. Even as cyberspace equips evangelicals to connect with other believers, it can introduce Christians to pagan ideas, tempting misbehavior and destructive communities. [...] In other words, cyberspace is a kind of laboratory for individuals and groups to experiment with self-identities" (Schultze 2008, 142). This quotation encapsulates the ambiguity toward the internet within the religious sphere and its representatives, which this article will discuss.
Centered on four case studies that are based within the institutionalized Christian sphere, this article aims at pointing out, emphasizing, and discussing the double nature of internet. Its focus is on what is considered to be an ongoing negotiating process in relation to institutional power and the anti-hierarchical participatory culture of internet--two entities not fully align with each other. The four cases are selected to mirror some of the diversity one finds within Christianity (even though limited given the broad variety). It is also important to point to how uses, attitudes and effects of the use of internet is contextual, and should not be seen as determined by the media itself.
Authority is one main issue within the growing field of digital religion (Campbell 2012; Cheong 2012; Cheong & Ess 2012), and an illustrative example where the double character of internet is highlighted. The twofold nature of internet shines through also in every day practices, which here will be dealt with through a synthesis of the four case studies regarding the negotiating of authority within churches. Those are: 1) A live streamed American televangelist scrutinized on Twitter by a Swedish online audience, 2) the twitter account of the (fake) Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, 3) virtual churches in Second Life, and 4) the use of internet within a conservative and technology skeptical Swedish Christian denomination.
It is important to notice and interpret how internet as medium both undermine and strengthen power structures--and to see how other factors also come into play. People with their competences and sociocultural positions, societal and economic circumstances, and so on, give a framework for how the internet contributes to the negotiation of authority. Ideological or preconceived assumptions blur our understanding of what the internet and a digitized society do to us. An empirically grounded interpretation of the role of the internet helps us to better understand contemporary society on both an individual and collective level, and how technology might, or might not, influence society, and social movements related to politics, religion, economy, and beyond.
In the different cases, we will note how new actors are heard, actors who question existing authority, but at the very same time it is noted how these voices are intertwined in existing structures. The internet is an arena where authority is contested and negotiated by both existing and new structures. The internet is also used as a means to contest authority. But as soon as established structures are undermined new ones tend to arise based upon other premises such as media expertise and offline positions.
Cyberspace, hybridity and the mediated Church
Throughout history a relation between media usage and changing power relations can be detected (cf Eisenstein 1980; Kittler 1999; Winston 1998). When it comes to the Christian Church, it has to a large extent been in control over media through history, while attempts to undermine the official message has also been mediated in different ways. Religion and media is thus not possible to separate (see for example Horsfield (2015) for an overview, or Stolow 2005). There is, for example, a correlation between the 16th century Lutheran Reformation and the printing press, between the 19th century Evangelical Awakening and the industrial printing press, and the raise of Mega churches and television. The printing press undermined Church structures in the process of the Reformation. Luther and other reformers printed their work and distributed their subversive message in opposition to the Catholic Church, and the preachers of the Awakening distributed their pamphlets outside the established (national) churches. New actors have challenged, today and throughout history, the monopolistic role of the Church and its priesthood. At the same time, we see how new and contemporary media play a role through challenging old structures while promoting and building new institutions. Today, digital media are a tool and a platform which function as a platform for negotiating power structures.
As shortly pointed out in the introduction, the internet has a dual background that is rooted in both the fear of Cold war missile attacks and the 1960s counter culture of the US west coast. Networked computer communication would secure bombproof communication in case of warfare. Simultaneously internet technology was seen as an anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian technology promising tools for individual freedom and even spiritual enhancement (Turner 2006). Military needs and counter culture ideals worked hand in hand in other words. In the early days of the internet, the technology was perceived by its pop cultural proponents as a separate entity as in the case, for example, of William Gibson's influential conception of "cyberspace" in Neuromancer (Gibson 1984). In the 1980s Gibson envisioned cyberspace as a parallel (virtual) reality that individuals connected to and then experienced a new reality with another set of rules that were completely different from actual reality (Hogan, Bernie & Wellman, Barry 2012).
While "cyberspace" was seen as a mode of reality with other sets of rules where traditional authority was subverted and individual freedom flourished, today online authority is perceived rather as tangled with, and related to, offline authority. There are however examples of how the internet has both strengthen and undermined established power structures. As mentioned above, digital media and what is referred to as social media have been seen playing a role in the popular upheaval in the Middle East. The revolutions in Tunis and Egypt in 2011 are popularly labelled the "Twitter revolution", and the 2009 election protests in Iran are referred to as the "Facebook revolution". The role of social media in these processes was important, but in both cases it became clear afterwards that other significant factors came into play as well, (cf Howard & Hussain 2011; Pfeffer & Carley 2012)
On the one hand, the internet and digital media have for example been part giving voice to the previously unheard, but on the other hand the internet has been a tool for mass surveillance on both a national and global scale, as shown by the Snowden affair, or in the hands of a capitalist market. Digital media is shut down in states under oppressive rule and used to track dissents; the very same ones who uses the subversive side of the internet. At the same time, states, governments, law enforcement and business agencies strengthen control through the capacity to engage in mass surveillance. Individual representatives, both already established and non-established, can strengthen and secure their influential position through the use of digital media, (cf Lyon, 2007; Morozov, 2012) Similarly the role of digital media, and the digitization of society, is transforming for example the field of public debate, how marketing is done, and the traditional and authoritative role of journalists, teachers and doctors, just to mention a few areas (cf Hayes, Singer, & Ceppos 2007; Loader & Mercea 2012; Metzger & Flanagin 2008). The answer to the question regarding the nature of the Internet is that it is neither nor, or both, but probably something in between--depending on context.
In early 2000, Manuel Castells claimed that digital media differed from traditional media since it was a many-to-many medium and hence undermining established hierarchical structures in one-to-many media, and he was not the first or the only one making such ideologically colored predictions (Castells 2003; see also Jenkins 2006; Rheingold 2002). The use of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and similar, has indeed challenged traditional authority, and is a means to negotiate authority. Today anyone (with skills, an...