May 3, 2013

Social media's calls to prayer

A remarkable graph showing mentions of "pray for Boston" on Twitter in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing:


At The Atlantic, Eleanor Barkhorn notes anecdotally that the calls for prayer came from unexpected quarters:
What I saw on Twitter and Facebook in the hours after the Boston bombings and the Texas explosion wasn't just faithful people reminding other faithful people to drop everything and pray. It was also the non-religious invoking prayer in a way that they wouldn't under normal circumstances.
After a few days, though, those same friends found different vocabulary with which to relate to the tragedy:
My friends who wrote of praying on Monday night soon began thinking about Boston, or standing with Boston, or loving Boston. It's interesting to see what words besides prayer have emerged as the way to respond to and process the terrible things that happened, and continued to happen, in the city
Elizabeth Drescher names the spike in mentions of prayer the "active memeing of prayer."

She writes:
The phrase #PrayForBoston was appended to tweets through the day, with the likes of Mary J. Blige, teen rapper TZire, Saint Louis Cardinals infielder David Freese, La Toya Jackson, the US Senate Republicans, and, of course, Justin Bieber joining millions across the world in calling for prayer [....]

Of course, the feeling is relatively fleeting in the 'always now' of digital time. By the morning after the bombing, the #PrayForBoston meme had faded as a top trend, replaced by the leaner #Boston hashtag, which mostly tracks news and opinion, with calls for prayer appearing more sporadically. As the sun set on the same day, and the #OneBoston hashtag appeared, we were all apparently meant to be over whatever had prompted so many to call for prayer, focusing our energies on the practical what's next of the tragedy.

Obviously, we can reasonably conclude, prayer memes shared in times of crisis do something besides expressing traditional religiosity, calling us to God, to regular spiritual practice, or to worship.
I don't find this entirely convincing. Religions feelings can be fleeting and yet still be religious. Drescher is thinking of these social media mentions of prayer as secular, but describes them in ways that are quite resonant with ancient faith practices.

She says "calling for prayer in times of tragedy seems to mark a kind of existential angst, sorrow, or confusion for which other words or gestures seem inadequate [.....] The impulse to pray holds a space that we may not even believe exists." But existential angst in not antithetical to prayer. Supplication mingled with doubt and disbelief is at least as old as Pslam 88, which says,
I have become like a man without strength,
Forsaken among the dead,
Like the slain who lie in the grave,
Whom You remember no more [....]
O Lord, why do You reject my soul?
Why do You hide Your face from me?
Perhaps Mary J. Blige and David Freese tweeting #PrayforBoston signals something new. But maybe, it's an old, old human urge, expressed with the medium at hand, as it has been expressed through other media in other ages.

Whatever the interpretation, what we know we saw and what the graph shows is a huge increase in public talk of prayer and then, almost as fast as it happens, a sudden dissipation. It an odd and fascinating measure of a very fleeting moment of American religiosity.