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How the Web Binds Us Together
Andrew Brown

Church Times, 2 October 1998

Blank.gif - 0.92 K The thing about the Internet is that it brings complete strangers together across vast distances so they can abuse each other and form undying hatreds. There is nothing entirely new about the experience of being on-line: it builds on familiar things that writing allows us to do. Book reviewers have been able to wound complete strangers intimately for as long as books have been reviewed: "Strange that the soul, the very fiery particle, should let itself be snuffed out by an article". But the Internet does extend and democratise the privilege.

Small mailing lists, where people can become known as human beings, have their own correctives: at least they offer sanctions against bad behaviour, a sort of mutually assured destruction, like nuclear warfare or marriage. If there are only five or ten or even thirty people discussing a subject of agreed interest, things can whiz along with a little self-restraint. But the more people join in, the more tightly focused a discussion must be.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the various Anglican mailing lists in the aftermath of the Lambeth conference, where the echoes of the resolution on homosexuality are still rolling around the world. Unending arguments on the Net are known as "flame wars": they can last for a week or two, or for years; some have been going for as long as the net has existed. I gave up the big Anglican mailing list when I judged it burned over by flames over homosexuality. That was two years ago. Returning, I found that very little had changed.

Because the list is an absolute model of its kind, there are archives available to anyone who just wants to browse or to see; unfortunately they don’t work terribly well. The new software, which indexes and presents the latest 48 hours of conversations, does everything it should. It is pleasantly laid out, fast, and easy to navigate. This is not entirely surprising when you consider that one of the founders of Anglicans Online, Brian Reid, wrote "Bind", one of the programs that hold the Internet together, and on whose absolute reliability the whole system depends.

Easy and elegant sorting is at the heart of most of the things that make the Internet magical. It is not the sheer mass of stuff out there that makes it fun, but the fact that some minute fraction of undifferentiated data smog has actually been organised into information which you can look at in all sorts of different ways. A good indexing system is more than an index; it is a proper concordance. The ideal of the web is that it should become a concordance to everything, and, though it will never get there, the little islands of indexed order that exist are wonderful.

Unfortunately the arrangement to search the older archives of the Anglican list seems to be completely broken. It relies on older software searching a much larger range of information and, though the interface is pretty, the requests you put in never get any response. It’s a bit like dealing with the Anglican Communion press office.

So I can’t be certain that the disputes about homosexuality have continued chewing over the same ground with the same participants for the past three years, but it surely does seem that way. This is partly a consequence of the size of the Anglican list. It has 500 participants and up to 100 messages a day, far too many for any lasting sense of community. A list that size demands inattention if you are to get on with anything else in life; and that, in turn, makes it easy to practice a vulture strategy of only joining in the fun to peck and claw.

The natural result of this is that herbivores stay away, and without ruminative types, the conversation languishes. People drift off into smaller groups, where they can be sure of not being offended too grossly by what they read. So the various different flavours of Anglicanism end up mixing as little on the Net as they do in real life.

This is a long way round to apologise for missing the real story of the Lambeth Conference, which appeared before it had even begun, on the web site of Episcopalians United (you can tell they are a splinter group because they have got "United" in their name).

Here, on 29 June, was posted an account of a talk given by Maurice Sinclair, the Archbishop of the Southern Cone, of his preparations for the conference: "African, Latin American, and Asian bishops, in conjunction with their orthodox bishops elsewhere, are putting the finishing touches on a common comprehensive strategy for Lambeth, according to Sinclair, a principal author of the strategy. His co-authors include the Most Rev. Moses Tay, Archbishop of South East Asia, the Most Rev. Emmanuel Kolini, Archbishop of Rwanda, and the Rt. Rev. Harry Goodhew, Bishop of the Diocese of Sydney in Australia."

The three resolutions would bind the Anglican Communion to an evangelical view of scripture, reaffirm traditional condemnations of homosexuality, and set up the beginnings of a central authority based on these two principles. And lo, even as it was foretold on the Net, so it came to pass.

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