Today, if you ask any Roman Catholic or Anglican priest about their parishioners’ frequency of practicing confession, he or she would almost certainly tell you that there has been a decline in the number of those who come to the confessional. Statistical research from one Georgetown report supports this observation of the decline of confession in the church.
While ecclesial confessions are certainly performed by fewer and fewer people, digital technology has opened the floodgates to a new kind of anonymous confession. Before we can analyze the confessions, we must analyze these ersatz confessionals in the digital realm.
This project seeks to deepen our conception of the study of religion through a re-imagination of religious scholarship in a digital age. The first section of the essay will address the problem that anonymity and automation prevents data in the digital sphere from necessarily corresponding to activity in the physical sphere within which human beings live, breath, talk, and act. Next, we will examine possible solutions to this problem of mapping humans to digital activity. To ground theory in practice, we will explore the way forward through analysis of digital confessions through the lens of Foucaultian power structures and media effects.
Yik Yak is a mobile app released in November of 2013 that allows users to post anonymously. While many posts are about banal or trivial things, Yik Yak has made the news for being a vehicle for cyber bullying. This is one example of a confession by a student expressing guilt for inaction while a friend suffers a breakdown.
In PostSecret, members of a community reveal information about themselves as a way to contribute to the digitally public intimate economy (Poletti, 2011). This contribution allows them to participate in the community, assuaging the desire of guilt or shame with the feeling of belonging and acceptance. This is not dissimilar to a Christian theology of confession. For some Roman Catholics, confession is a necessary step one must take before participation in communion or Eucharist. Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together (1954) that it is the act of confession of sins that breaks down the walls that prevent fellowship or true Christian community (p. 110).
Many of these confessions are sexual in nature, falling into a pattern that Michel Foucault (1978) notes has been occurring since the beginnings of the church, “From the Christian penance to the present day, sex was a privileged theme of confession (p. 61).”
Reddit is an internet community that allows for users to post content, reply, and up-vote or down-vote existing content. The only thing needed for an account is an email address, and many Redditors use “throwaway” accounts for sexual solicitation or confession. On the confession thread, or subreddit as it is called, there are three categories for posts.
On the surface this seems like an ideal example of an internet confession with strong analogy to ecclesial confession in which the confessor received validation and acquittal of shame, along with advice for future action. The only problem is that due to the nature of the site, there is no evidence that this is actually a real person or someone who is merely fabricating the whole thing. The Internet is full of trolls, and Reddit is not an exception.
As Christianity plunges further into a digitally saturated environment, pastors and theologians alike must take heed of the changing landscape of confession, remaining ever aware of the Church body’s psychological, pastoral, and theological needs.
– Michael J. Toy