Your email gets hacked, spamming all your friends. You get your daughter her first cell phone. You reach 10,000 followers on Twitter.
These are all major life events that you may want to celebrate, mourn, or mark. But what would that celebration look like?
I started wondering about that question after a dinner with my friend Lisa Hartley, who has the neatest job of anyone I know: she’s a professional celebrant. She designs and leads ceremonies for weddings, funerals, baby welcomings, and other life passages.
The events that Lisa typically helps to celebrate are moments that have long been recognized as liminal or worthy of celebration. In contrast, the kind of digital turning points I get excited about—my daughter’s first tweet, the demise of a favourite social network—is a relatively new kind of life experience. As such, our online milestones are not yet surrounded with the traditions or rituals that mark significant offline turning points.
But there is a reason that ritual is such a pervasive part of human experience that it appears in every culture, and dissected by a wide range of disciplines. As Peter Maclaren points out in “Rethinking Ritual,” rituals are “the symbolic codes for interpreting and negotiating events of everyday existence.” In the absence of online rituals, we lack the signposts that can help us navigate difficult online experiences—or mark and appreciate the great ones.
Rather than wait for rituals to gradually and organically emerge out of online life, it’s time for us to think about consciously creating the kinds of rituals that could benefit our online relationships and experiences. As Ronald Grimes argues in “Reinventing Ritual,” ritual is not necessarily “traditional, collective, precritical, and meaningful” but “is also invented.”
Inventing rituals for the online world means recognizing the role that ritual plays for both individuals and communities. Radha Parker describes rituals as
symbolic rites that help individuals do the work of relating, changing, healing, believing, and celebrating. During rituals, the importance of relationships is illuminated, and each person’s unique contribution to the functioning of the whole group is honored.
Writing specifically about rites of passage—rituals that involve “separation, transition, and incorporation”—W.S.F. Pickering describes a consensus among anthropologists that these rites
often emphasize the importance of what is happening to the actor and to other participants. They define social reality. They may encourage the actor to feel that he has in fact changed in some way…. They may give the actor courage to deal with fear or personal crisis.
It’s the value of ritual in helping people deal with difficulty or risk that makes it so relevant to the turning points that leave us feeling exposed online—for example, when joining a new social network. Whether you’re signing up for Instagram or joining a new professional group on LinkedIn, it’s not always obvious how to configure your profile or introduce yourself to the community, and simply venturing into the conversation can feel scary. (That’s why so many communities are full of lurkers.)
As we think about the rituals that might make this transition easier, we can look at rituals that help people walk into other kinds of high-risk spaces: for example, an operating room. As Pearl Katz notes in her fascinating article about “Ritual in the Operating Room,” rituals like “scrubbing, gowning, and gloving”
help to establish the operating room as a separate place, discontinuous from its surroundings. They also helped to establish and define categories of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. This includes indicating behavior categories and their limits.
While we can’t require people to scrub and gown themselves before joining an online conversation—though I’m sure there are corners of the Internet where that would be a good idea—we can establish rituals that cue people to observe analogous forms of conversational hygiene. For example, some Facebook groups ask people to explicitly agree to rules of engagement before joining, and many online groups and email lists ask people to introduce themselves in a specific format. The more that these onboarding practices become standardized and ritualized across groups and communities, the better they will serve to delineate boundaries and reinforce expectations of constructive engagement.
Ritualized beginnings—whether it’s to mark joining a new community, getting a new computer, or setting up a child’s first social media account—help to clarify expectations and set the stage for positive online experiences. But when things go wrong online, rituals could also help us make sense of those moments of disruption.
The internet bursts into flame at regular intervals: friends fight via Facebook comments, email lists blow up over political differences, and blog comments turn hostile. When that conflict unfolds in an ongoing community (as opposed to a drive-by flame war on a YouTube video), we often struggle to recover, reconnect, and move forward.
While there is a huge variety of cultural practice when it comes to conflict resolution and reconciliation, we might draw inspiration from the Islamic rituals of sulh and musalaha, as described by Irani and Funk in “Rituals of Reconciliation.” In this process, an aggrieved party renounces retribution in return for “just and symbolic compensation,” and both parties ultimately “demonstrate forgiveness and…reconciliation” through offerings of bitter coffee and a shared meal.
I’m not suggesting that we manage online vitriol by gifting a little Bitcoin and listening to a shared Spotify playlist. But I think we could look for virtual opportunities to offer compensation when we’ve done someone wrong (perhaps with a link to their site, or a Facebook shout-out), to demonstrate forgiveness (maybe by writing a kind tweet or email), and most importantly, to share online experience as part of the reconciliation process (by collaborating on a blog post, setting up a Google hangout, playing an online game). Naming these three steps so that they become recognized and ritualized—this being the internet, I suggest an acronym like CFS (Compensate/Forgive/Share)—will make it easier for us to find a path towards reconciliation when conflicts aise.
Nor are rituals only relevant to the social spaces of the digital world. After all, some of our online turning points are personal, private, and solitary— like the arrival or demise of a favorite device.
When a person dies, we have a funeral. But what do we do when a computer dies—or when it simply gets replaced with a newer or shinier model? Those of us who have a hard time bidding adieu to our gadgets might find inspiration in Stanton et al.’s “Garbage of the Gods.” The article describes ancient Mayan practices for the ritual disposal of possessions, including homes, based on an analysis of Mayan ruins. Because “the ancient Mayan believed that their world was animate,” they had “termination rituals” with “the intent to ritually ‘kill’ an object, structure, person, or place.”
While those of us who need to kill our old computers might hesitate to embrace the “intensive burning,” “deposition of white marl” (sedimentary rock) or other practices described by Stanton et al., these practices point to the value of symbolic acts that are more tangible than simply wiping a hard drive. Removing all the stickers from your laptop before you give it away is a nice, physical way to say goodbye (and quite possibly a prolonged one, depending on how many stickers you’ve applied); another approach might involve snapping a photo before you pack that machine off to the nearest tech recycler. I suspect that what matters here is just establishing a personal ritual that allows you to acknowledge and then retire your attachment to any device that has channeled your creativity, mediated your relationships, and escorted you to the bathroom.
Once we recognize the value that ritual can bring to our online lives, we can see all sorts of occasions that might deserve some form of personal or social ceremony. From our first moments with a new device or network, to our very last moments on the Internet (which may now take place after we have drawn our last breath), the digital world is both medium and witness to many of the most important moments of our lives.
Recognizing those online moments with ritual and ceremony doesn’t devalue the relationships, communities, or rites we participate in offline. Rather, it acknowledges that the most powerful traditions of the offline world may have a place online, too.