Sabbatical, Day 76: Are Numbers Important?

A day that has been filled with bringing Rebekah back from her two-day sleepover in Kent (so successful, she’s been invited back for a week in the summer. Yippee!), the main thing I noticed before leaving this morning was the news that Ashton Kutcher had beaten CNN to a million followers. It had become some kind of competition.

To which my main reaction has been, ‘Who cares?’ There are people on Twitter who are obsessed with gaining as many followers as possible. Heaven knows, I’ve had enough strange Internet marketers start to follow my tweets, probably in the hope I’ll be another sucker who follows them and bolsters their figures. I put this alongside those stupid experiments like the ‘I bet we can find ten million Christians on Facebook’ groups. Which proves exactly what? Is truth being decided by a popularity poll? It’s hardly the narrow way of Jesus which, he said, few would find.

If the Kutcher/CNN face-off proves anything, it’s simply that Twitter has gone mainstream. It’s reached way beyond the geeks now. After all, Oprah Winfrey tweeted for the first time today. That means the service will change and become more populist, just as Facebook did when it broke out beyond the student communities. It’s like when a cult band suddenly gets mainstream success and the select few who have followed them from early days become disillusioned and accuse them of selling out. I think we’ll see something like that over Twitter now. There already is a move by some geeks towards FriendFeed. (Yes, I’m on there, too.)

Yet even if numbers are used for facile publicity stunts or immature spiritual exercises, there is also a place for them. OK, my major subject at school was Maths, but there are obvious biblical examples: a whole book called Numbers, and Luke’s interest in the numerical growth of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. (They need to be set against the troubling story of King David’s pride in numbering the nation, of course.) There is rejoicing when more people embrace the kingdom of God. Statistics can alert us to important trends we might otherwise have missed.

The problem comes when rejoicing turns to obsession. Ask any Methodist minister who has to go through the annual trudge of the ‘October count’ of statistics.

How about we keep our numbers as useful tools rather than instruments of dehumanisation or proof of our banality?

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