We are interested in hearing your thoughts on the role that social media--specifically blogs, Facebook and Twitter--played in the events that unfolded over the last several weeks at General Theological Seminary. It feels to us as though the Episcopal Church has just been through a new experience and we'd like to try to understand it better.
I am an Episcopalian and a social media professional. I’ve been following the events at General Theological Seminary very closely for the past few weeks, and when I saw the inquiry above, I felt it was time to try and gather some of my thoughts about what has gone on.
A little context: When I was in my twenties, I considered the priesthood or the monastic life, but I never had a clear sense of calling and went into the world of business.
Around 1993, I help set up the first website for the Parish I attended, and then for the Diocese of Connecticut. In 2003, I helped write social media software for Gov. Dean’s Presidential campaign. I was the first person in Connecticut on Twitter, and continue to be an early adopter of digital technology.
Last month, I wrote about The Facebook Daily Office and how social media is changing my prayer life. Soon after, our church had a Vestry retreat, which I wrote in Reimaging Bread. This was a few days after I had heard about the turmoil at General Theological Seminary. I touched on social media and what was happening at General a little bit in that post.
It is worth noting that I heard about it on Facebook, when a friend wrote
I just want to put out there to my fellow Alums that my silence surrounding GTS has not been due to lack of care. I cannot even begin to express how much I care, how deeply I am lamenting, what kinds of thoughts are going around in my head from my oh-so-unique perspective. I have decided to adhere to silence as a discipline,… This week was the time for me to pray.
As a communications professional, I always come back to a couple key ideas, especially around crisis communications: Say as little as possible, and always return to the mission statement.
For me, in this crisis, the statement I applied was:
The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 855.)
I also feel that when thinking about social media, Psalm 19:14 is very important
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
I echoed these themes in an email I sent to a board member, who had posted something on Facebook that was being widely quoted, and appeared to be further enflaming the situation.
I feel compelled to reply. On the professional level, your response appears very unwise. When in a crisis, people involved should say as little as possible publicly, and when they do speak, they should always return to the mission. In this situation, I would return to “The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Was your post helping restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ? Was it helpful in restoring the unity of the professors and board members? You may have intended it to be, but it does not appear that way to an outsider. I also always return to Psalm 19:14 “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.”
Part of the response was
Please know, however, that I did not and would not have ever posted them without permission to do so.
I responded suggesting it was important to “understand that having permission to do something does not make it wise, caring, or Christ-centered”. I also spoke a little bit about the important
“difference between intention and impact, especially when it comes to communications about highly contentious issues.” My may have great intentions, but the impact may be different, even the polar opposite of our intentions.
At our Vestry meeting this week, we had a long discussion about what has happened at General, and how it relates to our Parish, to The Diocese, The Episcopal Church, The Anglican Communion, and to Christendom.
When I worked on Gov. Dean’s campaign, and on political and journalistic efforts online afterwards, the Internet was often compared to the printing press; it will bring about changes to all our institutions on the level of the days of Gutenberg.
What does this mean for religious institutions? Perhaps it would be better for Reformation scholars to comment on this. The printing press made it possible for every person to have access to a Bible. The internet gives every person access to their own pulpit.
What does this mean for church structure and reimagining the church in the 21st century? I’m not sure, but there are a few things of note.
Giving everyone access to a Bible does little if few people know how to read. Giving everyone access to a pulpit does little if few people can preach well.
We are all still learning how to communicate effectively online. I hope the experiences will cause people to look back to the mission statements and to Psalm 19 to find ways of proclaiming an ageless Gospel on new media.
The other day, I was talking with a friend about political campaigns and social media. He commented that all he was seeing in a specific candidate’s social media political posts was negativity. I see a lot of that as well and it struck me that perhaps what is needed is politicians who will post for 100 days, things they are grateful about.
There are less than 80 days left until this year’s election, so even doing it until election day would be a big thing. Such posts could reflect the values of the candidates in a much more beneficial manner.
The 100 days of gratitude, or sometimes 100 days of happiness is a popular challenge going around the internet right now, so making it 100 days of political gratitude isn’t a big stretch. Also, with the ice bucket challenge going around right now, social media challenges appear to be the thing, although I know some are beginning to weary of such challenges.
So, to all my friends running for office this year, are you up for a 100 Days of Political Gratitude challenge?
It may be that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is close to running its course. More and more, I see people criticizing it, asking not to be tagged, etc. A friend who runs a rescue farm wrote about not having time, ice or money, and I thought, we need a farm chore challenge. Muck out a stall, feed some horses, and share a video of it online, or contribute to an animal rescue.
It made me think of another challenge, which I’ve been trying to get a chance to write a few thoughts about for the past couple weeks, the 100 days of gratitude challenge. One such gratitude I might post is about being able to safely let my twelve year old run around outside after dark with friends screaming and laughing and having fun. Not everyone gets to do that. In fact, far too few people get to do that.
It made me think of my friends who have black kids and the talks they have to have with their kids.
Today, another friend posted, “I love that the ALS challenge is capturing attention, wish we could create a Michael Brown Challenge....” Many friends replied and I started to reply there, but I thought it might be better as a blog post.
The power of the Ice Bucket Challenge is that it is something lots of people can participate in and share virally. Many of us may be too cash strapped to be able to contribute to the ALS Association, but we can at least help share the message with a video. What might be a good simple thing many people could do to help spread the word about undoing racism?
Since I had just gotten home from church, my thoughts started off in that direction. The church I currently go to is very diverse. It is one of the things I love about my church. However, at other times, I’ve attended churches that are very homogenous.
I remember years ago, when I was in college, a friend of mine invited me to go to church with him. We walked along the road together, and a car pulled up and asked if he was going to church. He said he was and that I was coming with him. We both climbed in the car and headed off to church.
As we walked up the steps, Ronnie introduced me to many of his friends. One, an older woman, looked me over closely and said, “I’m surprised you want to come to church with us.” I looked at her, puzzled. “Really?” I asked. “Why?” She got all flustered and apologized and said maybe she shouldn’t have said anything. I looked around for a clue as to what that was all about, and it slowly occurred to me. I was the only white person there.
During the service, there was a time for guests to get up and introduce themselves. I felt awkward and insecure as the eyes of a hundred black churchgoers looked at the only white person in the congregation.
For me, a white person who was not accustomed to being in the minority, it was an enlightening experience. I wondered if that was how some of my black friends often felt.
My first thought was that the undoing racism challenge for white folks might be something like going to a setting where they experience being in a minority. Yet getting people to take pictures of that and share it online might be a challenge, limiting the potential to go viral.
Instead, what if we made it simpler. Post a picture of yourself hugging someone from a different race or ethnicity and challenging your friends to do the same, and then perhaps attending some sort of undoing racism training or contributing to an organization aimed at undoing racism.
I realize it isn’t much of an ask, and I can imagine some of my racist friends who talk about how even one of their best friends is black, might participate to convince themselves they aren’t racist, but it is small enough and simple enough to be doable.
When my mother died two years ago, the obituary ended with “In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the International Essential Tremors Foundation. http://www.essentialtremor.org/Home” I don’t remember how many people donated to the IETF in memory of my mother but for the next month the letters I received from IEFT when another person donated proved to be an important point of joy during my grief.
Recently, a friend’s grandson died. “Memorial contributions may be made to the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation.” I shared a link to the obituary and to the PKDF. Another friend lost her nephew at just about the same time. “Donations in his memory may be made to Ron’s Run for the Roses, The Ron Foley Foundation, www.ronsrun.org.”
If more people donated to the battles against essential tremors, polycystic kidney disease, or pancreatic cancer, we could make great progress. Yet these, and so many other diseases get so little attention.
I work in health care communications. I know how hard it is to get anyone’s attention these days. You send out an email and get 10% of the people to open the email, 1% to click on the link and even less than that to do anything. You post something on a Facebook page and get several hundred people to see it, a few to like it, maybe one or two to share it, and almost no one to act on it.
I know, working for a non-profit, and having been very involved in politics, how difficult it is to get people to contribute to anything. For most of us, money is very tight these days and writing a check for $100 can be a big challenge. So, what if we encouraged people who are tight on cash, to contribute what they can in different ways? What if we asked people to contribute $100 to an organization, but if they can’t spare the hundred bucks, they contribute their social capital in spreading the word and asking others to contribute? What if they used something that would get people’s attention to result in a higher conversion rate?
That’s what the Ice Bucket Challenge has done brilliantly. An article in the Sacarmento Bee on August 15th wrote:
Since July 29, the association has received $9.5 million in donations compared to $1.6 million during the same time period last year. The donations were from existing donors and 184,812 new donors.
A friend of mine died from ALS. My daughter, Fiona was challenged by her friends to take the Ice Bucket Challenge. She’s made her video and has shared it.
Yet, there is the expected backlash. Why waste clean water when so many people go without? How about sending the money you spent on ice to the charity instead of wasting the ice? Maybe if the people who protest so much would share the contribution acknowledgement letter they received it would be a little bit more persuasive.
Me? My wife and I both work for nonprofits. Money is tight. We get by. We’re not food insecure, and if things get really bad, we’ve got friends and relatives that can help out. We’ve been paying down our debts and my wife just got a raise, so perhaps someday soon, we’ll be able to contribute more to causes that matter to us. Until then, we’re going to use our social capital however we can.
So please, don’t let the naysayers distract you. Give what you can to organizations like the ALS Association, the International Essential Tremors Foundation, the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation, or The Ron Foley Foundation, even if it is just a little bit of your social capital.
One of the sessions at Podcamp Western Mass a few weeks ago was about social media and education. It was an open discussion hitting a lot of different points, and I found myself approaching it from a contrarian viewpoint that ultimately led me to start considering the idea of the socially constructed digital native.
One of the first people to speak was a college student, who was studying social media, and was frustrated that the courses focused on technical basics of using one social media platform or another, without getting into more important topics like search engine optimization. There was a discussion about how much social media is changing and how some of the social media tools that were discussed may not last more than a couple more years.
Personally, while I recognize some value of search engine optimization, I tend to view much of it as snake oil. I suggested that what is really needed is focusing on skills like understanding the audience and storytelling, because these skills matter, no matter what media is being used.
Others talked about cyber safety issues for kids or social skills like making eye contact, or giving someone your undivided attention. I trotted out Marc Prensky’s idea of the digital native and the digital immigrant and pushed the concept a little further. How much of the ideas that people were talking about were ideas from digital immigrants and how digital natives should live in a digital world?
Are kids without access to social media today viewed the way kids without television were viewed and treated forty years ago? Do we, or should we, value continuous partial attention? How much are these expectations socially constructed? And to the extent that they are socially constructed, how much are digital immigrants trying to maintain old world, analog ways of interacting in a digital world? How much are digital immigrants trying to get their digital native kids to behave as if they still live in the old analog world?
This is not to say that there isn’t value in certain old ways of interacting. The value of understanding your audience remains, whether it is a digital native audience, a digital immigrant audience, or some mixture.
Yet, perhaps, as we talk with people about how to behave digitally, we should take the opportunity to question which actions are really beneficial, as opposed to which actions are done, because that is the way things were always done in the old analog world. Perhaps, instead of prescribing behavior, we should be teaching students how to understand social constructs, and generate new, more pertinent social constructs that can evolve with our evolving technology.