Testing the Deep End

My family gathers every other year in Michigan for a family reunion.  This is often a vacation of sorts for my extended family.  One day is usually set aside for a visit to Lake Michigan for running the sand dunes and swimming.  If you haven’t experienced Lake Michigan in August, beware it’s not as warm as it sounds.  Each of us have developed our own strategies for entering the water.  There is the jump right in approach: Start running about 30 yards from the water’s edge, building up enough speed that once you are in the water there is no turning back.  Some chose the slow and agonizing approach: Walk directly into the water, rather slowly with the body straight as a board without any joint movement.  This one usually entails at least two restarts.  The last variation often takes the form of simple and hesitant touching of the water, usually a toe with the rest of the body showing the clear hesitance in its steep angle away from the water.  Those who chose the toe approach usually get in the water just in time to pack up for the day, if at all.

I imagine that many of us resonate with these approaches to the lake.  What is more, I have the feeling that these responses can also describe our approach to the Groundswell- running in without abandon, resistantly wading, or just testing without any desire for commitment.  Though Li and Bernoff see immersion in the Groundswell as inevitable, they helpfully provide us with tools to make the plunge happen on our terms.  In other words, they are not the crazy uncle calling from the deep end; “Come on in, the water’s fine!”

At the risk of oversimplification, two words seem to me to capture the insights of these two chapters- Study and Strategize.  These two actions provide the tools to make sure our immersion goes smoothly.


Though market analysis is a common practice today, in both secular corporations and ecclesial communities, studies of the Groundswell are significantly more complicated.  Not only are there age demographics to observe, but in each traditional category it is essential to understand what the constituents are doing with social media.  Thus, Li and Bernoff outline six approaches to new media (41-45).  This ladder of participation helps reveal what is happening in social media platforms.  The interesting thing is that the percentages fluctuate depending on the age demographic in question.  To make our study even more complex, in some cases percentages of a demographic overlap.  Simply put, a Joiner can also be a Collector by adding tags to different sites.

What is striking about the data gathered in this kind of study is that participation ranges.  As an example, the blog for the Young Adult Forum has around 70 views when a new post is published.  On any given post, however, we are lucky to have more than two comments.

In order to facilitate such a study, Forester has provided a tool for navigating this complex sets of data.


Unlike in the past, strategy comes second.  It used to be possible to construct a plan or vision, do the demographics and then implement the plan.  Advertising then took the burden of convincing the demographic that such a product was useful or needed.  Now, Li and Bernoff warn us that people come first.  That is the study element of the third chapter.  In chapter four, they further drive this point home in their acronym for planning: POST, People, Objectives, Strategy, Technology(67-68).  By placing People first, it is essential to ask what the constituency is ready for.

It is only after studying the people that we could even begin to establish Objectives.  What is it we want to accomplish with our first toe in the water?  From their corporate marketing perspective, Li and Bernoff name five kinds of activities corporations take on in social media; Listening, Talking, Energizing, Supporting, and Embracing.  Each of these actions consistently echo the relationality of social media.  For our work as a denomination, the last two categories seem most promising, especially given the perceived isolation of many pastors and congregations.

Questions for our consideration:

What does our membership look like in terms of social media use?

We have a number of surveys in process, and talk a lot about the life of the denomination.  What are some ways we can begin supporting and embracing our membership?

Where would you place yourself on the ladder (Creator, Critic, Collector, Joiner, Spectator, Inactive)?  Are there parts of the ladder that make you nervous?


Filed under Book Discussion

2 responses to “Testing the Deep End

  1. Wendy

    Off the top of my head, I would think of myself as more of a spectator. But I maintain a personal Facebook page, use several RSS feeds, am commenting on this blog, use a wiki as part of the Gather ‘Round curriculum project, and do the posting for about four official Brethren fan pages on Facebook. So, according to the definitions, that makes me an occasional joiner, collector, critic, and even creator. I don’t feel that adept!

    As for the denomination as a whole, we don’t have solid stats that are up to date. If I remember right, there were a few Internet-related questions in “Portrait of a People, ” but the data are old enough now (given the speed with which online behavior is changing) that we can’t be sure what that picture looks like today. A Brethren Press curriculum survey in late 2008 showed us to be behind the curve compared to the rest of the population, but that survey wasn’t at all scientific. I do think it’s a good guess, though, that the Brethren as a whole are generally less computer-connected (and thus not as involved in social media) than the rest of the population.

    But one observation: The stats behind the Church of the Brethren Facebook fans show an amazing spread across all age levels–far more evenly spread than our demographics. There are almost identical numbers in every age group. Also interesting: Those who are active (who comment or click the “like” button) skew female and older.

    How can we use social media to support and embrace the membership? I already feel quite inspired by the responses to posts on the fan page–there are connections being made around small pieces of information that, until recently, simply didn’t get conveyed. These 2,800+ people are more connected with what the wider church is about than was possible before. I think there’s plenty of potential and expect these kinds of connections to keep growing and deepening.

    At NYC we’re planning a workshop called “If I were the church’s webmaster.” The point is to pick the brains of the ones who are most at home with social media. (I’m pretty sure that this cohort within the Church of the Brethren is not lagging behind their counterparts in the general population.) I hope we learn a lot.

  2. Joshua Brockway

    Wendy, your comments remind me that at Annual Conference the Brethren, Life and Thought insight session will focus on Technology and Community. If I remember right, the title is “When Brethren Tweet.” I just don’t recall the subtitle at the moment. It will be interesting to see the age spread there.

    Stan D.’s numbers on this series of Webinars and Jim’s numbers on the CoB website could help us here. Each time they have presented their statistics I have been impressed by the number of hits and viewers. The difficult thing is that these stats don’t give us a look at age or style of use. My instinct is that we may not have a large number of creators in terms of internet content, but that spectators probably matches the typical trends. In other words, email addresses and quick checks of the main website are pretty typical of Brethren membership.

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