Tag Archives: Social Media

Twitter Killed the Theology Star

We all know that video killed the radio star, but what about social media? Has Twitter killed the theology star?

Theology has rarely been “in style” but social media has opened a door onto the once insular conversations. There was a line between popular and academic theology. Now, with Twitter and blogs, emerging academics write for an audience outside of the “guild.” At the same time, writers of varying degrees jump into blogging and tweeting as a part of their promotional strategy. In the publishing economy, this is becoming more and more essential. One’s followers in social media is seen as market potential.

The clear benefit is that an “ivory tower” discipline can begin to step out of the tower and speak so others may hear. Theologians can begin to hear their work in conversation with so many more people beyond their fellow specialists. Too many books are published for the dozen our so colleagues in the field. Just look at the footnotes and you can see a conversation between a few people. Engaging a wider population helps to stretch our vocabulary and style while at the same time inform our thinking in ways that the traditional format of guild journals and academic publishing has not yet done.

Yet, social media is also creating a bit of a different culture that brings with it a number of problems. First, it creates an air of conversation that is really non-existent without intentional cultivation. Few writers have been able to actually engage an audience and keep the conversation constructive in the process. Instead of conversation, trolls and ideological one-upmanship tend to dominate the threads. As we have seen, a number of news outlets and journals have shut down the comment sections of their webpages for that very reason.

For those emerging into the field by the nature of their formal education or in a desire to cultivate a following to support future projects, the conversations often feel like nothing more than self-referential. In academic forums this is fairly typical. It is not uncommon to sit in a conference presentation and listen to question after question from graduate students that are more about their own interests than about the paper just presented. It is kind of like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character calls out a first year grad student for his pompous recitation of the basic syllabus. “So you must be in this class, wait until next year when you read these books and you will change your mind.” Yet, in social media, such dismissiveness is akin to heresy. The democratizing assumptions in Twitter and Facebook are such that any attempt to “pull rank” is quickly labeled as mean or patronizing.

The effect is a kind of conversational throat clearing. The theologian has to defer to the readers and commentators in a way that often dismisses his or her own research and expertise. There is no room in social media for a true expert or trained practitioner. Instead, in the chaos of comments, he or she must constantly acknowledge the critiques of readers who often have only read the basic introductions to any one theological topic.

In other instances, when the commenter does have some expertise in a field, the conversation quickly focuses on that person’s understanding. In face-to-face conversations, the expectation of collegiality pushes towards connections and development. Yet, in social media the conversation often sounds like someone trying to make everyone else’s project look like their own. Of course there are ways to show the interrelationships between different theological arguments, often through questions. But the tactics and rhetoric are such that there are sentences of preface in order to not sound like a troll or a random critic.

I am beginning to wonder if Twitter and Facebook can ever really support the kind of conversation they seem to capitalize on. All we need to do is look at the number of headlines that basically say “Look at what this person said on the internet, how stupid can they be!” Or, skim the Twitter feed and see how many “gotcha” tweets have been posted in the last 30 minutes. The nature of short, pithy, and decontextualized statements the likes of Tweets and Facebook posts is based in the soundbite culture of our media. While substantive discourse can emerge, such conversation has to be filtered through the noise of trolls, snark, and flat out error. In short, the energy expended in filtering our the static quickly outweighs the benefits of the media itself. The end result is a social media “persona” that is just as one-directional (“Here is what I think on this subject”) as traditional publishing has been for centuries. Either respond to all the comments, or don’t. To filter out the dregs of trolls and off-handed remarks runs the risk of looking too self-concerned.

For those in Anabaptists circles, social media gives the feel of community when all that really exists is a connection. We often insert our expectations for high church community where relationships are a significant part of our theology, and assume that these connections give us place to confront or converse. However, community in social media is a rarity, and takes effort to cultivate. Just because you are friends on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter does not give one the capacity to “call out” or for that matter to question. In the end, such questions or comments are just more noise to filter. And when the comment or critique that we think is substantial is filleted with the dregs, it becomes personal or the silence becomes a statement made about the character of the other.

In the first centuries of Christianity, Tertullian famously asked (with a bit of rhetorical irony) “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem.” Maybe it is time to ask a similar question. What does Twitter have to do with Theology? Maybe it hasn’t killed the theology star, but it is importing expectations into the conversation that may not have been there in other media. Maybe social media in general is creating a false sense of community, giving connections the weight of true relationships. This veneer, however, is quickly shattered when someone does not respond as we think they ought. This is not to say that community cannot be encouraged, or even cultivated on-line, but rather such communities are the outliers, and thus the exception that proves the rule. Building relationships through social media takes just as much effort, if not more given the lack of context and non-verbals, as building them in face-to-face conversation.

So then, the irony should be clear. Here I am writing about the pitfalls of social media on a blog that will be shared through Twitter and Facebook. The question, then, is to you: What of theology in the social media landscape?

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Print and Power

History is clear that who ever can communicate defines the ideas and outcomes of a each age. The Reformation is the perfect example of the impact of a communication medium on the social landscape. As ideas could more easily be shared through pamphlets printed on movable type presses rather than hand copied tomes, the people began to take control of their own spiritual lives. In fact, it is no coincidence that translations of the scriptures flourished as they could be accessed in homes and not just the local cathedral.

The dark side of this historical maxim is that those who control the means of production, control the ideas and their dissemination. In simple terms, the printers took the power to speak from the abbots and bishops. It is no wonder that, in the age of the internet, there is a sea change in who speaks for the culture. In essence, there is a cacophony of voices all competing for attention and supremacy.

The television editorialists like Olbermann, Beck, and Maddow are clear examples of this speech battle, but it goes much beyond our flickering screens.  News writers vie with politicians for appropriate language for new events, trying to define the public consciousness through print and spoken word.  Underneath this struggle for listening ears is a market place where words are judged based on the power gained or the dollars accumulated.

Lest we think this is a 21st century development, the same was the case for the Reformation.  In that age, not only was the Church at war with itself over theological ideas and practice, secular leaders and bishops competed for the monetary allegiance of the people.  The most convincing speaker won the economic clout of the people.  For example, Luther’s critique of indulgences was not just a theological one but an economic challenge.  The buying and selling of grace was a form of economic oppression of the laity.  The princes of the day often sided with the reformer aware that money once dedicated to the Church would now be freed for local expansion of powers.  This was indeed possible now that publication was possible for everyone, not just the literate clerics in their scriptoriums.

Little has changed in the 16th century.  The Church continues this war of words and ideas through the printed medium.  Our congregations are often the front lines of this power struggle.  There, the words and ideas deemed orthodox by leaders are disseminated through official publications.  At the same time, market driven publications, both secular and religious, compete for the allegiance of the members.

The early modern view of information, then, is still pervasive within our religious structures.  Even for as democratizing as the Radical Reformation was, it has continued to assume an official voice can define the ideas and practices of a diverse church.  The rise of social networking and internet communication is radically challenging this assumption.  Now, even most hierarchical traditions, are faced with the expansive diversity of the once unified Church.  All it takes is a few minutes with Google to read of communities and individuals who have tenuous connections to the traditions which they claim.

The knee jerk reaction is to increase the forms of official speech by translating previous ideas into multiple media.  In a way its the same practice with added layers of production. Yet, the fundamental sense that words trickle down and form people without relationship or attention to their context is still present.  Unfortunately, this just adds to the flood of words, the battle for attention and allegiance.  In a way, the Church becomes just one more voice among the pundits.  The unfortunate result is that people will not weigh the ideas, but gravitate to the ideas that are the most familiar, or the one who speaks “just like me.”


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Digital Discernment

Not too long ago Apple ran into the negative side of the digital revolution they themselves have fueled.  Soon after releasing their long anticipated new phone, consumers soon struggled with their new gadget.  The PR problem soon escalated when Consumer Reports confirmed the problems.  Apple, known for its tight-lipped protocols, barely acknowledged the reports.  That is until the problem reached their own cyber-community at apple.com.  Soon it became clear that any mention of the phone’s problems in the support forum were being deleted.  In the print age such Machiavellian practice would have gone unnoticed, but the internet has a way of revealing even the deepest secrets.

In chapters 5 and 6 of Groundswell Li and Bernoff help describe how Apple has so misunderstood its own digital medium.  Basically they have forgotten that people use internet.  The remedy for such amnesia is simple: Active Listening. In a marketing culture, such a shift is significant, but fundamental to navigating the groundswell effect (125).  For those of us in the Church today, this may seem like old news.

Or is it?  Terms like marketing, brand management, and even spin control may not be in our vocabulary, or have much theological grounding, but they have made their way into our thinking.  The latest press coverage of the Vatican’s handling of the sex abuse allegations reveals just how much PR defines how we as the Church interact with society.

Li and Bernhoff make it clear in chapters 5 and 6 that the groundswell has changed how organizations, denominational or corporate, interact with the public.  The Vatican and Apple exhibit a control or management approach while Li and Bernhoff talk about listening and response.  It is striking that, given the critique of digital isolation on the internet,  such a listening posture assumes that people are on the other side of the wire.  This is evident throughout the language of listening, responding, and community throughout the book.  The groundswell asks us to interact with our public, not to act funnels of information and resources.

We as Brethren appear to do a lot of listening, but how much do we actually engage our fellow brothers and sisters?  By sharing information we often think we are communicating, but in our groundswell culture publicity and marketing are akin to shouting in someone’s face.  As Li and Bernoff write; “The transition from shouting to conversation will challenge your marketing department” (125).  The primary posture then, is one of active listening.

The Quakers help us, as people of faith, live into this new posture through the practice of a Clearness Committee.  This model of shared discernment is a terrific model for engaging the groundswell.  Rather than managing the conversation, the clearness model puts the community in the position of asking questions before making declarations.  Two things emerge as the questions and responses flow.  First, the other is acknowledged and affirmed.  His or her perspective and ideas are valued.  Second, the hierarchy implicit in a management model disappears in favor of collaboration, of a common search for understanding.  As Elizabeth Drescher commented in her article on simple living: ” Maybe we’re practicing a new mode of engagement that the apparent simplicity of Amish life allows us– and perhaps them– to more safely envision.”

Questions for our consideration

How do we listen to the groundswell?

In what ways are we already listening?  How are we responding, from a management perspective or as a Clearness Committee?

What are some ways we can engage the people already talking about the Church of the Brethren in the groundswell?

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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.

Study

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.

Strategize

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?

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Defining the Groundswell

Even a new pastor is quick to learn that congregational business often doesn’t end after the closing prayer.  The conversation just moves to the parking lot.  So it should not surprise us when Li and Bernoff warn that “your company’s customers are talking about your brand right now on MySpace, probably in ways you haven’t approved.” (8)  Yet, given the rapid growth of social networking and the internet, its easy to miss the fact that the conversation has moved from the parking lot to cyberspace.  It may not have worried us a few years ago as people sent emails to one another praising or panning the Church of the Brethren, it should give us pause today.  Now, given the public nature of social media and the ability to disseminate opinion and resources so publicly, we must account for this new wave of interaction.

So then, what are we facing in this second generation of the internet, Web 2.0.  Li and Bernoff are pretty clear that “power” or energy in this new digital age is at the bottom, at the grassroots.  They have coined the term “Groundswell” to help make this new life visible.  Groundswell, in their parlance, is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.” (9)  Note that the phenomenon is not about advertising or brand management, but rather utility.  People locate, download, and use the content of the internet for their own purposes to serve their own needs.  No amount of advertising can sway such use.  Think of Facebook.  How many billboards or commercials have you seen for Facebook in the last week?

As good Brethren we probably bristle a bit at all the business lingo involved in this conversation.  Brand, image management are all words and concepts with speak of commerce and seem not to be translatable to Church-speak.  Yet, if we look closer, I think we can see that these very concepts have impacted our way of understanding the denomination.  Though we avoid the ideas of persuasion, it seems to me that we do have a kind of trickle down perspective to our work.  We produce and distribute resources for consumption by our constituents, much as our corporate counterparts do in the secular market place.

It is striking to me that despite the commerce jargon, the Groundwell perspective is more akin to our relational theology.  This is clear when as Li and Bernoff note that it is more important to “concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies.” (18)  In other words, its not about Facebook or Convio, but what those platforms can do for the higher strategy of building relationships, relationships between CoB membership themselves and between the members and ourselves as denominational ministers.  A technology or platform is not judged by its corporate payoffs, but by its utility in building relationships.  “If it’s designed well, people will use it.  They’ll tell their friends to use it.  They’ll conduct commerce, or read the news, or start a popular movement, or make loans to each other, or whatever the site is designed to facilitate.” (13)

So then, how are we understand the uses of our technologies?  In other words, what are people doing in the Groundswell?  In chapter 2 we finally get a view on what is happening in the grassroots of the internet.  In essence people are creating content, connecting and collaborating with others, reacting to and organizing other media.  We must ask if the platform enable connections, effortless to sign up, shift power to people, community contribute content to sustain it, is it open to invite partnership. (36-37)

Questions for our consideration:

What are your initial reactions to this way of understanding social networking?

What struck you as you read these first two chapters?

Are there some notes of caution to keep in mind?

What would have to change in the way you as a denominational minister interact with social media given the Groundswell perspective?

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