Social Media: A New Country

Ellen submits a very interesting comment. She says,

Dear Peacebang, maven of all internet social media, there IS something about this “hot mess” I would love to hear your advice about, and now that you’ve broached the subject, perhaps you’ll indulge me!

So, I have been watching this “hot mess” and thinking about nasty church politics–you know, when there’s some hot conflict between some church leaders and some of them say things outside those meetings they should have saved for face-to-face private sessions and soon everybody has an opinion and there’s about 15 different stories about what happened (despite a membership of under 60), people are divided into camps, no one knows who to trust, and there’s rampant triangulation?

I’m sure you’ve been there or somewhere near it. I know the standard advice and have had some minor success in helping church leaders understand–go directly to the leader with your concerns, if you don’t find satisfaction follow the outlined appropriate process, but please do not triangulate and gossip.
So, my question is, how do we as dedicated and committed church folks use social media appropriately when our larger body starts dissolving into politics that feel very much like the above nasty church politics? Your post trying to bring some sanity has made room for discussion that is both useful (clarifying bylaw issues) and not so much. (e.g. I always question the word always 🙂 )

not doing or saying things, of course, does nothing to interfere with the easy way the internet serves as a fertility drug for wild gossip mongering, innuendo, and conspiracy theories. I would love to hear your advice on this conundrum!

Dear Ellen,

What a great question. And I have a response that isn’t at all wise but is certainly experienced and honest.

Social media is a brand new thing. Even the internet is a relatively Brand New Thing, and we have no idea yet how to use it as perfectly as we might, or as we ought. But I am hopeful.  Riffing on the great Theodore Parker quote, “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice,” I would say that the moral arc of the internet will be long but I hope it will bend toward goodness. At least as it is used by religious communities. It will always be a space for the brutal expression of nasty, ignorant opinions on celebrity sites and such. But we are people who are trying to be in right relationship, and we ought to be asking the questions you’ve asked and working to use this technology well.

I remember when I first came into ministry 15 years ago we were all new at e-mail. And we freaked out about it almost daily. No one knew how to “read” each other without the inflection of a voice or the benefit of face-to-face interaction. Terse, get-‘er-done type e-mails were interpreted as rude. Some people over-shared and expected recipients to slog through pages of reflections on last night’s meeting; an abuse of others’ time and patience (I’m pointing at myself and going, “guilty as charged!” And I still do it!). We all had nightmare experiences of pressing “send all” when we meant to respond to only one person. We all made the mistake of trying to have important conversations via e-mail that had no business being attempted through such an impersonal medium. Another bad practice I remember was the expectation of instantaneous response to e-mail: parishioners in one of my former congregations would call the church office and say, “Where is Vicki? I sent her an e-mail 15 minutes ago and she hasn’t responded yet.”

It was nuts.

After a good 5-10 years of behaving like a bunch of squirrels, we figured out how to use e-mail more effectively. We use it to send minutes, to set up meetings, and to disperse general information. We don’t try to do important church business through e-mail.

And then comes social media. Blogging. Facebook. Twitter. The playing field gets much broader and more democratic and the leadership that emerges is not an elected one but a sort of “blogocracy,” where lively writers with something interesting to say and an interesting way of expressing themselves gather the biggest readership around them and become important voices in the movement.

I applaud this development, as I had long been frustrated by the lack of diversity in the party-line UUA and started blogging myself partly as a way to air a minority opinion.  The fact that I found a large readership confirms for me what I suspected all along, which is that many religious people are frustrated by the group-think often perpetuated by denominational structures. They  go away from conferences or congregations feeling like it’s just they who have the sneaking suspicion that even these religious liberals are quite doctrinaire and devoted to ideological purity. They wonder how self-described “open and affirming” movements could be so controlling and their theologies so ill-defined.

I started blogging as a way to confront this issue, as well as to take on subjects that were just fun for me, like movie and book reviews, fashion, travel, political commentary and personal reminiscences. As a single pastor in a small town that shuts down early, I also started blogging as a way to have someone to talk to at night, or in the early morning when my mind was so full of things that I needed some way to sort them all out.

That was seven years ago, and the blogosphere back then was like the Wild West, with lots of strangers riding into town on their horses and trying to take stake claims. It really could get emotionally violent in these forums, and I participated in that, and I repent of it.  Whenever someone came onto my blog and said “You can’t say that/think that/believe that,” I lassoed them and dragged them out of the ring by their heels. We were shooting off our mouths like guns and picking up bodies in the street every day.  It was a rough-and-tumble time.

The fact is, however, that the internet is a Darwinian environment where the strong voices prevail and the milder ones fail to thrive, and eventually die off. I have read my share of nice ministry blogs and I find them like Snapple iced tea: just too sweet to tolerate. Social media is most undeniably a different milieu than social gatherings. It has a different energy, it has a different urgency, it has a snap, crackle and pop to it, it is exciting, it is quicksilver, it is geared to those with a (often generational) preference for irony, snark and cleverness. It is the literary child of Madison Avenue and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Pithy, memorable lines are cherished and shared, and if something doesn’t grab your attention in 5 seconds you change the channel.

Which is to say, Ellen, as I manically mix my metaphors, that social media is a new country and it will take awhile for it to develop its own form of governance. Current forms will not do. As you may know, I have made a serious scholarly study of the covenant tradition and recently wrote my doctoral dissertation on the congregational covenant idea. If anyone would be a champion for applying the concept of congregational covenant to social media, it would probably be me. However, I don’t think that is the answer.

The act of crafting a covenant together requires discernment, something that cannot be facilitated in an on-line setting. What I have noticed over the years, in fact, is that social media is about instant reaction rather than measured reflection. As a fast-speaking, fast-thinking type, this is mostly fine with me. Or perhaps I should say, “It is what it is.” I write my posts quickly and people react just as quickly. It is an ephemeral art form. I feel sorry for those bloggers who painstakingly author long and thoughtful posts that get instant negative response. I want to say, “Look, don’t do that to yourself. Write from the heart, put something out there, start a conversation. It’s not a thesis. It’s not going on your gravestone. Share your thoughts and go have a life. Let there be a lively interplay between your ministry and your blogging. If they don’t feed each other, give up blogging.”

So if we are to apply the covenant concept to the social media sphere (something I gather many reading your letter might be interested in, Ellen), that covenant would necessarily be crafted by people getting together in a room, coming up with the words and promises, and then putting them out online. That’s one way to try to govern this new country.

But I don’t think it would work.

I think what works is for all of us to learn from experience, and to share our experiences. There have been times that I have reached out and apologize to someone I inadverdently hurt through my blogging, and there are times I lashed out at someone who tried to chastise or control me for daring to have an opinion with which they did not approve. In the latter case, those individuals were always the first to complain that I was violating a covenant of right relations, while really what they were saying is that they were offended by my opinion, and resented my airing it.

A covenant is not an instrument of social control. I have seen a lot of people try to use it that way, and I hesitate to join the conversation about “covenanting” around social media ONLY BECAUSE I know the kind of personalities who are often drawn to such projects. They are the kind of people who like to sit in a room all day and earnestly parse sentences that result in a Big Statement they think everyone should care about once they have done crafting it.

Covenants are for people who are in relationship with each other in community. They are initiated by the God who calls us into community and articulated by humans who want to live well in community. If I thought that a committee of people could craft a covenant that would not simply be a set of rules meant to control and constrict the independent spirit of social media, I would heartily embrace the project. But I have my doubts. Two of my my favorite Twitteurs, both of whom delightfully and anonymously skewer Unitarian Universalist PC culture, would no doubt be censured by a “covenant” of social media.

And so what to do?

You yourself have suggested the wisest course of action, and that is person-to-person confrontation and conversation. Pick up the phone. Send an e-mail. Remind each other that there are emotional consequences to our online utterances.  Call a friend and call them back from the edge of over-sharing. Roll with the punches. Understand that social media is a public arena and be ready to show up on a site if your words are being taken out of context or your reputation besmirched. Notice that the courts are still figuring out how to deal with the internet and be patient as we all find our way together.

I was recently introduced at a conference as a “pioneer” in social media. As I laughingly rejoined, “That means I don’t know what I’m doing.” And that is true. None of us does. But as I said earlier, there is a “blogocracy” of sorts, and you have paid me the honor of calling me a maven of all social media. I am not, I promise you, but I am one who has put herself whole-heartedly out on the internet with the hope of inspiring, challenging and ministering to, a virtual parish of anyone who cares to read and to participate.

Today I am going to have tea in London with a reader of one of my blogs. I am in London in the first place only because of relationships I established through blogging. I am preaching to and sharing conversation with communities who were introduced to my work through the internet.  On Friday I will journey an hour outside of London to have dinner and a conversation with a group of clergy who are also readers.

This is a real thing, this social media thing. We who have been using it seriously know that our lives are the better for it, and that we are true friends and kindred spirits even if our relationships conducted almost exclusively online. When I landed at Heathrow Airport ten days ago and was fetched by a driver and brought to a beautiful flat near Hampstead Heath, the door opened to a total stranger whose arms were open wide to take me in.  She is a reader and now a friend, and her welcome stance of arms open is a perfect metaphor for how I hope I, and all of us, can live in this new country.

We are all still learning. Meanwhile, I hope that we can be resilient, brave and bold, write AND read generously, forge real bonds of love and fellowship online, and have fun, for God’s sake.

To heal and not to harm,

to serve You, Spirit of Wisdom,

God of Love.





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