Thursday, November 15, 2012

Breaker 1-9: Get Off My Cyber-Lawn With Your Twitbook!

CODD (Crusty Old Dean's Dad) was an interesting guy.  He had an incredible mind for spatial thinking.  When he joined the Marines, he took the standard battery of tests.  One of them was to look at designs, and be asked to draw them in different contexts -- for instance, stuff like "take these lines, assemble them into a shape, rotate it 90 degrees, and draw what it would look like."  He did so well they thought he cheated, gave him another version of the test again while being watched, and he did even better.  He was assigned to ordnance, and fused atomic bombs.  That's the kind of brain you want putting triggers into explosives.  Later, he owned a printing factory and was a veritable savant with machines:  he could look at them and see things others didn't, fix them using duct tape and rubber bands, attach them together to make assembly lines more efficient, and so on.

It's no myth.  Rock stars did look like this in the 1980s.
But he met his match in the 1980s:  he just could not understand that computers were not like, say, a carburetor.    Let me give you an example:  Dad bought an Apple II in the early 1980s, later bought a dot matrix printer, the kind that you feed those long rolls of paper with holes on the edges into, that had a ribbon kind of like a typewriter (Millennials, bear with Crusty -- as an Gen Xer, I'm caught between two worlds and forced to be bilingual in Boomer and Millennial).  Even later in the 1980s, he upgraded, this time to a PC.  I was home from college on vacation, and he hollered at me to come downstairs and help him.

He had the dot matrix printer and his new PC on the kitchen table.  "What are you doing?" I asked.  "I'm going to hook this printer up to this computer."  "You can't do that," I said.  He looked up, seemingly offended.  "Why not?" he asked indignantly.  "Because you can't."  I held up the cable for the printer.  "This is the end you plug into the computer," I said.  "Now look at where you plug it into the computer."  They were differently configured SCSI connections.  They physically could not connect to one another, any more than you could connect a firehose to a stethoscope.  He looked absolutely befuddled, and I half expected him to reach for rubber hands and a hammer.  "You mean there's nothing we can do?" he asked. "Well, you could buy a new printer," I said.  "Why would I do that, this one works perfectly fine!" he half-shouted in frustration.

Some hot male on male SCSI action, circa 1989.
I sometimes wonder if we are at a similar crossroads with understanding social media.  And I mean this as something that goes beyond my grandmother not being able to know how to set the digital clock we bought her (she would just unplug it and plug it back it at midnight whenever the power went out or daylight savings came or went).  Something akin to my dad's dilemma:  it wasn't a question of just not knowing about different SCSI configurations.  The whole paradigm had shifted, and while a computer was, in one way, a machine, it was, in so many other ways, something so much more varied: transforming how we think, communicate, organize, and know the world around us.

Let me give a different example.  Crusty, along with a whole host of research on the millennial generation and Gen Z (the ones after the millennials; what we name the next generation will be interesting now that we've reached Z, Crusty is pushing for Generation Captain Hammer) is convinced that social media has already profoundly transformed key elements and aspects of our interactions.  How do we understand community?  Or friendship?  Friends are no longer just people you accidentally stumble across; I met one of my best friends of the past twenty-five years by the sheer random chance that he was assigned the room next to me in college.  Years later, I was at a party in the 1990s and was standing in line for the bathroom -- this was a house party, with 100 people crammed into a 1000 sq foot house with one bathroom, so yeah, there was a line.  I'm a closet music geek, and my roommate at the time was the same guy I had become friends with mainly because we were randomly assigned room next to one another and found we liked a lot of the same things.  At that time, he and I were into obscure girl groups from the 1950s and early 1960s -- the Poni-Tails, Bob B. Sox and the Blue Jeans, and so on.  In a pre-Spotify world, we scoured old records stores in the African American parts of the city to buy vintage R&B 45s, since a lot of this stuff was out of print, and when we found them,  we would then put on cassette tapes.  There were songs we knew were out there from reading old Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Robert Christgau articles but just hadn't found yet.  Anyway I was humming something while waiting for the bathroom and the guy behind me asked, "Are you humming 'Angel Baby' by Rosie and the Originals?'"  As we started talking, he thought he was the only person into obscure girl groups from 1955-1964.  I dashed out of line, even though I had to pee, grabbed my roommate, and said, quoting Yoda from Return of the Jedi (before we called it Episode VI), "There is another Skywalker."  I dragged him into the other room, but by the time we fought our way back through the crowd, the guy was gone.  I began to wonder if he had even existed, and my roommate and I were back to being the only people who knew Darlene Love first sang in The Blossoms.

On almost every level, that story simply doesn't make sense anymore, from the 45s to cassette tapes to me not being able to text my friend to come over and meet this new guy to reading about music in print newsletters to not being able to find people into the same stuff as you to being able to afford to live in that section of town anymore.  Really, the only part still true is having to wait in lie to pee at house parties.  Relationships are now based perhaps as much on common interests as sheer accident, and we able to connect and form relationships through means inconceivable even five years ago.

What does it mean for us who got our first computer at age 50?  Or age 30?  Or 5?  And to be clear, again, this isn't like grandma and her digital clock:  this is not about proficiency or facility with technology.  People will always have these differences, there will be young Luddites and older people who are tech savvy.  I regularly get emails from an 84 year old alumnus of the seminary where I teach, and when I was a college chaplain I knew young adults who refused to be on Facebook or get a smartphone (granted, not many, but they exist).  Crusty is talking on a macro scale:  what does it mean to have no experience of anything but a post-9/11 world shaped by the internet and social media?  Just as in pre-Civil Rights movement days people were shaped by and lived within the boundaries of as segregated world, whether they were black or white, racist or not; just like geopolitics was shaped by the USA-Soviet dualistic Cold War whether you lived in Poland, Peoria, or Papua New Guinea, we are all shaped by this new world.

What's important for us in the church is that these changes have staggering implications for so many things: how we understand institutions being one of them.  Crusty's a historian by trade, and a simple fact is this: when society changes, the church changes.  When Constantine converted to Christianity, and it eventually became the only legal established religion, the church ended up looking different in the year 400 than it did in 300.   The North American context of the USA and Canada has profoundly altered the transplanted traditions from European contexts; one of the pre-eminent works in American religious history is 'Old Religion in a New World,' and breaks down in detail those dynamics.  The world has been transformed again in the past 30 years with a confluence of changes -- personal computers, the internet, globalization, social media, among others.  Thus the church is going to change, because the society has already changed.

This matters for the church, because we organize ourselves in institutions (denominations, physical churches) and try to create community.  Well, social media has transformed notions of community and institution.  Think on it.  A certain kind of person would join certain kind of institutions -- Catholic men of a certain age and social class would join Knights of Columbus, Protestants the Masons or Elks, women of a certain age or social class would join the Junior League or DAR or whatever.  Churches, more often that not, functioned in a not dissimilar way: they were at times as much markers of class and social identity; as Niebuhr pointed out in his "Social Sources of American Denominationalism," American denominationalism reproduced the caste systems of American society.  It was over FIFTY YEARS ago that Gibson's seminal work "Suburban Captivity of the Churches" was published.  Paradigms based on churches as membership-based organizations are untenable in the age of social media.  We can roll our eyes and say, "C'mon, the DAR and Elks are not us."  Will people in 50 years look at a congregation in a building with a congregation across the street that believes 90% of the same stuff and roll their eyes and say, "Can you believe people filled out pledged cards and sat on endless committees?"  Who are we to presume our current incarnation of the church in its externals is normative?  Will institutions become extensions of people, and shape them as much as being shaped by them?

Let me give another example:  Crusty was giving a talk to an organization which he will not name, trying to get across the need for institutional change and transformation:  you can't simply lament young people are not joining your committees, I told them.  You've got to find out what they want to do, and let them reshape this organization with you.  Otherwise you'll simply die out when this generation dies out; shaking your fist and wondering why people don't just join one of your organization's committees and wait five years before any of their ideas will be considered is not a growth model.  I then shared the story about two young people who fell into a drain (I heard it on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me).  The first thing they did?  Update their Facebook status.  This elicited howls of laughter when I told it; it did when it was discussed on Wait Wait.  Scattered comments in that room about those whacky kids and their Facebook.  Once the laughter subsided I then asked this group, straightfaced (I had not been laughing, I think this is an important example). Why did they do it?  Silence, a stray comment about how kids aren't connected to reality, more silence.  I then said, "No, they did it so their friends would know where they were and not be worried.  It was the quickest, easiest, most efficient way to do so.  Then they called 9-1-1."

Where are we?  Like my Dad with the dot matrix printer and the slightly less ancient new computer?

I sometimes see disconnects in the church, centered around the realization that social media is here, but not an understanding of how best to use it, or an inkling of how profoundly it has already reshaped understandings of institutions and community.  To give but one example, the odd attempts to ban tweeting at public meetings in the Episcopal Church.  At the House of Bishops last summer, for instance, the bishops were forbidden to tweet.  Now I could understand this in private, closed session, and would certainly expect people to understand and respect the need for confidentiality, and then end up leaking things the old fashioned way after the meeting is over.  But in public session?  At one point the PB solemnly intoned into the microphone, with several hundred people including  media present, "I believe the Bishop of X is tweeting, and ask him to stop."  Crusty thought this was amusing because, of course, to notice this, one had to be on social media.  COD thought it would have been more appropriate for someone to tweet the bishop to stop tweeting.  At one point, an usher was walking around, trying to stop people in the gallery, in a public meeting, from tweeting.  COD honestly can't comprehend the absurdity of forbidding people from tweeting from open and public meetings.

And besides, wouldn't you want people to know more about your organization and what it does?

This week, there has been a gathering of the Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards of the Episcopal Church (CCABs).  Following it on Twitter, it seemed like General Convention, Part 2: an uneasy coexistence of old communication and new communication (which isn't that new anymore).  Lots of buzz about a tweet-up, as if this was something new and extraordinary -- one tweet actually asked, "It would be nice to have tweets about what is happening rather than a tweet up is happening."  Crusty nearly dropped his phone he laughed so hard reading that one, since in many ways it perfectly encapsulating this dynamic.  Have we really considered how it reflects the ends of our transformed reality, or is social media still a means to something we haven't figured out?

To give another example, Crusty was struck by a posting on Episcopal Cafe.  The cafe posted a long list of tweets from the CCAB gathering.  It looked so odd to scroll through this long list of tweets, because tweets flow from one another and immediately from the events that they are responding to.  The reason you live tweet a sermon is because you are there communicating it to people who are not; otherwise, after the fact, you might as well ask the person who preached it to post their text somewhere.  Tweets are inherently occasional and contextualized.  I don't mean this in any way as a criticism of the Cafe folks; they are some of the most media savvy people I've come across.  Rather, this is just what struck me scrolling through this seemingly endless list of tweets:  the way you participate in a tweet up by participating in a tweet up, not reading about it.  I can't imagine anyone being able to understand what Twitter is from the Cafe posting who doesn't know what Twitter is already.   To be presented in this format struck Crusty almost like someone so excited about learning Spanish they travel to Montreal to speak it.   Or once you find out how a computer works you throw up the binary code onto your blog for others to see.  Spanish is a language but the context is important, only people who speak Spanish understand it.  Computers do work on code, but the code presented to people who don't understand how computers work doesn't do much.

What would it truly mean to let our committee and organization structure be shaped by social media?  As it now stands, our denominational governance is, in essence, an oligarchy.  I don't mean that pejoratively, it's literally true: a small group of people govern the church.  A small group of people who have the luxury to take two weeks off in the middle of the summer make up General Convention deputies.  In between Conventions, legislative and program work is channeled through a smaller group of people, the aforemenionted CCABs, which have enormous influence in shaping the agenda for the next General Convention.   These CCAB members are, in turn, appointed (with some exceptions, like the Executive Council -- read your canons!) by precisely two people, the President of the House of Deputies (who, in turn, is only elected by clergy and lay deputies from the floor and from among their number) and the Presiding Bishop (who, in turn, is only elected by bishops, but at least confirmed by deputies and nominated by a committee which includes clergy, bishops, and lay persons).

Let's take a specific example of what it might mean actually to let ourselves be shaped by these understandings of networks and community.  The Nominating Committee for the next Presiding Bishop is one of these CCABs.  This is a committee which is elected at each General Convention, even when there is no election planned in the upcoming triennium, in order to act in case of vacancy (remember since it became an elected position, more than one died in office and one resigned before a term was up).  This obviously takes more importance in a year like 2012.  Since an election of Presiding Bishop will be held in 2015, considerably more attention gets paid to this group.  Questions abound.  What are they looking for in a Presiding Bishop?  What do we think the church needs in a Presiding Bishop? What's the timeline for their work?  Do any of us know this?  Will there be any communication, or will the nominees just appear, as they have in the past?

What if they crowdsourced some of these questions -- what do people think we need in a PB for the church at this place and time?  What would it mean to utilize social media not just as a tool, to throw up a Facebook page, but to engage constituencies, offer transparency, create buy-in and consensus, maybe even learn something or show the world who we are and how we operate?

Odder still when many in the Episcopal Church can't see the way in which we are a pyramidical, hierarchical structure, yet consistently paint ourselves as one of the purest models of democratic governance.  If I hear one more time the General Convention is perhaps the largest democratically elected governing body in the world, I'll puke; it's not true (the ELCA Churchwide Assembly and United Methodist General Conference are bigger), it's not representative (it does not reflect the society as a whole, let alone the church as whole, since it is overwhelmingly old and white), and at times it is as much hierarchical and centralized as democratic (aforementioned oligarchy).

Crusty noted this in a lot of recent discussion about the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.  For instance, while at diocesan convention last weekend, at the bar, several people asked Crusty how an Archbishop of Canterbury gets chosen.  For the full details, go here; Crusty broke it down for this group of 8-10 clergy and lay people.  It was kind of like telling that story about the kids who fell down the drain:  lots of rolling of eyes and finally one of the clergypersons said, "Thank God we don't have that secretive, closed process."  To which I said, "How much do you know about how the Presiding Bishop is nominated, and how much of a say do you have in that process?"

So what does it all mean?  It means in part we're in a profound generational shift in the church.  I don't mean that one generation is better than another or one needs to get out and let others take over, though Crusty is sure that's how some people will read all of this.  Boomers, Xers, Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Captain Hammer need to co-create something together, not presume there is one, single, paradigm that is normative anymore -- because guess what, there's another generation coming along that we haven't named yet after Generation Captain Hammer!   No generation is the "future" or the "past": we all ARE the church, right here, right now.   CODW (Crusty Old Dean's Wife) is passionate, committed, and articulate about youth and young adult ministry and Christian Formation.  She is often told, more or less, "That's great, children are the future of the church."  CODW always find a way to correct that to "No, children and young adults are the church, and, further, all of us, no matter our age, needs formation and discipleship."

Crusty at Thanksgiving dinner (warning: not actual photo).
So it's not about one generation over and against one another.  Since we are the church, we need to BE the church together.  Millennials need to understand how institutions are helpful in furthering goals -- you can put up all the online petitions you want, but more substantive organization is essential to effect change.  Boomers need to get just how different things are, this isn't like not knowing how to work a DVR or which input button lets you watch DVDs on TV.  Because it's not a matter of choice (you can always choose not to watch a DVD but read a book), because social media has ALREADY transformed so many things that impact the church, perhaps most important being understandings of community.   Xers, I think, can serve an important bridge function in how we straddle the divide between Boomers and Millennials -- I said to a colleague once I felt my whole ministry might be like the Steward of Gondor from Lord of the Rings (well, without the homicidal mental illness): striving to preserve something until the King (the Millenials and Gen Z) comes to claim and transform it.   How much of the church can we preserve, how can we let what we have and know and are, be resources to the Millennials and Generation Z?  The church has looked very, very different from age to age:  from house churches in Dura Europos in the third century to a Gothic Cathedral in the 13th to Methodist circuit riders in the 19th, and so on.  The 21st century church will look very, very different from the 20th century church.

And I say, God help us.  Will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation?  The next decade, and the way we can embrace these transformations, will determine much of that.  We don't have five years to figure out if the Twitbook is the CB radio of the 2010s.


  1. "This matters for the church, because we organize ourselves in institutions (denominations, physical churches) and try to create community. Well, social media has transformed notions of community and institution."

    I think the transformative nature of social media is a distraction from what is impacting communal life in the American church.

    One of the many things I like about going to church is that it is one of a few occasions when I can talk at length with people in older generations. The men's group at my parish ranges from nearly 30 year old me to the scions of the men who modernized my current home (now in their mid 80s). When they talk about loss of community, they do not talk about social media. They talk about how their close friends and relatives have moved thirty miles north and might as well live in a different world.

    You might counter that social media is transforming how we interact with another so as to remove those barriers to community our transportation infrastructure has created. I think it is simply creating new ones.

    I'm nearly 30, and I'm finding myself in a bit of a bind. The instability of my career keeps me moving around the country. I have been lucky that my previous two moves have been to walkable communities replete with people my age who share some of my diverse interests. And when I wanted to date, I could do so awkwardly by asking out people I knew in real life.

    My next move has taken me to a more balkanized area, though relatively urban by American standards. And under the circumstances, I joined an online dating web site. One of the women with whom I conversed said effectively that I was not likely to actually get a date from such a site. Talking to people online just makes them feel less lonely. She's been right. The closest I came was when the final arrangements were about to be made, and I discovered that the woman in question had deleted her account. This is a typical experience for most of my friends.

    What's interesting is that many of my "matches" claim to be active in the churches that are supposedly more in touch with the needs of young people and more successful at promoting heterosexual marriage among their members. I can understand their desperation. What community there is in this area is centered around householdership and children.

    Something is missing in how my generation dates and mates, or gets to know their neighbors. And the older generations are seeing their former communities become impoverished.

    My guess is that humans affiliate by "sharing space," as Fr. Cramer once put it. Social media is helping us maintain communities that formed locally in non-local space, but it's not creating communities organically. And the latter process is what the church and the U.S. desperately need.

  2. Thanks for the really thoughtful reflections, Caelius -- and Crusty agrees completely. By "transform" I didn't mean to imply "replace" but acknowledge that dynamics have changed. What we absolutely need is to create the kinds of communities you're talking about, bringing the experiences and resources the church has had for over 2,000 years in figuring out how to adapt and create community in different contexts.

  3. I wounder if COD would comment on the strain of American Christianity that want to see the Church as wholly separate from culture. A church that is constant in the face of a hostile world. It seems to be a result of the late 19th and early 20th century industrialization and the fundamentalist movement.

    I guess what I am digging for is how much resistance to change has the last 150 years bred into church culture.

  4. You know, I have to disagree with you here. There are studies out there now (of course!) on topics like "Is Facebook making us lonely?" The point of the article is that our "web of connections have grown broader but shallower" and elaborates about "the anxieties that social media have produced: the fears that Facebook is interfering with our real friendships, distancing us from each other, making us lonelier; and that social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer."

    To me, Facebook is utterly conventional; it's just more small-town behavior online, where people snub other people, talk about them in private messages or make snarky remarks about them, gang up on them, even bully them. The really, really bad thing about Facebook is that people can be shamed in public now, for saying things that they only talked about in private before; there have already been Facebook-based suicides in reaction to shame and bullying.

    Yes, I suppose it's good that people can let their friends know when they are in trouble (after they've fallen into a drain, for instance) - but I'm not sure that sort of thing is really revolutionary. The key phrase in that sentence, it seems to me, is "let their friends know" - and they met those friends in the same way you met yours: by pure chance, in their fleshly lives.

    Facebook "friends" aren't friends. I mean, the online experience can help people find other people to talk with when the people around them don't seem to understand; that's good. This was a big part of the gay experience over the past 30 years or so; it was a relief for many people to find other gay people to talk with online (mostly anonymously), especially when the people around them were unfriendly. But that all happened before "social media"; it's part of being connected with others. (I've had experiences similar to Caelius' with "online dating," BTW.)

    Twitter is interesting, though - and I think it is more "revolutionary" in a way. It allows people to talk about what's happening around them - it's a news-gathering and disseminating medium, and will allow people without voice to speak the truth when other media cover it over.

    We are all connected as never before, I agree, and busy, busy, busy in the online world - but I'm not sure this is any kind of unqualified blessing. I think the church will actually have a role to play in helping people connect in the flesh with other people - and I imagine that the online chatter is going to start to get to people after awhile, and they're going to want a retreat from it. That's already happening, I think, actually.

    In fact, I think that's exactly where the Eucharist comes in. You can't get Communion by updating your Facebook page; you have to actually go to church and sit down with others. The Galilean was kind of genius in that way.

  5. I agree with all you say here; didn't mean to imply that there weren't negative connotations or downsides to any of this. Nobel, after all, though dynamite was a dynamite invention and would revolutionize construction and mining industries (which it did). What we agree on here makes it more incumbent on the church to shape, rather than solely by shaped by, these challenges.

  6. If the House of Bishops can't handle someone in the gallery quietly tweeting, I sense there are some pretty deep pathologies around communication in general that the Episcopal Church needs to sort out.


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