Confronted by a new wave of communications technologies, some Christians will reach for the mop and pail. Others will just keep calm and carry on. A few will go sailing, seeing the Atlantic as the way to a new world.
New media are the greatest quantum leap in communications since the invention of printing. Networked computers are now connecting and reconnecting people all over the world in radical new ways.
This is visibly changing the course of history. Time magazine’s most influential person of 2011 is Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google executive who, over a few weeks, mobilised 12 million people to topple the Mubarak régime. He used Facebook, which, if it were a nation, would be the third largest in the world.
The world of social media is large and complex, but three kinds of site are driving the revolution.
Social-network websites such as Facebook connect people, enabling them to share information and stories. MySpace enables people without special technical knowledge to publish personal websites.
Resource-sharing sites such as YouTube publish videos produced anywhere from Hollywood studios to people’s phones; while Flickr and Picasa specialise in still images.
Blogs are websites for personal stories, writing, and comment. The world has roughly 6500 daily newspapers and 200,000 periodicals; 129 million book titles have ever been published. There are about 156 million active blogs in the world. A really successful religious paperback might just achieve sales of 20,000 copies. My blog, over three-and-a-half years, has received more than half a million hits.
Twitter is a “micro-blog” — a site for comments and links from other media in a tiny format of up to 140 characters, called Tweets. It publishes instant news, images, and thoughts. Some six-and-a-half million people followed the royal wedding on Twitter.
Social-media sites are engaging unprecedented numbers of people, but what is really revolutionary about them, along with the way they all interconnect, is that they give anyone who is connected an equal opportunity to participate.
The editor of the Manchester Guardian C. P. Scott wrote in 1921: “a newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly.” In the days of hot metal, you could say anything freely as long as you happened to own a press. Now anyone who is networked can publish anything from home.
The mushrooms are no longer in the dark, and they can talk back, with radical results. The key to using these media is to interact personally and to engage others in conversations, not to shout at them. New media are inherently anti-hierarchical — some bishops may not take kindly to a world where nobody cares who any of them are, in which they are only as good as their last job.
Christians are the Body of Christ, the Word made flesh. The Lord commissioned them to be good news. This involves communicating in any way we can. Churches with printing presses led the last revolution; so what are we going to do about this one? We could always do nothing, or perhaps sit it out on our spotty behinds, sullen and cautious, with occasional bouts of whining and nostalgia.
There are indeed dangers lurking out on the ocean. It contains so much information that getting what you need can be like trying to drink under a shower. Privacy is being redefined in terms that we don’t yet understand with confidence. Instant communication can stoke up firestorms of bad behaviour.
The fastest-growing take-up of Facebook has been among people over 55, mainly to get back in touch with former associates.
Every community needs a campfire around which it can gather to share stories, build relationships, and make decisions. There is an emer-ging trend among US voluntary associations, including churches, to do their internal communications, including contact with the housebound, through Facebook.
Twitter, meanwhile, is a good way to collect news, as well as snippets of personal expression, as all the world’s media outlets now use it as their primary broadcast medium for hot information.
Does triviality matter? Frankly, most human conversations are less weighty than the Gettysburg address. Quirky observations and chit-chat are the staple diet of all social gatherings, including Twitter and Facebook.
If you have more heavyweight observations to offer or stories to tell, start a blog. Almost all serious leaders in politics and commerce, along with a few of the clergy, are using blogs to communicate and develop vision, comment, and ideas.
In Social Media, authenticity is gold dust. Many people expected the internet to be dominated by anonym-ous or pseudonymous bigots, but in general this has not happened, and Facebook goes to great lengths to prevent this on its site.
The key to social media is to be yourself. Christians who believe in the Word made flesh should have faith to engage, as themselves, freely with others. There are one or two contexts, such as confession, which call for anonymity, but, in principle, people who refuse to take personal responsibility for their words almost always detract from their authenticity.
Any revolution contains many reasons to be anxious, but I feel optimistic about Christians’ using social media. We have a gospel to proclaim. If it is true, it should be able to stand up for itself in the open market. The New Testament contains good examples of Paul and others preaching in the streets, without the privilege of controlling the scene, and achieving great things.
Christians have much to say using social media because churches contain many ordinary people with engaging stories to tell. Now they have the means to do so personally and conveniently. The more they get out there and speak freely, the richer a view of Christianity the world will get, to replace the two-dimensional retro soap that Fleet Street makes of Church.
The earliest Christianity flourished on the open streets of a pluralistic world. The ocean is wide. The possibility of getting lost or drowned is always there, but this is a time for courage and ima-gination, not mop and pail.
Dr Alan Wilson is the Bishop of Buckingham. He is making a presentation on social media and the Church at the Christian Resources Exhibition on 13 May.