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We’re all of a Twitter

by
14 March 2012

Church organisations and communicators are increasingly using social media to spread their message. Anna Drew examines the benefits and pitfalls

ILLUSTRATIONS BRIAN CUMMING

ILLUSTRATIONS BRIAN CUMMING

“MY NEPHEW and nieces are incredulous when I explain to them that texting, Google, and online gaming didn’t feature in my childhood,” the musician and theologian Vicky Beeching says, as she muses on being a member of the last generation to experience society without the existence of the internet.

“We are surrounded by gadgets, screens, and more information than any previous generation. It’s an epic and significant time to be alive as we watch the online explosion — like a firework display — lighting up the skies of our generation.” Ms Beeching has just begun a Ph.D. at Durham University, with an emphasis on the online world.

Social media are essentially internet-based media that turn straightforward communication into an interactive dialogue. Facilitated by an explosion of accessible software and mobile technologies, social media have substantially changed the way in which organisations, com­munities, and individuals commun-i­cate.

As with many changes in technology and society, the Church has not been at the forefront of social media engagement, and the size and significance of this phenomenon does nothing to diminish the fear that many feel when faced with social media.

The fear of invasion of privacy; the fear of being lambasted for saying the wrong thing; the fear of not understanding the technology, or of wasting time that should be spent on other pursuits — they all loom large in our collective consciousness.

Time and again we hear: “Look what happened to Bishop Pete” — almost a mantra of disengagement.

THE Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, did indeed come a cropper in November 2010, when comments from his Facebook profile about the forthcoming royal wedding were picked up by the press (News, 26 November 2010). Having repeatedly wished the happy couple well, he then made a few “republican” comments. The latter were reported in the popular press, leading to public criticism, and a temporary suspension from his episcopal duties.

“I was daft,” Bishop Broadbent says, as he reflects on the experience. “I left my Facebook settings open, so that any gutter journalist could access them. And then I forgot that I wasn’t in a pub talking to my mates — or on Have I Got News For You.”

The Bishop’s experiences should be read as a cautionary tale, but, for some, they simply reinforce the fear. When bishops can fall foul of social media, we might be tempted to ask, is it really worth the risk?

Despite his experiences, Bishop Broadbent thinks so. He still main­tains a presence on Facebook and Twitter, albeit with more stringent privacy settings. “One mistake mustn’t be allowed to put an end to being engaged,” he says. “Social media are a given part of our lives now.

“I’m on Twitter and Facebook — there’s plenty of banter and serious debate about football, politics, Church, news. And you keep in touch with people more than pre­viously. If Christians aren’t there, it’s another part of the public square that we’ve abdicated.”

He is not the only one who feels that way. Many — clergy and laity alike — have pushed past the fear to become strong advocates of social media. “I engage with people through blogging and Twitter for many reasons” the blogging Bishop, the Rt Revd Nick Baines (aka the Bishop of Bradford), says.

“It is always interesting, often funny, frequently enlivening and challenging. It also enables me —and the Church — to communicate with huge numbers of people who never darken the doors of the church and rarely, if ever, engage with a bishop. Social media do not replace face-to-face relationships, but they can create them, and they can create the space for genuine conversation, learning, listening, researching, and so on.”

LEST we believe that social media are a purely individual pursuit, the institutional churches are at it as well. The Church of England’s official Twitter stream (@c_of_e) has more than 12,000 followers, and, during the General Synod in Feb­ruary, people were encouraged to discuss the debates on Twitter using the hashtag #synod.

More people than ever before followed the events and business of last year’s Methodist Conference, on live video from the debates streamed over the internet. Conference mem­bers and guests, as well as those watching the live feed, were encour­aged to use Twitter and Facebook to comment on the debates. The conference’s hashtag on Twitter (#methconf) was used every 14 seconds, on average, at its peak, and #methconf tweets reached 58,303 people.

“The heart of Methodist Conference is in being together: praying, worshipping, celebrating, and in deliberating on important issues,” the director of communica­tions for the Methodist Church, Toby Scott, said. “But, through online media, we have helped share that worldwide. There’s something wonderfully Methodist about the whole experience — being and staying connected with each other, wherever we may be.”

Clearly, the opportunities offered by social media for wider in­volvement and conferring on issues of governance can be huge. For Churches and charities, as well as commercial organisations, using social media to share information, to consult on policy issues, and encourage debate is something that hardly needs justifying.

BUT, as with the offline world, the Church has something else to offer — spirituality. Treating social media as mere marketing tools would be to miss a trick, and, like Ms Beeching, many are now trying to explore the possibilities of social media for evangelism and enhanced spiritual reflection.

One such project is the Big Read — essentially a Lent resource for group and individual study. It began in north-east England in 2010, bringing together thousands of people from different churches across the region to study Bishop Tom Wright’s book Luke for Lent. In 2011, the Big Read went digital and national, and offered downloadable house-group materials on www.bigbible.org.uk.

More than 24,000 people visited the website during Lent. Others chatted on social media; 5000 ac­cessed the book through a smart­phone app; and nearly 20,000 copies of the book were sold.

This year’s Big Read focuses on Bishop Wright’s new book, Lent for Everyone: Mark, and features web-based video, audio, and social media “challenges”, as well as house-group material.

Running an online Bible study might sound fairly simple, but, for the project manager for Big Bible, Bex Lewis, successfully combining traditional and social media into an integrated course has been no mean feat. “The two biggest challenges are choosing the right tools: those that are effective for the purpose we want to achieve — especially when many are new and we have to experiment to see what’s possible — and the sheer volume of time required to make it all happen, especially getting the conversation started.”

But Dr Lewis believes that it is worth the effort. “The online spaces are where millions in the world are spending significant amounts of time, some seeking spiritual answers. If we are not equipped to be in those spaces, sometimes for our own discipleship journey, sometimes in forms of evangelism — particularly relationship evangelism — then we are missing out on opportunities to connect with people who are seeking.”

OTHER projects that have captured the imagination of the online community include Natwivity (a user-generated nativity play acted out on Twitter), and the Twitter Remembrance Day service held in November last year.

Thought to be the first Remem­brance service of its kind in the UK, Tweet Remembrance featured liturgy, prayers, and readings, as well as hymns and music linked from YouTube. In less than 24 hours, @Poppy_tweet gathered more than 1600 followers, had hundreds of people posting the names of those they wanted to remember, and attracted media interest from around the world.

During the service, some were surprised to find themselves moved to tears as the names of people who had died in service scrolled down the screen. One user said: “Brilliant job done by all involved with @Poppy_tweet. Tried but failed to hold back the tears in a public computer room.”

And, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous (but also a little sublime), Ship of Fools is a website dedicated to the sillier side of the Christian faith. Launched on April Fool’s Day 1998, it started as an online magazine, and grew into a thriving online community, where people discuss everything from the part played by religion in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Roman Catholic guilt and the status of Mormonism.

“We’re here for people who prefer their religion disorganised,” the Ship’s editor and designer, Simon Jenkins, says. “Our aim is to help Christians be self-critical and honest about the failings of Christianity, as we believe honesty can only strengthen faith.”

Mr Jenkins and his partner in crime, Stephen Goddard, have also been behind a number of other in­novative projects, including Church of Fools (an early experi­ment in online 3D church), and Roll On Christmas (an online nativity play that stars your Facebook friends as the usual Bethlehem suspects).

THE opportunities for creativity and spiritual involvement through social media are apparently limitless, but how can clergy and lay people embrace those opportunities while avoiding disaster? How do we learn the lessons of Bishop Broadbent without throwing in the towel?

“I’m not put off by Pete’s experience,” the Bishop of Bucking­ham and devotee of Facebook and Twitter, the Rt Revd Alan Wilson, says. “The transparency involved actually made his voice seem more honest, engaged, and reliable, whether or not I agreed with his point of view. If we are so invested in an exaggerated view of our own importance that we can’t talk with people straightforwardly, we have a serious problem.”

The basic principle seems to be awareness: always know who can see the information you are putting online, and treat it as a public forum. Never say anything on Facebook or Twitter that you might not be happy to declare from the pulpit. This requires accountability, integrity, and transparency in an environment often awash with falsity and egotism. If people know that you are the same person online as offline, they will be confident that they can trust you and your Christian witness.

It is also important to choose your weapons wisely. Ask yourself what you want to get out of (or contribute to) the social-media scene, and then consider the range of tools available.

Facebook is great for keeping in touch with old friends, or organising events, whereas Twitter is all about discussion. And, if you are trying to break into the music scene, you probably want to have a presence on MySpace. There’s plenty of guidance available online

The rest is pretty much common sense, but there is one cardinal rule: practise Christian graciousness. Not only is arrogance unattractive: it will do you no favours if you ever meet your online friends face to face. That should go without saying, but it is extraordinary how the relative anony­mity of the internet disinhibits otherwise pleasant people.

Finally, always know when to switch off. The online world is just as real as the offline, but it is no substitute for direct human contact. When you cannot get through a conversation without checking your phone for updates, it might be time to take a break.

“Technology is at its best when it serves the rhythms of life,” the author of Consumer Detox, Mark Powley, says. “Technology makes us poorer when it interrupts life. Sometimes, it serves us best by going on vacation.”

Anna Drew ( @annamdrew) is lead media officer for the Methodist Church in Britain, and co-author, with Richard Moy, of Leadership and Social Networking, published by Grove Books.

A bluffer’s guide to social media

Twitter: users send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, known as “tweets”. The # symbol (called a hashtag) is used to mark keywords or topics in a tweet as a way of following topics and categorising messages.

Facebook: the largest of the networking sites, it allows users to create a page where they can share information (including photos, videos, and text) about themselves and their interests, and also gather and discuss similar material from friends.

MySpace: functions similarly to Facebook, but is now essentially a showcase for musicians.

YouTube: a video-sharing website on which users can upload, share, and view images.

Blogs: online (usually self-published) diaries or opinion columns, where users post their thoughts on anything from current affairs to personal preoccupations.

Five to follow on Twitter

@thechurchmouse — anonymous C of E blogger.

@shipofoolscom — theological comedy, Christian unrest, religious satire, sacred tweets, holy kitsch.

@vickybeeching — Ph.D. student and Research Fellow at Durham University

@c_of_e — official Church of England Twitter stream

@digitalnun — Benedictine nun keen on God, books, and technology

Twitter: users send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, known as “tweets”. The # symbol (called a hashtag) is used to mark keywords or topics in a tweet as a way of following topics and categorising messages.

Facebook: the largest of the networking sites, it allows users to create a page where they can share information (including photos, videos, and text) about themselves and their interests, and also gather and discuss similar material from friends.

MySpace: functions similarly to Facebook, but is now essentially a showcase for musicians.

YouTube: a video-sharing website on which users can upload, share, and view images.

Blogs: online (usually self-published) diaries or opinion columns, where users post their thoughts on anything from current affairs to personal preoccupations.

Five to follow on Twitter

@thechurchmouse — anonymous C of E blogger.

@shipofoolscom — theological comedy, Christian unrest, religious satire, sacred tweets, holy kitsch.

@vickybeeching — Ph.D. student and Research Fellow at Durham University

@c_of_e — official Church of England Twitter stream

@digitalnun — Benedictine nun keen on God, books, and technology

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