I tweeted the above Randall Rothenberg (president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the trade association for interactive marketing in the U.S) quote from “The Facebook Effect” yesterday after I heard it in the audio book. I knew that one was a keeper.
It succinctly captures the widespread problem I STILL see churches and religious organizations falling into: the idea that the conversation out there needs to be “managed” (aka “controlled”). A mainline denomination for whom I worked, where I have had the opportunity over 24 years to observe, 17 of those in a couple of agencies, are particularly oraganizationally reticent to joint the conversation, much less to start or encourage them. I remember a consulting firm making a presentation to my organization and observing that user forums on websites have been “left to their own devices”, usually resulting in desertion and abandonment. There is also the fear of theological debate, which is what happened when a “My Space” type experiment was built for them by a third party. This is not just the one denomination by any means. I don’t see a lot of “online communities” springing up in other church online efforts.
I often point back to Ecunet, an online community prior to the Web, which overlapped the Web’s explosion onto the scene by 2-3 years, as a stellar case of what can happen when church folks decide to try the “form/meeting” format. Ecunet was contemporary of The Well, which also didnt make it much past the explosion of the Web. Once the Web hit, The Well was bought and sold more than once ( I stopped following it). I know that with Ecunet, it was the Web which opened up a vista that seemingly swallowed up everyone on Ecunet and people stopped contributing. Much of this was due to the resistance of a sizeable portion of Ecunet to embracing the Web and beginning to carve out a presence and a space there. By the time they decided to do so, the community had dwindled to a fraction of its size in its heyday.
The unwillingness to carve out a space and open its own “firewalls” to the larger ecumenical community out there seems to have been its downfall. And so we are back to the original quote which is the title of this post. Ecunet needed to have moved to set up shop on the Web, in anticipation of having its protocols and methods become obsolete in favor of the open standards of the Web. The Web would have fit in nicely with the theological stance of Ecunet regarding accessibility and affordance.
But far after Ecunet dwindled, its former stalwarts, scattered to the far and wide winds of denominational technology efforts, were set to work on building the various denominational silos where everyone did their own thing, and denominations themselves had various agencies seeking to outdo one another in carving out their own space and creating their own content. But few ever dared to try and test the waters of online community, and in those few occasions where they did, they gave up on it fast when flame wars erupted.
Is this how churches would effectively handle the risks of theological comunity in the face to face spaces, where people by nature disagree? Is the road to seeking our calling and developing missions that work on the internals and reach out to the external (outreach)? It seems to me that the best churches keep at it, because “we’re all we’ve got”. We need to recognize the importance of working out the communication miscues in te online space. It’s especially hard in new mediums. There are mysterious social phenomena at work, as all new mediums present themselves. We need a “Social Psycology of Online Spaces” component to our pastoral counseling. More on this soon.