How Insiders and Seekers Use the Quaker Net

Every once in awhile I get an indication that various "weighty" Quakers come to my "Quaker Ranter" site, usually because of a group email that someone sends around or a post on some listserve. What's fascinating is that few of the insider Friends ever spend much time looking around: they go to the one page that's been referenced and then--swoosh, they're gone, presumably back to their email or listserve. There's a profound lack of curiosity about what else I might be writing about. These institutional Friends never post comments and they rarely even send any feedback by email.

This contrasts very sharply with the bulk of traffic to my site. Dozens of people a day come in off a Google search. Unless it's a bad match, these seekers spend time on the site, clicking all around, following links to other sites, coming back, reading some more. Not everyone comes in via search engines: some follow links from elsewhere while others read the RSS Feed or just come in ever few days to see what's new.

Part of the difference between "institutional" and "seeking" users is in their use of search engines. Many establishment Quakers don't know how to use them or don't think to use them. A website marketing proposal of mine was almost nixed recently when a committee member learned that search engines bypass a site's homepage to return results from inside pages. I just assumed that everyone knew by now how a search engine works. I use Google dozens of times a day; it's hard for me to imagine anyone navigating the net without it. It must almost be like they're using a separate medium. Both of us are using the internet as transmission conduit, but that's like saying both a newspaper and a personal letter use paper and ink for transition: while this is indisputably true, it doesn't begin to speak to the different use and the depth of audience.

* * *

I wonder if the internet divide represents an even more significant divide between institutional insiders and the rest of us. The insiders might be staff, committee clerks or just very involved Friends but they share a certain way of understanding their world. First off, they have their ideas all figured out already. There's a lack of curiosity here. They aren't searching for new writers or new ideas. They will only consider something after some other Quaker institution has recognized it, a Catch-22 situation that the military refers to as "incestuous amplification."

Any project outside of the established recognition zone is invisible. Even ones that have become dominant in their field are acknowledged only begrudgingly. In the last ten years, has done more for outreach than just about any institutionally-sponsored program or committee. Yet I know of establishment Quakers who still think of it as an upstart, and truly believe their puttering about is more important, simply because their organization has been around longer. In truth, many Quaker websites get so little traffic as to be next to non-existent.

The insider's primary point of reference is institutions. Power comes from knowing how ideas, proposals and decisions flow through these organizations. A good idea is only good if it's made by the right person and vetted by the right small group first. Sometimes I'll hear of the gossip of some group scheming within some Quaker institution and I always have to laugh: like, WHO CARES? It's a small bunch of people scrambling over crumbs while the world ignores them. There's a whole other world of Friends and seekers out there building their own culture and connections, or trying to.

This Quaker Ranter site is primarily for those still curious, for those still interesting in building something real, for those wanting engaging conversation and stories. I actually prefer it to be a little bit "underground," unknown or forgotten by institutionalists, for I think there's discussions we need to have and the open internet is a good place for that.


I'll be editing and adding to this post over time as I see more patterns of site use. I'm curious if others have seen surprising patterns of internet use. Oh, and by the way I should cop to being a Quaker insider myself, though I always try to keep the big picture (i.e., God and the Spirit's commands) foremost.

  • Hi. You have a great blog going here. I am inter­est­ed in Quak­erism, but can­not make it to meet­ings so I’m hap­py to find a good Friend­ly blog to read. 🙂 By the way, I added you to my blogroll, ok?

  • Ken Stock­bridge

    Hey Mar­tin,
    First, I hope you know but it’s worth repeat­ing that I’m a big fan of yours. I great­ly appre­ci­ate all you do in your day job, and when I stum­ble across reminders of how much else you do with the rest of your time, I’m even more grate­ful. I did not know until just now about quak​erquak​er​.org, and it seems like a great idea. I hope I can find time to spend more time there. (I hope oth­er FGC Advance­ment and Out­reach com­mit­tee mem­bers would like to know about the Out­reach sec­tion. So I hope we will let them know about it. Mmm? A link from the A&O page perhaps?)
    Sec­ond, regard­ing your post about insid­ers vs. seek­ers using the net, you ask some very inter­est­ing ques­tions. And it exem­pli­fies one of the things I appre­ci­ate about your labors so much. Your study of this sort of thing is very valu­able, and the insights you draw from these efforts are very helpful.
    Third, how­ev­er, I find myself stum­bling a bit over your con­clu­sions, which I trust are pre­lim­i­nary. It’s a wor­thy enough the­sis, and you may be right. But there’s a tinge of judg­men­tal­ism there, which by itself is fine in this con­text, but I’m not sure your judg­ments are war­rant­ed. Are there alter­na­tive expla­na­tions? So, let me pose some queries.
    1) Pure­ly out of curios­i­ty… how exact­ly do you decide who is an insid­er and who is a seek­er? by how they find the site? how they use it? in either case, or any oth­er, couldn’t users you put in one group actu­al­ly come from the oth­er? (or do you know who all the insid­ers are and how to iden­ti­fy them, you insid­er you? 😉 )
    2) While you can objec­tive­ly observe how rarely insid­ers stick around on a site, how can you real­ly know *why* they don’t stick around? To say they have a lack of curios­i­ty sounds like a judg­ment to me, being one who high­ly val­ues curios­i­ty. Is it pos­si­ble they have a high lev­el of curios­i­ty, but just very lit­tle time? (That would be me! But am I an insid­er? Mmm. Just in case some­one thinks I am, I just had to post a comment!!)
    3) While I have lit­tle doubt that many Quak­ers don’t use search engines much, can you real­ly con­clude that’s the rea­son for the dif­fer­ence? Is sug­gest­ing a skill defi­cien­cy on their part a put­down? Is it sim­ply pos­si­ble that for the spe­cif­ic pur­pose that brought them to the sites in ques­tion, they did not need a search engine because they knew where to look? And does your way of iden­ti­fy­ing who is an insid­er bias your obser­va­tion of how they use the site, for exam­ple if how they got there has any­thing to do with it?
    4) It is cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble that the insid­ers could think they have every­thing fig­ured out or that they could be more open to new ideas and new writ­ers. And that would be unfor­tu­nate. I very much share your con­cern about insid­ers ver­sus the rest of us (or them, as the case may be). But at the begin­ning of that para­graph, you use the word “might” but by the mid­dle you have switched to affir­ma­tive dec­la­ra­tions of what is. Is that jump­ing to a con­clu­sion? Would it be more effec­tive if left as a query rather than an accusation?
    5) By the end of your piece, has it become a rant rather than the research inquiry it start­ed as? Giv­en the name of your site espe­cial­ly, rant­i­ng is your pre­rog­a­tive. But would it be more truth­ful to make a clear­er dis­tinc­tion between what is objec­tive research and what is rant?
    I total­ly share the con­cerns you raise about insti­tu­tion­al­ism, and I encour­age you to con­tin­ue to raise them. How­ev­er, those con­cerns and con­clu­sions do not fol­low (at least clear­ly and con­vinc­ing­ly) from the analy­sis you have pre­sent­ed on web use. Might both pur­pos­es (ana­lyz­ing how the web is used and rais­ing the con­cern) be bet­ter served by main­tain­ing a clear­er dis­tinc­tion between them? Your analy­sis might be more con­vinc­ing and lead to more prac­ti­cal and effec­tive insights. And your con­cern might have greater weight if ground­ed on a more sol­id foun­da­tion of expe­ri­ence that bet­ter demon­strates the con­cern than a poten­tial­ly shaky web analy­sis in its cur­rent form.
    So, let me offer an alter­na­tive the­sis that might explain the dif­fer­ence you observe. I don’t mean to advo­cate for it but sim­ply illus­trate how the same objec­tive evi­dence could just as eas­i­ly have a dif­fer­ent expla­na­tion. Let your ongo­ing research test this the­sis as well as yours.
    Could it be that the insid­ers using the sites in ques­tion are dri­ven by a very spe­cif­ic pur­pose whle the seek­ers are in fact dri­ven by curios­i­ty? The insid­ers might be under­tak­ing a very spe­cif­ic task relat­ing to their “inside work” like doing com­mit­tee work. They might know quite specif­i­cal­ly what they are look­ing for and when they have found it, they con­tin­ue on with the task at hand. In con­trast, the very pur­pose of a seek­er is to explore.
    This alter­na­tive the­sis does not nec­es­sar­i­ly con­tra­dict your con­cern. It may in fact help make a stronger case for it. In short, do those of us who are busy with insid­er work fix­ate so much on the task at hand that we are not present to the diverse bless­ings that are there for us if we but look? Does this fix­a­tion mold our per­cep­tion of real­i­ty in a way that leaves us out of touch? That’s not real­ly dif­fer­ent from one core piece of your mes­sage, but it’s ground­ed in what you do objec­tive­ly observe. Still, it stops short of ascrib­ing caus­es for their behav­ior, such as a lack of curios­i­ty or inter­net know-how, which I sus­pect you do not know experimentally.
    Well, I real­ly was too busy to stop and share this. I real­ly do have to cut back on the com­mit­tees I’ve signed on to. It does skew my expe­ri­ence of life, and it is not sim­ple. I hope this has been of some use. Sor­ry I can’t stick around and explore your site more!
    Thanks for all you do.

  • Hi Ken,
    You raise good ques­tions. There’s no way to put num­bers on any of this, it’s just the accu­mu­la­tion of a mass of anec­dotes and those rare moments when I have been able to iden­ti­fy par­tic­u­lar peo­ple in the track­ing logs. None of this real­ly has to do with Quak­ers, its just the world I know well enough to make this type of observation.
    The impor­tant thing is not the thinking-out-loud details and debat­able opin­ions of a blog post but the larg­er mes­sage that the decision-makers in any media or out­reach project need to remem­ber that they are sep­a­rat­ed from their tar­get audi­ence by fair­ly sig­nif­i­cant cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences. There’s a nat­ur­al ten­den­cy for peo­ple to design a project that might appeal to them­selves. A con­stant polling and double-checking of assump­tions make it more like­ly our work will reach out further.
    In web design we have the addi­tion­al sit­u­a­tion in which even a very logically-designed web­site might not get used in the way we expect­ed it. One way to ques­tion our­selves is to look to see how sites are actu­al­ly being used and to draw any infer­ences we can from the data.
    I know that there are peo­ple who rarely use search engines – don’t think to – where­as I must run three dozen google search­es a day. That’s going to give one a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence of the inter­net. The expe­ri­ence is also going to be dif­fer­ent for those who do a lot of Instant Mes­sag­ing; or those whose pri­ma­ry expe­ri­ence is an inten­sive online com­mu­ni­ty like Myspace; or those whose inter­net use is pri­mar­i­ly made up of email or music down­load­ing. I could write more but I have to go catch a train. Thanks for com­ment­ing in.

  • I have won­dered at var­i­ous times if “Quak­er insti­tu­tion” is (or should be) an oxy­moron. Can Seek­ers of Truth, believ­ers in Con­tin­u­ing Rev­e­la­tion, etc. be con­tent with some­thing that almost by def­i­n­i­tion is intend­ed to main­tain some­thing in place.

    • There’s noth­ing nec­es­sar­i­ly wrong with main­tain­ing some­thing in place.
      “Con­tin­u­al Rev­e­la­tion” shouldn’t be per­mis­sion to just go wher­ev­er we want
      with this Quak­er tra­di­tion. But yes, we need to be con­scious about what
      tools we use to pro­vide that con­ti­nu­ity. Once insti­tu­tion­al­ism sets in, a
      bureaucracy’s mis­sion often becomes it’s own main­te­nance and growth.

      One of the neat­est thing about the web is that a bunch of motivated
      vol­un­teers can orga­nize the kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work that would have
      required a lot of mon­ey and infra­struc­ture even twen­ty years ago.
      Hour-for-hour and dollar-for-dollar, what I do with Quak­er Ranter and
      Quak­erQuak­er is more effec­tive that any of the work I did as a professional

      • Mar­tin,
        I com­plete­ly agree with you that Quak­er tra­di­tion shouldn’t be blanket
        per­mis­sion. My father was and I have been a pas­tor with­in FUM. I have also
        worked with EFI indi­vid­u­als. My expe­ri­ence is that the “Fun­da­men­tal­ist” side
        of Quak­erism seems to rely too exten­sive­ly on lit­er­al­ism and stuck with a
        very exclu­sive and nar­row view of “Chris­tian­i­ty.” My expe­ri­ence with
        “lib­er­al” Quak­ers (with whom I have come to more close­ly iden­ti­fy with in
        the past few decades) have lost a great deal of the Friends Tra­di­tion. The
        inclu­sive­ness that seems to be an under­ly­ing assump­tion is tak­en to the
        point of not just tol­er­ance but accep­tance of a very wide belief base that
        dilutes the pow­er of “Friends Expe­ri­ence.” (Obvi­ous­ly biased. but I think
        right­ful­ly so, and hope­ful­ly not PRE­judge­men­tal) The cel­e­bra­tion of
        diver­si­ty and tolerance/love of ene­my does not mean agree­ment with their
        beliefs or actions but accep­tance of their worth and val­ue as hav­ing that of
        God with­in them.

        My per­son­al belief is that the “2” sides have con­tin­ued to push each other
        fur­ther apart and thus fur­ther from the Cen­ter. (You know that to get 3
        opin­ions you need ask only 2 Quakers.)

        Thanks for your thought­ful response.

        In Peace and Friendship,

        Tom Smith

  • diana­mitchell

    well, I’m a Cana­di­an Quak­er. I just post­ed for the first time to Quak­er Dhar­ma, and look for 2009 post­ings there but see none. Quak­er out­reach seems to be dying, as are so many of our Meet­ings here. Old­er and old­er we get, with lit­tle to encour­age Seek­ers, includ­ing that we don’t par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic forums any more, may march in the occa­sion­al protest, and gen­er­al­ly go to Meet­ings, go home, do noth­ing to seek Seek­ers. What a shame! And what a betray­al of the val­ues and prac­tices so long prac­tised by Quak­ers since Fox et al. 

    I’m dead keen on out­reach, and see that reju­ve­na­tion comes with Seek­ers being encour­aged to come, to stay, to active­ly join with us so that Meetins are enlivened, lives are enriched, and pos­i­tive change is encouraged. 

    I see you have par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Quak­er Dhar­ma site. What’s hap­pened to it, do you know? Diana in Vic­to­ria BC

    • Hi Diana: Quak­er Dhar­ma has nev­er been a very active blog. It’s author Bar­ry Cross­no is now devel­op­ment direc­tor at the Pen­dle Hill Cen­ter near Philadel­phia. I’d guess that out­reach is still a keen con­cern of his, but he’s not pur­su­ing it online.

      If you fol­low the links on this site you’ll see I’ve been blog­ging about out­reach for years and so have many oth­ers. It’s inter­est­ing for me to reread this post from 2004. At that point I was an pro­fes­sion­al Friend (web­mas­ter for Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence) with a blog on the side. A year lat­er I was pro­mot­ed to Advance­ment and Out­reach Coör­di­na­tor for FGC and a year lat­er let go for rea­sons that are long-winded and not real­ly the “real rea­sons” any­way. Since then a lot of mon­ey has been spent on out­reach but it’s hard to see what’s come of it.

      A lot of us are work­ing on this over at http://​www​.quak​erquak​er​.org. Please come join. It’s unof­fi­cial, unfund­ed, all-volunteer self-organized out­reach. There’s an “Out­reach and Media” group for talk­ing about out­reach, but the whole site is real­ly about shar­ing the Good News Friends have with the world. 

      There are a lot of cool out­reach efforts. Quak​er​in​fo​.org is won­der­ful. I’ve been work­ing with FWC​CAmer​i​c​as​.org over the last few months to put togeth­er a great inter­ac­tive map of Friends in the US and Cana­da which we launched just yes­ter­day. Evan­gel­i­cal Friends at Bar​clay​press​.com are doing good work. There is real inter­est out there, not as wide­spread as it should be and some­times more fund-driven that real­ly outreach-driven. But let’s see what we can do!

  • Bar­bquin

    I’m not sure about the insid­ers vs seek­ers dichotomy…Because I’m an active mem­ber of a Friends meet­ing and I’m will­ing to put up with some­times annoy­ing Friends and try to build our in-person com­mu­ni­ty often against dif­fi­cult odds and in spite of very stress­ful job duties, does that make me an “insid­er”?

    You know, it’s hap­pened that I’ve respond­ed to ques­tions on Quak­erQuak­er and the dia­log has end­ed there. I final­ly came to the con­clu­sion that I wasn’t an online insider 🙂 

    BTW, although I can’t do the exten­sive online stuff you do, I think I know how to use search engines …I teach online research to col­lege students.

    • Hi Barb: this post is over five years old. I was think­ing of the Friends who had been weighty com­mit­tee Friends for decades and seemed to spend much of their time with those who had also been weighty com­mit­tee Friends for decades. Some of the dynam­ics of online use have shift­ed since then. For one thing we have a half-generation that has come in through the internet. 

      I know you cer­tain­ly know how to use search engines! The inter­nal dis­cus­sion at Quak­erQuak­er are always a lit­tle fun­ny. I often don’t get much out of them myself. My main con­cern is still the main blog feed – the editor’s picks.

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