Listening in on our Quaker conversations

On Twitter earlier today, Jay T asked “Didn’t u or someone once write about how Q’s behave on blogs & other soc. media? Can’t find it on Qranter or via Google. Thx!” Jay subsequently found a great piece from Robin Mohr circa 2008 but I kept remembering an description of blogging I had written in the earliest days of the blogosphere. It didn’t show up on my blog or via a Google search and then I hit up the wonderful Internet Archive.org Wayback Machine. The original two paragraph description of QuakerQuaker is not easily accessible outside of Archive.org but it’s nice to uncover it again and give it a little sunlight:

Quakerism is an experiential religion: we believe we should “let our lives speak” and we stay away from creeds and doctrinal statements. The best way to learn what Quakers believe is through listening in on our conversations.

In the last few years, dozens of Quakers have begun sharing stories, frustrations, hopes and dreams for our religious society through blogs. The conversations have been amazing. There’s a palpable sense of renewal and excitement. QuakerQuaker is a daily index to that conversation.

I still like it as a distinctly Quaker philosophy of outreach.

A comeback of personal blogging?

There’s some pieces making the round to the effect that some of the old school NYC bloggers are coming back to blogging. From Fred Wilson, The Personal Blog:

There is something about the personal blog, yourname.com, where you control everything and get to do whatever the hell pleases you. There is something about linking to one of those blogs and then saying something. It’s like having a conversation in public with each other. This is how blogging was in the early days. And this is how blogging is today, if you want it to be.

Wilson cites Lockard Steele in Back to the Blog:

Back then, we’d had a ton of stupid fun linking to each other’s blog posts for no other reason than that they existed and that it amused us greatly. Who wouldn’t want back in on that?

Another one of his citations was Elizabeth Spiers, who followed up with a post Anything I Care About:

I don’t have to write as narrowly as I do when I publish in a regular media outlet. The upside of that for me is that I don’t feel compelled to stick to a particular topic. I can write about, as Fred put it, “anything I care about.”

One of my first thoughts is how annoyingly insider these posts feel. One of the qualities about the current internet is that our filtering mechanisms are so sophisticated and transparent that we don’t always see how self-selected a sliver of social media we’re seeing. Facebook and its mysterious algorithms are the example we all like to complain about. But Twitter is a different beast depending on who you follow and Google searches use hundreds of different signals to tailor results. Just because your cohort all stopped personal blogging in exchange for professionalized blogs ten years ago doesn’t mean it’s a universal phenomenon.

Whenever someone says they’re starting (or restarting) a blog I like to wait a few months before celebrating, as there’s a big difference between intent and actual writing. But I like the idea that personal blogs might be making a comeback among some of what we used to call the digerati.

But let’s not get too snobby about domains: how are Facebook posts not a personal blog? Is it just a matter of URLs? I have Facebook friends who put care into their online persona. People use Facebook and Tumblr and Instagram partly because they come with built-in audiences–but also because their crackerjack engineers have taken away the friction of blogging. When Wilson decided to experiment with this nouveau-blogging, he photoblogged a trip to his WordPress site. What happened? The photos were all oversized. One of the commenters asked Wilson “isn’t this a bit similar to what you’re already posting on Tumblr and Foursquare?” Well, yeah.

Anyway, all this is to say that I’ve blogged a lot more since I decided to make my Tumblr my personal blog. I’ve got the near-frictionless posting that keeps my photoblogging looking good but I’ve maintain the controlled URL of martinkelley.com to future proof against new technological platforms. But is it just the URL that makes it a personal blog?

[Update 2015: Despite the posting ease and nice display the Tumblr never matched the traffic on my WordPress site. Since reading is as important as writing, I’ve moved my main writing back to the WP-powered QuakerRanter]

Wikifying Our Blogging

Continuing my recent post in reimagining blogs, I’m going to go into some contextual details lifted from the Quaker publications with which I’m either directly associated or that have some claim to my identity.

My blog at Quaker Ranter dates back to the proto-blog I began in 1997 as an new homepage for my two year old “Nonviolence Web” project. The new feature was updated weekly with excerpted material from member projects on Nonviolence.org and related organizations that already had independent websites. We didn’t have RSS or Twitter then but I would manually send out emails to a list; we didn’t have comments but I would publish interesting responses that came by email. The work was relaunched with blogging software in 2003 and the voice became more individual and my focus became more Quaker and tech.

The articles then were like they are now: reversely chronological, with categories, tagging, and site searching that allow older material to be accessed. The most important source of archive visibility is external: Google. People can easily find material that is directly relevant to a question they’re addressing right now. In many instances, they’ll never even click through to the site homepage, much less categories, tags, etc. As I said in my last post, these first-time visitors are often trying to understand something new; the great majority bounce off the page and follow another search result on a matter of a few seconds, but some small but important percentage will be ripe for new ideas and connections and might be willing to try new associations.

But it’s random. I’m a bit of a nerd in my chosen interests and have been blogging long enough that I generally have at least a few interesting posts on any particular sub-topic. Most of these have been inspired by colleagues, friends, my wife, and random conversations I’ve found myself in.

Some of the most meaningful blog posts–those with legs–have involved me integrating some new thinker or idea into my worldview. The process will have started months or sometimes years before when another spiritual nerd recommended a book or article. In the faith world there’s always books that are obscure to newcomers but essential for those trying to go deeper into their faith. You’ll be in a deep conversations with someone and they’ll ask (often with a twinkle in their eye) “have you read so-and-so?” (This culture if sharing is especially important for Friends, who traditionally have no clergy or seminaries).

A major role of my blog has been to bring these sorts of conversations into a public realm–one that can be Googled and followed. The internet has helped us scale-up this process and make it more available to those who can’t constantly travel.

When I have real-world conversations now, I often have recourse to cite some old blog post. I’m sharing the “have you read” conversation in a way that can be eavesdropped by hundreds.

But how are people who stumble in my site for the first time going to find this?

The issue isn’t just limited to an obscure faith blog. Yesterday I learned about a cool (to me) blog written by a dad who researches and travels to neat nature spots in the area with his kids and writes up a post about what-to-see and kid-issues-to-be-aware-of. But when it’s a nice Saturday afternoon and I find myself in a certain locale, how can I know if he’s been anywhere nearby unless I go through all the archives or hope the search works or hope his blog’s categorization taxonomy is complete?

What I’m thinking is that we could try to create meta indexes to our blogs in a wiki model. Have a whole collection of introductory pages where we list and summarize relevant articles with links.

In the heyday of SEO, I used to tag the heck out if posts and have the pages act as a sort of automated version of this, but again, this it was chronological. And it was work. Even remembering to tag is work. I would spend a couple of days ignoring clients to metatag each page on the site, only to redo the work a few months later with even more metadata complexity. Writing a whole shadow meta blog indexing the blog would be a major (and unending task). It wouldn’t garner the rush of immediate Facebook likes. But it would be supremely useful for someone wanting to explore an issue of particular interest to them at that moment.

And one more Quaker aside that I think will nevertheless be of interest to the more techie readers. I’ve described Quakerism as a wiki spirituality. Exhibit one is the religious movement’s initial lack of creeds or written instruction. Even our pacifism, for which we’re most well known, was an uncodified testimony in the earliest years.

As Friends gained more experience living in community, they would publish advices–short snippets of wisdom that were collectively-approved using consensus decision making. They were based on experience. For example, they might find that members who abused alcohol, say, or repeatedly tested the dress code might cause other sorts of problems for the community and they’d minute a warning against these practices.

These advices were written over time; as more were approved it became burdensome to find relevant advices when some issue started tearing up a congregation. So they were collected into books–unofficial at first, literally hand-copied from person to person. These eventually became official–published “books of disciplines,” collections of the collective wisdom organized by topic. Their purpose and scope (and even their name) has changed over the ensuing centuries but their impulse and early organization is one that I find useful when thinking about how we could rethink the categorization issues of our twenty first century blogs and commenting systems.

Rethinking Blogs

In last weekend’s NYTimes Magazine, Michael Erard writes about the history of online comments. Even though I was involved with blogging from its earliest days, it surprised me to remember that comments, permalinks, comments, and trackbacks were all later innovations. Erard’s historical lens is helpful in showing how what we now think of as a typical comment system–a line of reader feedback in reverse chronological order underneath content–grew out of technological restraints. It was easiest to code this sort of system. The model was bulletin boards and, before that, “guestbooks” that sat on websites.

Many of these same constraints and models underlay blogs as a whole. Most blog home pages don’t feature the most post popular posts or the one the writer might think most important. No, they show the most recent. As in comments, the entries are ordered in reverse chronological order. The pressure on writers is to repeat themselves so that their main talking points regularly show up on the homepage. There are ways around this (pinned posts, a list of important posts, plug-ins that will show what’s most popular or getting the most comments), but they’re rarely implemented and all have drawbacks.

Here’s the dilemma: the regular readers who follow your blog (read your magazine, subscribe to your Youtube, etc.) probably already know where you stand on particular issue. They generally share many of your opinions and even when they don’t, they’re still coming to your site for some sort of confirmation.

The times when blogs and websites change lives–and they do sometimes–is when someone comes by to whom your message is new. Your arguments or viewpoint helps them make sense of some growing realization that they’ve intuited but can’t quite name or define. The writing and conversation provides a piece of the puzzle of a growing identity.

(The same is true of someone walking into a new church; it’s almost a cliche of Friends that a newcomer feels “as if I’ve been Quaker my whole life and didn’t know it!” If taught gently, the Quaker ethos and metaphors give shape to an identity that’s been bubbling up for some time.)

So if we’re rethinking the mechanical default of comments, why not rethink blogs? I know projects such as Medium are trying to do that. But would it be possible to retrofit existing online publications and blogs in a way that was both future-proof and didn’t require inordinate amounts of categorization time?

Retooling after Google Reader

I must admit I’ve been thrown off my blog reading by the demise of Google Reader, closed July 1 with only a few months warning. I remember when Google’s was the newest member of the RSS reading options. Its simple interface and relatively-solid performance eventually won me over and its competitors gradually stopped innovating and finally closed.

In the last few months other services have taken up the challenge of replacing Reader, but it’s been a chaotic process and a gamble which would be rolled out in time. One of my go-to programs, Reeder, now works for the phone but not the Mac app. It runs off of the Feedly service, which I now use in the browser to access my feeds.

I rely on these blog reading services to keep track of over 100 blogs. RSS may not be sexy enough to be a mass-market service but for those of us whose temperments or hobbies run toward curation, it’s an essential tool. As the new systems mature, I hope to keep up with my Quakerquaker reading more thoroughly.

The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It:

parislemon:

I think about what constantly-flowing information means for blogging. In some ways this is Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. But what if someone started a stand-alone blog that wasn’t a series of posts, but rather a continuous stream of blurbs, almost like chat. For example: “I just heard…” or “Microsoft launching this is stupid, here’s why…” — things like that. More like an always-on live blog, I guess.

It’s sort of strange to me that blogs are still based around the idea of fully-formed articles of old. This works well for some content, but I don’t see why it has to be that way for all content. The real-time communication aspect of the web should be utilized more, especially in a mobile world.

People aren’t going to want to sit on one page all day, especially if there’s nothing new coming in for a bit. But push notifications could alleviate this as could Twitter as a notification layer. And with multiple people on “shift” doing updates, there could always be fresh content, coming in real time.

Just thinking out loud here.

Good out loud thinking from MG about where blogging’s going. I’ve realized for while now that I’m much more likely to use Twitter and Tumblr to share small snippets that aren’t worth a fully-formed post. What I’ve also realized is that I’m more likely to add commentary to that link share (as I’m doing now) so that it effectively becomes a blog post.

Because of this I’m seriously considering archiving my almost ten year old blog (carefully preserving comment threads if at a possible) and installing my Tumblr on the QuakerRanter.org domain.

Lessons in Social Media from Egyptian Protesters

A few days ago the NYTimes ran a fascinating early look-back at the relationship between social media and the largely-nonviolent revolution in Egypt written by David D Kirkpatrick and David E Sanger. I doubt we’ve seen the last twist and turn of this tumultuous time but as I write this, the world sighs relief that longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak is finally out. Most of the quotes and inside knowlege came via Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, who became an activist in 2005.

Lesson One: Years in the Making

The Times starts off by pointing out that the “bloggers lead the way” and that the “Egyptian revolt was years in the making.” It’s important to remember that these things don’t come out of nowhere. Bloggers have been active for years: leading, learning, making mistakes and collecting knowledge. Many of the first round of bloggers were ignored and repressed. Some of them were effectively neutralized when they were co-opted into what the Times calls “the timid, legally recognized opposition parties.” “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said one blogger. A lesson we might draw for that is that blogging isn’t necessarily a stepping stone to “real activism” but is instead it’s own kind of activism. The culture of blogs and mainstream movements are not always compatible.

Lesson Two: Share Your Experiences

The Egyptian protests began after ones in Tunisia. The context was not the same: “The Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent.” Still, it was important to share tips: “We shared our experience with strikes and blogging,” a blogger recalled. Some of the tips were exceedingly practical (how to avert tear gas–brought lemons, onions and vinegar, apparently) and others more social (sharing torture experiences). Lesson: we all have many things to learn. It’s best to be ready for counter-tactics.

One of the interesting sidelights was how the teachings of American nonviolence strategist Gene Sharp made it to Cairo. A Serbian youth movement had based their rebellion on his tactics and the Egyptians followed their lead, with exiled organizers setting up a website (warning: annoying sound) compiling Sharp’s strategies:

For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.

As an aside, I have to say that as a longterm peace activist, it tickles me no end to see Gene Sharp’s ideas at the heart of the Egyptian protests. America really can export democracy sometimes!

Lesson Three: Be Relentless in Confronting Lies

The Times reports that Maher “took special aim at the distortions of the official media.” He told them that when people “distrust the media then you know you are not going to lose them. When the press is full of lies, social media takes on the fact checking role. People turn to independent sources when they sense a propaganda machine. The creator of a Facebook site was a Google marketing executive working on his own. He filled the site We Are all Khaled Said “with video clips and newspaper articles [and] repeatedly hammered home a simple message.”

Lesson Four: Don’t Wait for Those Supposed To Do This Work

Most of this social media was created by students for goodness sake and it all relied on essentially-free services. Everyone’s always thought that if Egypt were to explode it would be the dreaded-but-popular Muslim Brotherhood that would lead the charge. But they didn’t. They scrambled not knowing what to do as protests erupted in the major cities. Eventually the Brotherhood’s youth wing joined the protests and the full organization followed suit but it was not the leaders in any of this.

When we’re talking about popular organizating, money and established credentials aren’t always an advantage. What’s interesting to learn with the Egypt protests is that the generation leading it doesn’t seem to have as strict a religious worldview as its parents. This came out most dramatically in the images of Christian Egyptians protecting their Muslim brothers in Tahir Square during times of prayer. This is having ramification in copycat protests in Tehran. Iranian leaders tried to paint the Egyptian students as heirs to their own Islamic revolution but it seems practical considerations are more important than setting up an Islamist state (stay tuned on this one–protests have begun in Tehran on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood might well take over from Egypt protesters now that Mubarak is out).

On a personal note…

It’s interesting to watch how the three-year old Save St Mary’s campaign has mimicked some of the features of the Egyptian protests. Their blog has been pretty relentless in exposing the lies. It’s attracted far more media attention than the professionally-staffed Diocesan press office has been able to muster. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes talking with churches in other regions to compare tactics and anticipate counter-moves. As far as I know it’s one of seven churches nationwide with round-the-clock vigils but it’s the only one with a strong social media component. It’s average age is probably a generation or two younger than the other vigils which gives it a certain frank style that’s not found elsewhere. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is exploding now with arrests of recent Diocesan officials and revelations from the District Attoreny that dozens of priests with “credible accusations” of pedophilia are still ministering around kids and while church closings and the pedophilia scandals are not officially connected, as a non-Catholic I’m fine admitting that they arise from a shared Diocesan culture of money and cover-ups. Again, “repeatingly hammering home a simple message” is a good strategy.

Opening Doors and Moving on Up

Friends General Conference has announced that Barry Crossno will be their new incoming General Secretary. Old time bloggers will remember him as the blogger behind The Quaker Dharma. FGC’s just published an interview with him and one of the questions is about his blogging past. Here’s part of the answer:

Blogging among Friends is very important.  There are not a lot of Quakers.  We’re spread out across the world.  Blogging opens up dialogues that just wouldn’t happen otherwise.  While I laid down my blog, “The Quaker Dharma,” a few years ago, and my thinking on some issues has evolved since then, I’m clear that blogging is what allowed me to give voice to my call.  It helped open some of the doors that led me to work for Pendle Hill and, now by extension, FGC.  A lot of cutting edge Quaker thought is being shared through blogs.

I thought it might be useful to fill in a little bit of this story. If you go reading through the back comments on Barry’s blog you’ll see it’s a time machine into the early Quaker blogging community. I first posted about his blog in February of 2005 with Quaker Dharma: Let the Light Shine and I highlighted him regularly (March, April, June) until the proto-QuakerQuaker “Blog Watch” started running. There I featured him twice that June and twice more in August, the most active period of his blogging.

It’s nostalgic to look through the commenters: Joe G., Peterson Toscano, Mitchell Santine Gould, Dave Carl, Barbara Q, Robin M, Brandice (Quaker Monkey), Eric Muhr, Nancy A… There were some good discussions. Barry’s most exuberant post was Let’s Begin, and LizOpp and I especially labored with him to ground what was a very clear and obvious leading by hooking up with other Friends locally and nationally who were interested in these efforts. I offered my help in hooking him up with FGC  and he wrote back “If you know people at other Quaker organizations that you wish me to speak to and coordinate with or possibly work for, I will.”

And that’s what I did. My supervisor, FGC Development head Michael Wajda, was planning a trip to Texas and I started talking up Barry Crossno. I had a hunch they’d like each other. I told Michael that Barry had a lot of experience and a very clear leading but needed to spend some time growing as a Quaker–an incubation period, if you will, among grounded Friends. In the first part of the FGC interview he movingly talks about the grounding his time at Pendle Hill has given him.

In October 2006 he announced he was closing a blog that had become largely dormant. It’s worth quoting that first formal goodbye:

I want to thank those of you who chose to actively participate. I learned a lot through our exchanges and I think there were many people who benefited from many of the posts you left. On a purely personal note, I learned that it’s good to temper my need to GO DO NOW. Some of you really helped mentor me concerning effectively listening to guidance and helping me understand that acting locally may be better than trying to take on the whole world at once.

I also want to share that I met some people and made contacts through this process that have opened tremendous doors for me and my ability to put myself in service to others. For this I am deeply grateful. I feel sure that some of these ties will live on past the closing of the Quaker Dharma.

Those of you familiar with pieces like The Lost Quaker Generation and Passing the Faith, Planet of the Quakers Style know I’ve long been worried that we’ve not doing a good job identifying, supporting and retaining visionary new Friends. Around 2004 I stopped complaining (mostly) and just started looking for others who also held this concern. The online organizing has spilled over into real world conferences and workshops and is much bigger than one website or small group. Now we see “graduates” of this network starting to take on real-world responsibilities.

Barry’s a bright guy with a strong leading and a healthy ambition. He would have certainly made something of himself without the blogs and the “doors” opened up by myself and others. But it would have certainly taken him longer to crack the Philadelphia scene and I think it very likely that FGC would have announced a different General Secretary this week if it weren’t for the blogs.

QuakerQuaker almost certainly has more future General Secretaries in its membership rolls. But it would be a shame to focus on that or to imply that the pinnacle of a Quaker leading is moving to Philadelphia. Many parts of the Quaker world are already too enthralled by it’s staff lists. What we need is to extend a culture of everyday Friends ready to boldly exclaim the Good News–to love God and their neighbor and to leap with joy by the presence of the Inward Christ. Friends’ culture shouldn’t focus on staffing, flashy programs or fundraising hype.  At the end of the day, spiritual outreach is a one-on-one activity. It’s people spending the time to find one another, share their spiritual journey and share opportunities to grow in their faith.

QuakerQuaker has evolved a lot since 2005. It now has a team of editors, discussion boards, Facebook and Twitter streams, and the site itself reaches over 100,000 readers a year. But it’s still about finding each other and encouraging each other. I think we’ve proven that these overlapping, distributed, largely-unfunded online initiatives can play a critical outreach role for the Society of Friends. What would it look like for the “old style” Quaker organizations to start supporting independent Quaker social media? And how could our networks reinvigorate cash-strapped Quaker organizations with fresh faces and new models of communication? Those are questions for another post.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Interim Meeting: Getting a horse to drink

This past weekend I gave a talk at the Arch Street Meetinghouse after the Interim Meeting sessions of Philadlephia Yearly Meeting. Interim Meeting is the group that meets sort-of monthly between yearly meeting business sesssions. In an earlier blog post I called it “the establishment” and I looked forward to sharing the new life of the blogging world and Convergent Friends with this group. I had been asked by the most excellent Stephen Dotson to talk about “Finding Fellowship Between Friends Thru The Internet.”

I was curious to return to Interim Meeting, a group I served on about half a decade ago. As I sat in the meeting, I kept seeing glimpses of issues that I planned to address afterwards in my talk: how to talk afresh about faith; how to publicize our activity and communicate both among ourselves and with the outside world; how to engage new and younger members in our work.

Turns out I didn’t get the chance. Only half a dozen or so members of Interim Meeting stuck around for my presentation. No announcement was made at the end of sessions. None of the senior staff were there and no one from the long table full of clerks, alternate clerks and alternate alternate clerks came. Eleven people were at the talk (including some who hadn’t been at Interim Meeting). The intimacy was nice but it was hardly the “take it to the estabishment” kind of event I had imagined.

The talk itself went well, despite or maybe because of its intimacy. I had asked Seth H (aka Chronicler) along for spiritual support and he wrote a nice review on QuakerQuaker. Steve T, an old friend of mine from Central Philly days, took some pictures which I’ve included here. I videoed the event, though it will need some work to tighten it down to something anyone would want to watch online. The people who attended wanted to attend and asked great questions. It was good working with Stephen Dotson again in the planning. I would wish that more Philadelphia Friends had more interest in these issues but as individuals, all we can do is lead a horse to water. In the end, the yearly meeting is in God’s hands.


Below are observations from Interim Meeting and how the Convergent Friends movement might address some of the issues raised. Let me stress that I offer these in love and in the hope that some honest talk might help. I’ve served on Interim Meeting and have given a lot of time toward PYM over the last twenty years. This list was forwarded by email to senior staff and I present them here for others who might be concerned about these dynamics.

 

GENERATIONAL FAIL:

There were about seventy-five people in the room for Interim Meeting sessions. I was probably the third or fourth youngest. By U.S. census definitions I’m in my eighth year of middle age, so that’s really sad. That’s two whole generations that are largely missing from PYM leadership. I know I shouldn’t be surprised; it’s not a new phenomenon. But if you had told me twenty years ago that I’d be able to walk into Interim Meeting in 2010 and still be among the youngest, well… Well, frankly I would have uttered a choice epithet and kicked the Quaker dust from my shoes (most of my friends did). I know many Friends bodies struggle with age diversity but this is particularly extreme.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: About 33% of QuakerQuaker’s audience is GenX and 22% are Millenials. If Interim Meeting were as diverse as QuakerQuaker there would have been 16 YAFs (18-35 year olds) and 25 Friends 35 and 49 years of age. I would have been about the 29th youngest in the room–middle aged, just where I should be! QuakerQuaker has an age diversity that most East Coast Friends Meetings would die for. If you want to know the interests and passions of younger Friends, Quaker blogs are an excellent place to learn. There are some very different organizational and style differences at play (my post seven years ago, a post from Micah Bales this past week).


DECISION-MAKING

 

The first part of the sessions was run with what’s called a “Consent Agenda,” a legislative measure where multiple agenda items are approved en masse. It rests on the idealistic notion that all seventy-five attendees has come to sessions having read everything in the quarter-inch packet mailed to them (I’ll wait till you stop laughing). Interim Meeting lumped thirteen items together in this manner. I suspect most Friends left the meeting having forgotten what they had approved. Most educators would say you have to reinforce reading with live interaction but we bypassed all of that in the name of efficiency.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: Quaker blogs are wonderfully rich sources of discussion. Comments are often more interesting than the original posts. Many of us have written first drafts of published articles on our blogs and then polished them with feedback received in the comments. This kind of communication feedback is powerful and doesn’t take away from live meeting-time. There’s a ton of possibilities for sharing information in a meaningful way outside of meetings.


MINUTES OF WITNESS

 

Two “minutes” (a kind of Quaker statement/press release) were brought to sessions. Both were vetted through a lengthy process where they were approved first by monthly and then quarterly meetings before coming before Interim Meeting. A minute on Afghanistan was nine months old, a response to a troop level announcement made last December; one against Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania was undated but it’s a topic that peaked in mainstream media five months ago. I would have more appreciation of this cumbersome process if the minutes were more “seasoned” (well-written, with care taken in the discernment behind them) but there was little in either that explained how the issue connected with Quaker faith and why we were lifting it up now as concern. A senior staffer in a small group I was part of lamented how the minutes didn’t give him much guidance as to how he might explain our concern with the news media. So here we were, approving two out-of-date, hard-to-communicate statements that many IM reps probably never read.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: Blogging gives us practice in talking about spirituality. Commenters challenge us when we take rhetorical shortcuts or make assumptions or trade on stereotypes. Most Quaker bloggers would tell you they’re better writers now than when they started their blog. Spiritual writing is like a muscle which needs to be exercised. To be bluntly honest, two or three bloggers could have gotten onto Skype, opened a shared Google Doc and hammered out better statements in less than an hour. If we’re going to be approving these kinds of thing we need to practice and increase our spiritual literacy.


THE ROLE OF COMMITTEES

 

The second part was Interim Meeting looking at itself. We broke into small groups and asking three questions: “What is the work of Interim Meeting,” “Are we satisfied with how we do this now?” and “If we were to make changes, what would they be?.” I thought to myself that the reason I ever go to events like this is to see dear Friends and to see what sparks of life are happening in the yearly meeting. As our small group went around, and as small groups shared afterwards, I realized that many of the people in the room seemed to agree: we were hungry for the all-to-brief moments where the Spirit broke into the regimented Quaker process.

One startling testimonial came from a member of the outreach committee. She explained that her committee, like many in PYM, is an administrative one that’s not supposed to do any outreach itself–it’s all supposed to stay very “meta.” They recently decided to have a picnic with no business scheduled and there found themselves “going rogue” and talking about outreach. Her spirit rose and voice quickened as she told us how they spent hours dreaming up outreach projects. Of course the outreach committee wants to do outreach! And with state PYM is in, can we really have a dozen people sequestered away talking about talking about outreach. Shouldn’t we declare “All hands on deck!” and start doing work? It would have been time well spent to let her share their ideas for the next thirty minutes but of course we had to keep moving. She finished quickly and the excitement leaked back out of the room.


FOLLOW-UP THOUGHTS AND THE FUTURE OF THE YEARLY MEETING

 

Now I need to stress some things. I had some great one-on-one conversations in the breaks. A lot of people were very nice to me and gave me hugs and asked about family. These are a committed, hopeful group of people. There was a lot of faith in that room! People work hard and serve faithfully. But it feels like we’re trapped by the system we ourselves created. I wanted to share the excitement and directness of the Quaker blogging world. I wanted to share the robustness of communication techniques we’re using and the power of distributed publishing. I wanted to share the new spirit of ecumenticalism and cross-branch work that’s happening.

I’ve been visiting local Friends Meetings that have half the attendance they did ten years ago. Some have trouble breaking into the double-digits for Sunday morning worship and I’m often the youngest in the room, bringing the only small kids. I know there are a handful of thriving meetings, but I’m worried that most are going to have close their doors in the next ten to twenty years.

I had hoped to show how new communication structures, the rise of Convergent Friends and the seekers of the Emerging Church movement could signal new possibilities for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Toward the end of Interim Meeting, some Friends bemoaned our lack of resources and clerk Thomas Swain reminded them that with God there is no limitation and nothing is impossible. Some of the things I’m seeing online are the impossible come to life. Look at QuakerQuaker: an unstaffed online magazine running off of a $50/month budget and getting 10,000 visits a month. It’s not anything I’ve done, but this community that God has brought together and the technological infrastructure that has allowed us to coordinate so easily. It’s far from the only neat project out there and there are a lot more on the drawing boad. Some yearly meetings are engaging with these new possibilites. But mine apparently can’t even stay around for a talk.

Quakermaps: DIY Friends FTW!

A few weeks ago Micah Bales IM’ed me, as he often does, and asked for my feedback on a project he and Jon Watts were working on. They were building a map of all the Friends meetinghouses and churches in the country, sub-divided by geography, worship style, etc.

My first reaction was “huh?” I warily responded: “you do know about FGC’s Quakerfinder.org and FWCC’s Meeting Map, right?” I had helped to build both sites and attested to the amount of work they represent. I was thinking of a kind way of discouraging Micah from this herculean task when he told me he and Jon were half done. He sent me the link: a beautiful website, full of cool maps, which they’ve now publicly announced at Quakermaps.com. I tried to find more problems but he kept answering them: “well, you need to have each meeting have it’s own page,” “it does,” “well but to be really cool you’d have to let meetings update information directly” (an idea I suggested to FGC last month), “they will.” There’s still a lot of inputting to be done, but it’s already fabulous.
Two people working a series of long days inputting information and embedding it on WordPress have created the coolest Meeting directory going. There’s no six-figure grants from Quaker foundations, no certified programmers, no series of organizing consultations. No Salesforce account, Drupal installations, Vertical Response signups. No high paid consultants yakking in whatever consultant-speak is trendy this year.
Just two guys using open source and free, with the cost being time spent together sharing this project–time well spent building their friendship, I suspect.
I hope everyone’s noticing just how cool this is–and not just the maps, but the way it’s come together. Micah and Jon grew up in two different branches of Friends. As I understand they got to know each other largerly through Jon’s now-famous and much-debated video Dance Party Erupts during Quaker Meeting for Worship. They built a friendship (which you can hear in Micah’s recent interview of Jon) and then started a cool project to share with the world.
Convergent Friends isn’t a theology or a specific group of people, but a different way of relating and working together. The way I see it, Quakermaps.com proves that QuakerQuaker.org is not a fluke. The internet exposes us to people outside our natural comfort zones and provides us ways to meet, work together and publish collaborations with minimal investment. The quick response, flexibility and off-the-clock ethos can come up with truly innovated work. I think the Religious Society of Friends is entering a new era of DIY organizing and I’m very excited. Micah and Jon FTW!
Read more: