The demise of online subcultures?

An interesting profile of a niche community affected by the shift of attention from community-led sites to Facebook, “How Facebook – the Wal-Mart of the internet – dismantled online subcultures.”

Over time, these challenges to the BME community became increasingly problematic. Members deleted accounts or stopped posting. By 2015, the main community forum – which used to have hundreds of posts a day – went without a single comment for over six months.

Having predicted many of the web’s functions and features, BME failed to anticipate its own demise.

It’s definitely something I’ve seen in my niche world of Quakers. I started QuakerQuaker as an independent site in part because I didn’t want Google and Facebook and Beliefnet to determine who we are. There’s the obvious problems—Beliefnet hiring a programmer to make a “What Religion Are You?” test based on a few books picked up the library one afternoon.

But there’s also more subtle problems. On Facebook anyone can start or join a group and start talking authoritatively about Quakers without actually being an active community member. I can think of a number of online characters who had never even visiting a Friends meeting or church.

Our tradition built up ways of defining our spokespeople though the practices of recorded ministers and elders, and of clarifying shared beliefs though documents like Faith and Practice. I’ll be the first to argue that this process has produced mixed results. But if it is to be adapted or reformed, I’d like the work to be done by us in a thoughtful, inclusive manner. Instead, the form of our discussions are now invisibly imposed by an outside algorithm that is optimized for obsessive engagement and advertising delivery. Facebook process is not Quaker process, yet it is largely what we use when we talk about Quakers outside of Sunday morning.

I think Facebook has helped alternative communities form. I’m grateful for the pop-up communities of interest I’m part of. And there are sites with more user generated content like Wikipedia and Reddit that hold an interesting middle-ground and where information is generally more accurate. But there’s still a critical role for self-organized independent publications, a niche that I think is continuing to be overshadowed in our current attention ecosystem.

Wheat planting at Howell’s Living History Farm

We’ve got­ten into the habit of vis­it­ing Howell’s Liv­ing His­to­ry Farm up in Mer­cer Coun­ty, N.J., a few times a year as part of home­school­er group trips. In the past, we’ve cut ice, tapped trees for maple syrup, and seen the sheep shear­ing and card­ing. Today we saw the var­i­ous stages of wheat – from plant­i­ng, to har­vest­ing, thresh­ing, win­now­ing, grind­ing, and bak­ing. I love that there’s such a wide vocab­u­lary of spe­cif­ic lan­guage for all this – words I bare­ly know out­side of bib­li­cal para­bles (“Oh wheat from chaff!”) and that there’s great vin­tage machin­ery (Howell’s oper­a­tions are set around the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry).

Mothers Day 2016 L-O-V-E

DIY Mother's Day present kid handprint.

Last year, the kids and I made a framed hand­print collage-like present for Julie and Moth­ers Day (right). This year I fol­lowed it up with a folksy pho­to of each of the kids hold­ing up hand-drawn let­ters spelling out “LOVE.” This was inspired by this 2009 post on a blog called The Inad­ver­tent Farmer.

The first step was get­ting pic­tures of each kid with a let­ter. It wasn’t too bad as I just had to take enough to get each one look­ing cute.

Here are the four pictures that went into this year's frame. As you can see, it is very basic, just paper and marker. Writing the letters freeform gives it a folksy, personalized charm.

A trick­i­er task was find­ing a frame to dis­play four pic­tures. It took the third store before I lucked out. Because of the tim­ing, I had actu­al­ly print­ed the pic­tures before I had the frame and so had fin­gers crossed that the size would work.

Mothers Day T-minus-one: Three of the kids helped me frame the pictures the night before.

Framed Mothers Day presents two years running!

Once made, the absolute hard­est was get­ting a group shot of the kids with Julie hold­ing it!

Proud Mama with her Mothers Day present from the kids.

What do you love about your Quaker space?

We’re extend­ing the dead­line for the August issue on Quak­er Spaces. We’ve got  some real­ly inter­est arti­cles com­ing in – espe­cial­ly geeky things in archi­tec­ture and the the­ol­o­gy of our clas­sic meet­ing­hous­es.

So far our prospec­tive pieces are  weight­ed toward East Coast and clas­sic meet­ing­house archi­tec­ture. I’d love to see pieces on non-traditional wor­ship spaces. I know there new­ly purpose-built meet­ing­hous­es, adap­ta­tions of pre-existing struc­tures, and new takes on the Quak­er impulse to not be churchy. And wor­ship is where we’re gath­ered, not nec­es­sar­i­ly where we’re mort­gaged: tell us about your the rent­ed library room, the chairs set up on the beach, the room in the prison wor­ship group…

Sub­mis­sion guide­lines are at friend​sjour​nal​.org/​s​u​b​m​i​s​s​i​ons. The new dead­line is Mon­day, May 16. My last post about this issue is here.

What does it mean to be a Quaker?

Craig Bar­nett tries to define Friends:

“I want to sug­gest that there is a liv­ing tra­di­tion of spir­i­tu­al teach­ing and prac­tice that makes up the Quak­er Way, which is not defined by a par­tic­u­lar social group, behav­iour­al norms, or even val­ues and beliefs.”

As usu­al Craig clear­ly artic­u­lates his premise: that Friends have become some­thing of a content-less, lowest-common-denominator group that fears mak­ing belief state­ments that some of our mem­ber­ship would object to.

I agree with most of his analy­sis, though I would add some pieces. I don’t think one can under­stand what it means to be a Quak­er today with­out look­ing at dif­fer­ent types of def­i­n­i­tions. Belief and prac­tices is one part but so is self-identification (which is not nec­es­sar­i­ly mem­ber­ship). We are who we are but we also aren’t. There’s a deep­er real­i­ty in not being able to sep­a­rate Quak­er phi­los­o­phy from the peo­ple who are Quak­er.

In this light, I do wish that Craig hadn’t resort­ed to using the jar­gony “Quak­er Way” ten times in a short piece. For those who haven’t got­ten the memo, lib­er­al Friends are no longer sup­posed to say “Quak­erism” (which implies a tra­di­tion and prac­tice that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the denom­i­na­tor of our member’s indi­vid­ual the­olo­gies) but instead use the vaguer “Quak­er Way.” In my obser­va­tion, it’s most­ly a bureau­crat­ic pref­er­ence: we want to imply there is sub­stance but don’t want to actu­al­ly name it for fear of start­ing a fight. Con­tent­less lan­guage has become its own art form, one that can suck the air out of robust dis­cus­sions. A truly-vital liv­ing tra­di­tion should be able to speak in dif­fer­ent accents.

Normcore and the new-old Quaker plain

In the last few weeks, the fashion segment of the Internet has gone all a-buzz over new term "Normcore." Normal, everyday, clothing is apparently showing up in downtown Manhattan—gasp! Like many trendy terms, it's not really so new: back in the nineties and early oughts, Gap ruled the retail world with posters showing celebrities and artists wearing t-shirts and jeans available at the local mall store. "Normcore" is just the leading edge of the utterly-predicable 20-year fashion industry pendulum swing.

It also perhaps signals a cultural shift away from snobbery and into embracing roots. One of the most popular posts on the New York Times's website last year celebrated regional accents (apparently Philadelphians are allowed to talk like Philadelphians again).

An analogue to this fashion trend has been occuring among Friends for a little while now. The "New Plain" discussion have revolved around reclaiming an attitude, not a uniform.

If you read the old Quaker guide books (called "Books of Discipline" then, now more often called "Faith and Practice"), you'll see that unlike other plain-dressing American groups like the Amish, Quakers didn't intend their clothes to be a uniform showing group conformity. Instead, plainness is framed in terms of interior motivations. Avoiding fashion trends helped Friends remember that they were all equal before God. It also spoke to our continuing testimony of integrity, in that Friends were to dress the same way in different contexts and so vouchsafe for a single identity.

When I began feeling the tug of a leading toward plainness it was for what I began calling "Sears Plain," indicating that I wore clothes that I could find in any box store or mall. I developed a low-maintenance approach to fashion that freed up my time from shopping and the morning dressing ritual. Modern plainness can lesson the temptation to show off in in clothes and it can reduce the overall wardrobe size and thus reduce our impact on the environment and with exploited labor. But all this is nothing new and it never really disappeared. If you looked around a room of modern Quakers you'll often see a trend of sartorial boringness; I was simply naming this and putting it in the context of our tradition.

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Over time I found that these motivations were more prevalent in the wider culture, especially in the minimalist techie scene. Steve Jobs famously sported a uniform of black turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance sneakers (explained in 2011). In a 2012 profile, Barack Obama talked about limiting his clothes to two colors of suits so that he could free up his decision-making energies on more important issues (I wrote about his fashion in "Plain like Barack").

Non-celebrities also seem interested in working out their relationship with fashion. My articles on modern plainness have always been a big draw on my blog. While my fellow Quakers are sometimes mildly embarrassed by our historic peculiarities, outsiders often eat this stuff up. They're looking for what the techies would call "life hacks" that can help them prioritize life essentials. If we can communicate our values in a real way that isn't propped by appeals to the authority of tradition, then we can reach these seekers.

So now that "Normcore" is appearing in places like Huffington Post , the New York Times and fashion magazines, will Friends be able to talk more about it? Do we still have a collective witness in regards to the materialism and ego-centricity of fashion marketing?