Tag Archives: life

Gladwell and strong tie social media networks

A lot of peo­ple, include Jeanne Burns over on Quak­erquaker, are talk­ing about Mal­colm Gladwell’s lat­est New Yorker arti­cle, “Small Change: Why the Rev­o­lu­tion Will Not Be Tweeted”.

Mal­colm Gladwell’s modus operandi is to make out­ra­geously counter-intuitive claims that peo­ple will talk about enough that they’ll buy his boss’s mag­a­zine, books and bobble-head like­nesses. I find him lik­able and divert­ing but don’t take his claims very seri­ously. He’s a lot like Wired Magazine’s Chris Ander­son, his some­times spar­ring part­ner, which isn’t sur­pris­ing as they work for the same mag­a­zine empire, Conde Nast Pub­li­ca­tions.

In his arti­cle, Glad­well takes a lot of pot­shots at social media. It’s easy to do. He picks Clay Shirky, another New York “Big Idea” guy as his rhetor­i­cal straw­man now, claim­ing Shirky’s book “Here Comes Every­body” is the “bible of social-media move­ment.” Read­ing Glad­well, you kind of wish he’d get out of the echo box of circle-jerk New York Big Talk­ers (just get­ting out of the Conde Nast building’s cafe­te­ria would be a good start).

Gladwell’s cer­tainly right in that most of what passes for activism on Twit­ter and Face­book is ridicu­lous. Click­ing a “Like” but­ton or chang­ing your pro­file image green doesn’t do much. He makes an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between “weak ties” (Face­book “friends” who aren’t friends; Twit­ter cam­paigns that are risk-free) and “strong ties.” He cites the Civil Rights move­ment as a strong-tie phe­nom­e­non: the peo­ple who put them­selves on the line tended to be those with close friends also putting them­selves on the line.

What Glad­well misses is strong-tie orga­niz­ing going on in social media. A lot of what’s hap­pen­ing over on Quak­erQuaker is pretty strong-tie–it’s trans­lat­ing to work­shops, arti­cles, and is just one of a num­ber of impor­tant net­works that are form­ing. Peo­ple are find­ing each other and mak­ing real con­nec­tions that spill out into the real world. It’s not that online orga­nizes cre­ates real world changes, or even the reverse. Instead, under the right cir­cum­stances they can feed into each other, with each com­po­nent mag­ni­fy­ing the other’s reach.

One exam­ple of non-hierarchical involved social media is how Quaker blog­gers came together to explain Tom Fox’s motives after his kid­nap­ping. It didn’t have any effect on the kid­nap­pers, obvi­ously, but we did reach a lot of peo­ple who were curi­ous why a Friend might choose such a per­son­ally dan­ger­ous form of Chris­t­ian wit­ness. This was all done by inter-related groups of peo­ple with no bud­get and no orga­ni­za­tional chart. But these things don’t have to be quite so life-and-death.

A more recent exam­ple I’ve been able to see up close is the way my wife’s church has orga­nized against dioce­san attempts to shut it down: a core group of lead­ers have emerged; they share power, divide up roles and have been wag­ing an orga­nized cam­paign for about 2.5 years now. One ele­ment of this work has been the Savest​marys​.org blog. The website’s only impor­tant because it’s been part of a real-world social net­work but it’s had an influ­ence that’s gone far beyond the hand­ful of peo­ple who write for it. One of the more sur­pris­ing audi­ences have been the many staff at the Dioce­san head­quar­ters who visit every day–a small group has taken over quite a bit of men­tal space over there!

It’s been inter­est­ing for me to com­pare Quak­erQuaker with an ear­lier peace project of mine, Non​vi​o​lence​.org, which ran for thir­teen years start­ing in 1995. In many ways it was the big­ger site: a larger audi­ence, with a wider base of inter­est. It was a pop­u­lar site, with many vis­its and a fairly active bul­letin board for much of it’s life. But it didn’t spawn work­shop or con­fer­ences. There’s no “move­ment” asso­ci­ated with it. Dona­tions were min­i­mal and I never felt the sup­port struc­ture that I have now with my Quaker work.

Non​vi​o​lence​.org was a good idea, but it was a “weak tie” net­work. QuakerQuaker’s net­work is stronger for two rea­sons that I can iden­tify. The obvi­ous one is that it’s built atop the orga­niz­ing iden­tity of a social group (Friends). But it also speaks more directly to its par­tic­i­pants, ask­ing them to share their lives and offer­ing real-world oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­ac­tion. So much of my blog­ging on Non​vi​o​lence​.org was Big Idea thoughts pieces about the sit­u­a­tion in Bosnia–that just doesn’t pro­vide the same kind of imme­di­ate per­sonal entre.

Mal­colm Glad­well min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship struc­ture of activist orga­ni­za­tions, where lead­er­ship and power is in con­stant flux. He like­wise min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship of social media net­works. Yes, any­one can pub­lish but we all have dif­fer­ent lev­els of vis­i­bil­ity and influ­ence and there is a fil­ter­ing effect. I have twenty-five years of orga­nized activism under my belt and fif­teen years of online orga­niz­ing and while the tech­nol­ogy is very dif­fer­ent, a lot of the social dynam­ics are remark­ably similar.

Glad­well is an hired employee in one of the largest media com­pa­nies in the world. It’s a very struc­tured life: he’s got edi­tors, pub­lish­ers, copy­ed­i­tors, proof­read­ers. He’s a cog in a com­pany with $5 bil­lion in annual rev­enue. It’s not really sur­pris­ing that he doesn’t have much direct expe­ri­ence with effec­tive social net­works. It’s hard to see how social media is com­ple­ment­ing real world grass­roots net­works from the 40th floor of a mid-town Man­hat­tan skyscraper.

Related Read­ing:

Do it yourself and don’t get stuck

NMCF Pendle HillThis week­end was the long-prepared New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends week­end at Pen­dle Hill, co-led by myself and Wess Daniels, with very help­ful elder­ship from Ash­ley W. As I posted after­wards on Face­book, “I feel we served the Lord faith­fully, nav­i­gat­ing the hopes and fears of the mem­bers of the church who gath­ered into this short-lived com­mu­nity. Not the con­ver­sa­tion we expected, but the con­ver­sa­tion we were given, which is enough (always) and for which we feel gratitude.” 

Wess and I have often described Con­ver­gent Friends as a do-it-yourself cul­ture. But this week­end I real­ized that there’s some­thing more to it. There’s what you might call a “don’t get stuck” ethos. 
On Sat­ur­day after­noon, the con­ver­sa­tion turned to what our local monthly and yearly meet­ings aren’t doing well. This is a pretty stan­dard phase of any Quaker gath­er­ing think­ing about renewal. We had asked for “signs of life” and “what does New Monas­ti­cism and Con­ver­gent Friends look like at meet­ings” but this quickly became talk of spir­i­tual sick­ness and meet­ings that seem­ingly want to die. Fine enough, these exist and a half-session feel­ing sorry for our­selves might be cathar­tic, but I’m not sure the work­shop ever fully got out of this funk. Pen­dle Hill was also host­ing a “Griev­ing” work­shop this week­end and I wanted to ask if all of the par­tic­i­pants were sure they were in the right building.
Part of the shift of that amor­phous group we’ve been call­ing “Con­ver­gent” is not get­ting stuck. We use the offi­cial struc­tures when they’re in place and healthy and help­ful. When they’re not we find infor­mal ways to fill in the gaps. This has been hap­pen­ing for a long time in quasi-official net­works, but the internet’s accel­er­ated the process by let­ting us find and com­mu­ni­cate with min­i­mal cost or orga­ni­za­tion. Most of us are work­ing offi­cial and ad hoc tech­niques for spir­i­tual nur­ture, over­sight and pas­toral care.
My guess is that this infor­mal boot­strap­ping will feed back into for­mal process as time goes on. But more impor­tantly, we’re learn­ing and spread­ing a cul­ture of spir­i­tual friend­ship and sup­port that is flex­i­ble and spirit-led and not process-dependent. Praise God!

Conflict in meeting and the role of heartbreak and testing

A few weeks ago a newslet­ter brought writ­ten reports about the lat­est round of con­flict at a local meet­ing that’s been fight­ing for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit under­whelmed by the accounts of the newest con­flict res­o­lu­tion attempts. The medi­a­tors seemed more wor­ried about alien­at­ing a few long-term dis­rup­tive char­ac­ters than about pre­serv­ing the spir­i­tual vital­ity of the meet­ing. It’s a phe­nom­ena I’ve seen in a lot of Quaker meetings.

Call it the FDR Prin­ci­ple after Franklin D Roo­sevelt, who sup­pos­edly defended his sup­port of one of Nicaragua’s most bru­tal dic­ta­tors by say­ing “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casual his­to­ri­ans of Latin Amer­i­can his­tory will know this only led to fifty years of wars with rever­ber­a­tions across the world with the Iran/Contra scan­dal. The FDR Prin­ci­ple didn’t make for good U.S. for­eign pol­icy and, if I may, I’d sug­gest it doesn’t make for good Quaker pol­icy either. Any dis­cus­sion board mod­er­a­tor or pop­u­lar blog­ger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integrity you need to know when to cut a dis­rup­tive trouble-maker off–politely and suc­cintly, but also firmly. If you don’t, the peo­ple there to actu­ally dis­cuss your issues–the peo­ple you want–will leave.

I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Con­flict in Meet­ing came through Live­jour­nal this past First Day. The poster, jan­drewm, wrote in part:

Yet my recog­ni­tion of all that doesn’t negate the painful feel­ings that arise when hos­til­ity enters the meet­ing room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spo­ken.  After a few months of reg­u­lar atten­dance at my meet­ing, I came close to aban­don­ing this “exper­i­ment” with Quak­erism because some Friends were so con­sis­tently ran­corous, divi­sive, dis­rup­tive.  I had to ask myself: “Do I need this neg­a­tiv­ity in my life right now?”

I com­mented about the need to take the tes­ti­monies seri­ously:

I’ve been in that sit­u­a­tion. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on fla­grantly dis­rup­tive behav­ior. I wish I could buy the “it even­tu­ally sorts out” argu­ment but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meet­ings where all the sane peo­ple are dri­ven out, leav­ing the dis­rup­tive folks and arm­chair ther­a­pists. It’s a sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship, per­haps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spir­i­tual com­mu­nity.

The unpop­u­lar solu­tion is for us to take our tes­ti­monies seri­ously. And I mean those more spe­cific tes­ti­monies buried deep in copies in Faith & Prac­tice that act as a kind of col­lec­tive wis­dom for Quaker com­mu­nity life. Tes­ti­monies against detrac­tion and for rightly ordered deci­sion mak­ing, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meet­ing they should be coun­seled; if they con­tinue to dis­rupt then their decision-making input should be dis­re­garded. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quaker process of dis­own­ing (which allowed con­tin­ued atten­dance at wor­ship and life in the com­mu­nity but stopped busi­ness par­tic­i­pa­tion). Lim­it­ing input like this makes sense to me.

The trou­ble that if your meet­ing is in this kind of spi­ral there might not be much you can do by your­self. Peo­ple take some sort of weird com­fort in these pre­dictable fights and if you start talk­ing tes­ti­monies you might become very unpop­u­lar very quickly. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the bick­er­ing isn’t help­ful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Dis­tanc­ing your­self for a time might be help­ful. Get­ting involved in other Quaker venues. It’s a shame. Monthly meet­ing is sup­posed to be the cen­ter of our Quaker spir­i­tual life. But some­times it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from these cir­cum­stances. I cer­tainly under­stand the value and need for the Quaker tes­ti­monies bet­ter sim­ply because I’ve seen the prob­lems meet­ings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any eas­ier for you.

But all of this begs an awk­ward ques­tion: are we really build­ing Christ’s king­dom by drop­ping out? It’s an age-old ten­sion between purity and par­tic­i­pa­tion at all costs. Tim­o­thy asked a sim­i­lar ques­tion of me in a com­ment to my last post. Before we answer, we should rec­og­nize that there are indeed many peo­ple who have “aban­doned” their “Quaker exper­i­ment” because we’re not liv­ing up to our own ideals.

Maybe I’m more aware of this drop-out class than oth­ers. It some­times seems like an email cor­re­spon­dence with the “Quaker Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get mes­sages from seek­ers newly con­vinced of Quaker prin­ci­ples but unable to con­nect locally because of the diver­gent prac­tices or juve­nile behav­ior of their local Friends meet­ing or church. A typ­i­cal email last week asked me why the plain Quak­ers weren’t evan­gel­i­cal and why evan­gel­i­cal Quak­ers weren’t con­ser­v­a­tive and asked ”Is there a place in the quak­ers for a Plain Dress­ing, Bible Thump­ing,
Gospel Preach­ing, Evan­gel­i­cal, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Spirit Led, Charis­matic
fam­ily?” (Any­one want to sug­gest their local meet­ing?)

We should be more wor­ried about the peo­ple of integrity we’re los­ing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embed­ded in some of our meet­ings. If some­one is con­sis­tently dis­rup­tive, is clearly break­ing spe­cific Quaker tes­ti­monies we’ve lumped under com­mu­nity and intergrity, and stub­bornly immune to any coun­cil then read them out of busi­ness meet­ing. If the peo­ple you want in your meet­ing are leav­ing because of the peo­ple you really don’t want, then it’s time to do some­thing. Our Quaker tool­box pro­vides us tool for that action–ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tra­di­tion gives us access to hun­dreds of years of expe­ri­ence, both mis­takes and suc­cesses, and can be a more use­ful guide than con­tem­po­rary pop psy­chol­ogy or plain old head-burying.

Not all meet­ings have these prob­lems. But enough do that we’re los­ing peo­ple. And the dynam­ics get more acute when there’s a vision­ary project on the table and/or some­one younger is at the cen­ter of them. While our meet­ings sort out their issues, the inter­net is pro­vid­ing one type of sup­port lifeline.

Blog­ger jan­drewm was able to seek advice and con­so­la­tion on Live­jour­nal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quaker Gen­er­a­tion” series of posts are now lurk­ing away on my Face­book friends list. Maybe we can stop the full depar­ture of some of these Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engag­ing their local meet­ing. They can be read­ing and dis­cussing tes­ti­monies (“detrac­tion” is a won­der­ful place to start) so they can spot and explain behav­ior. We can use the web to coor­di­nate work­shops, online dis­cus­sions, local meet-ups, new work­ship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thou­sands of miles away can help give us clar­ity and strength.

I think (I hope) we’re help­ing to forge a group of Friends with a clear under­stand­ing of the work to be done and the tech­niques of Quaker dis­cern­ment. It’s no won­der that Quaker bod­ies some­times fail to live up to their ideals: the jour­nals of  olde tyme Quaker min­is­ters are full of dis­ap­point­ing sto­ries and Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion is rich with tales of the road­blocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to  cen­ter in the Lord when our meet­ings become too polit­i­cal or disfunctional (I think I should start look­ing harder at Anabap­tist non-resistance the­ory). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through what­ever comes we need to trust that any test­ing and heart­break has a pur­pose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suf­fer­ing will be pro­duc­tive to His pur­pose if we can keep low and lis­ten­ing for follow-up instructions.

Steady​Foot​steps​.org

Steady Footsteps

Blog by an Amer­i­can cou­ple liv­ing in Viet­nam and advo­cat­ing for greater motor­bike safety. The tech­ni­cal aspects are pretty straight-forward but the neat part about it was watch­ing the client learn about blog­ging and online photo
shar­ing as we worked on the site: I intro­duced her to Fli­crk, Picasa
and Gmail! She took to it like a fish to water and the site is full of great
pho­tos taken by her hus­band David. Read more about their
work doing phys­i­cal ther­apy in Viet­nam and their posts about life in Da Nang.
. Tech­nol­ogy: Mov­able Type, Flickr. Visit Site.

Reading John Woolman 3: The Isolated Saint

Read­ing John Wool­man: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 (missing)

It’s said that John Wool­man re-wrote his Jour­nal three times in an effort to excise it of as many “I” ref­er­ences as pos­si­ble. As David Sox writes in Johh Wool­man Quin­tes­sen­tial Quaker, “only on lim­ited occa­sion do we glimpse Wool­man as a son, a father and a hus­band.” Wool­man wouldn’t have been a very good blog­ger. Quot­ing myself from my intro­duc­tion to Quaker blogs:

blogs give us a unique way of shar­ing our lives—how our Quak­erism inter­sects with the day-to-day deci­sions that make up faith­ful liv­ing. Quaker blogs give us a chance to get to know like-minded Friends that are sep­a­rated by geog­ra­phy or arti­fi­cial the­o­log­i­cal bound­aries and they give us a way of talk­ing to and with the insti­tu­tions that make up our faith community.

I’ve read many great Wool­man sto­ries over the years and as I read the Jour­nal I eagerly antic­i­pated read­ing the orig­i­nal account. It’s that same excite­ment I get when walk­ing the streets of an iconic land­scape for the first time: walk­ing through Lon­don, say, know­ing that Big Ben is right around the next cor­ner. But Wool­man kept let­ting me down.

One of the AWOL sto­ries is his arrival in Lon­don. The Journal’s account:

On the 8th of Sixth Month, 1772, we landed at Lon­don, and I went straight­way to the Yearly Meet­ing of min­is­ters and elders, which had been gath­ered, I sup­pose, about half an hour. In this meet­ing my mind was humbly contrite.

But set the scene. He had just spent five weeks cross­ing the Atlantic in steer­age among the pigs (he doesn’t actu­ally spec­ify his non-human bunk­mates). He famously went out of his way to wear clothes that show dirt because they show dirt. He went straight­away: no record of a bath or change of clothes. Sto­ries abound about his recep­tion, and while are some of dubi­ous ori­gin, there are first hand accounts of his being shunned by the British min­is­ters and elders. The best and most dubi­ous story is the theme of another post.

I trust that Wool­man was hon­estly aim­ing for meek­ness when he omit­ted the most inter­est­ing sto­ries of his life. But with­out the con­text of a lived life he becomes an ahis­tor­i­cal fig­ure, an icon of good­ness divorced from the minu­tiae of the daily grind. Two hun­dred and thirty years of Quaker hagiog­ra­phy and latter-day appeals to Woolman’s author­ity have turned the tai­lor of Mount Holly into the oth­er­worldly Quaker saint but the process started at John’s hands himself.

Were his strug­gles merely inte­rior? When I look to my own min­istry, I find the call to dis­cern­ment to be the clear­est part of the work. I need to work to be ever more recep­tive to even the most unex­pected prompt­ing from the Inward Christ and I need to con­stantly prac­tice humil­ity, love and for­give­ness. But the prac­ti­cal lim­i­ta­tions are harder. For years respectibil­ity was an issue; rel­a­tive poverty con­tin­ues to be one. It is ask­ing a lot of my wife to leave respon­si­bil­ity for our two small boys for even a long weekend.

How did Wool­man bal­ance fam­ily life and min­istry? What did wife Sarah think? And just what was his role in the sea-change that was the the “Ref­or­ma­tion of Amer­i­can Quak­erism” (to use Jack Marietta’s phrase) that for­ever altered Amer­i­can Friends’ rela­tion­ship with the world and set the stage for the schisms of the next century.

We also lose the con­text of Woolman’s com­pa­tri­ots. Some are named as trav­el­ing com­pan­ions but the col­or­ful char­ac­ters go unmen­tioned. What did he think of the street-theater antics of Ben­jamin Lay, the Abbie Hoff­man of Philadel­phia Quak­ers. The most widely-told tale is of Lay walk­ing into Philadel­phia Yearly Meet­ing ses­sions, open­ing up a cloak to reveal mil­i­tary uni­form under­neath, and declar­ing that slave-made prod­ucts were prod­ucts of war, plunged a sword into a hollowed-out Bible full of pig’s blood, splat­ter­ing Friends sit­ting nearby.

What role did Wool­man play in the larger anti-slavery awak­en­ing hap­pen­ing at the time? It’s hard to tell just read­ing his Jour­nal. How can we find ways to repli­cate his kind of faith­ful­ness and wit­ness today? Again, his Jour­nal doesn’t give much clue.

Read­ing John Wool­man Series

  • Part One: “The Pub­lic Life of a Pri­vate Man”
  • Part Two: “The Last Safe Quaker
  • Part Three: The Iso­lated Saint (this page)
  • Part Four: I Really Do Like Woolman!

Picked up today in the Philadel­phia Yearly Meet­ing Library:

PYM Librar­ian Rita Var­ley reminded me today they mail books any­where in the US for a mod­est fee and a $50/year sub­scrip­tion. It’s a great deal and a great ser­vice, espe­cially for iso­lated Friends. The PYM cat­a­log is online too!