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).

The Quaker Wars?

Over on Quo­ra, a ques­tion that is more fas­ci­nat­ing than it might at first appear: What wars in his­to­ry were fought in the name of Quak­erism (Soci­ety of Friends)?:

This ques­tion is nei­ther sar­cas­tic nor rhetoric. As many peo­ple insist that vio­lence and atroc­i­ties are an inher­ent part of reli­gions, that reli­gions would cause wars, I real­ly want to know  if that is the truth. Per­son­al­ly I believe reli­gions can be peace­ful, such as in the cas­es of the Quak­ers and the Baha’i, but I might  be wrong. 

The obvi­ous answer should be “none.” Quak­ers are well-known as paci­fists (fun fact: fake can­non used to deceive the ene­my into think­ing an army is more for­ti­fied than it actu­al­ly is are called “Quak­er guns.”) Indi­vid­u­al Quak­ers have rarely been quite as unit­ed around the peace tes­ti­mony as our rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest, but as a group it’s true we’ve nev­er called for a war. I can’t think of any mil­i­tary skir­mish or bat­tle waged to ral­ly­ing cries of “Remem­ber the Quak­ers!”

Quaker guns at Manassas Junction, 1862. Via Wikimedia.
Quak­er guns at Man­as­sas Junc­tion, 1862. Via Wiki­me­dia.

And yet: all of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion has been shaped by war. Our polit­i­cal bound­aries, our reli­gions, our demo­graph­ic make-up – even the lan­guages we speak are all rem­nants of long-ago bat­tles. One of the most influ­en­tial Quak­er thinkers, the eigh­teen­th cen­tu­ry min­is­ter John Wool­man, con­stant­ly remind­ed his brethren to con­sid­er those lux­u­ries that are the fruit of war and slav­ery. When we broad­en the scope like this, we’ve been involved in quite a few wars.

  • We like to remem­ber how William Penn found­ing the colony of Penn­syl­va­nia as a reli­gious refuge. But the king of Eng­land held Euro­pean title to the mid-Atlantic seaboard because of small wars with the Dutch and Swedes (and lat­er held onto it only after a much larg­er war with the French New World set­tle­ments).
  • The king’s grant of “Penn’s Woods” was the set­tle­ment of a very large war debt owed to Penn’s father, a wealthy admi­ral. The senior William Penn was some­thing of a scoundrel, play­ing off both sides in every-shifting royalist/Roundhead see­saw of pow­er. His longest-lasting accom­plish­ment was tak­ing Jamaica for the British (Bob Mar­ley sang in Eng­lish instead of Span­ish because of Sir William).
  • By most accounts, William Penn Jr. was fair and also bought the land from local Lenape nations. Most­ly for­got­ten is that the Lenape and Susque­han­nock pop­u­la­tion had been dev­as­tat­ed in a recent region­al war again­st the Iro­quois over beaver ter­ri­to­ries. The Iro­quois were skill­ful­ly play­ing glob­al pol­i­tics, keep­ing the Eng­lish and French colo­nial empires in enough strate­gic ten­sion that they could pro­tect their land. They want­ed anoth­er British colony on their south­ern flank. The Lenape land reim­burse­ment was sec­ondary.

The thou­sands of acres Penn deed­ed to his fel­low Quak­ers were thus the fruits of three sets of wars: colo­nial wars over the Delaware Val­ley; debt-fueled Eng­lish civil wars; and Native Amer­i­can wars fought over access to com­mer­cial resources. Much of orig­i­nal Quak­er wealth in suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions is indebt­ed to this huge land trans­fer in the 1680s, either direct­ly (we still hold some valu­able real estate) or indi­rect­ly (the real estate’s sale could be fun­neled into promis­ing busi­ness­es).

Not all of the fruits of war were sec­ond­hand and coin­ci­den­tal to Friends them­selves. Many wealthy Friends in the mid-Atlantic colonies had slaves who did much of the back­break­ing work of clear­ing fields and build­ing hous­es. That quaint old brick meet­ing­house set back on a flower-covered field? It was prob­a­bly built at least in part by enslaved hands.

And today, it’s impos­si­ble to step free of war. Most of our hous­es are set on land once owned by oth­ers. Our com­put­ers and cell phones have com­po­nents mined in war zones. Our lights and cars are pow­ered by fos­sil fuel extrac­tion. And even with solar pan­els and elec­tric cars, the infra­struc­ture of the dai­ly liv­ing of most Amer­i­cans is still based on extrac­tion and con­trol of resources.

This is not to say we can’t con­tin­ue to work for a world free of war. But it seems impor­tant to be clear-eyed and acknowl­edge the debts we have.

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.

From concern to action in a few short months

rooftop3A grow­ing list of sto­ries is sug­gest­ing that black church­es in the South are being tar­get­ed for arson once again (although one of the more pub­li­cized cas­es seems to be lightning-related). This was a big con­cern in the mid-1990s, a time when a Quak­er pro­gram stepped up to give Friends the chance to trav­el to the South to help rebuild. From a 1996 Friends Jour­nal edi­to­ri­al:

Some­times a news arti­cle touch­es the heart and moves peo­ple to reach out to one anoth­er in unex­pect­ed ways. So it was this win­ter when the Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished a piece on the rash of fires that have destroyed black church­es in the South in recent months… When Friend Harold B. Con­fer, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Wash­ing­ton Quak­er Work­camps, saw the arti­cle, he decid­ed to do some­thing about it. After a series of phone calls, he and two col­leagues accept­ed an invi­ta­tion to trav­el to west­ern Alaba­ma and see the fire dam­age for them­selves. They were warm­ly received by the pas­tors and con­gre­ga­tions of the three Greene Coun­ty church­es. Upon their return, they set to work on a plan.

I’m not sure whether Confer’s plan is the right tem­plate to fol­low this time, but it’s a great sto­ry because it shows the impor­tance of hav­ing a strong grass­roots Quak­er ecosys­tem. I don’t believe the Wash­ing­ton Quak­er Work­camps were ever a par­tic­u­lar­ly well-funded project. But by 1996 they had been run­ning for ten years and had built up cred­i­bil­i­ty, a fol­low­ing, and the abil­i­ty to cross cul­tur­al lines in the name of ser­vice. The small­er orga­ni­za­tion­al size meant that a news­pa­per arti­cle could prompt a flur­ry of phone calls and vis­its and a fully-realized pro­gram oppor­tu­ni­ty in a remark­ably short amount of time.

A first-hand account of the work­camps by Kim Roberts was pub­lished lat­er than year, Rebuild­ing Church­es in Rural Alaba­ma: One Volunteer’s Expe­ri­ence. The D.C.-based work­camp pro­gram con­tin­ues in mod­i­fied form to this day as the William Penn Quak­er Work­camps.

Update: anoth­er pic­ture from 1996 Alaba­ma, this time from one of my wife Julie’s old pho­to books. She’s sec­ond from the left at the bot­tom, part of the longer-stay con­tin­gent that Roberts men­tions.

WQW

Pareto opportunities for Friends?

Nate Sil­ver recent­ly ran a piece on Mar­co Rubio’s pres­i­den­tial chances has used the previously-unknown-to-me con­cept of the “Pare­to fron­tier” to line up poten­tial can­di­dates:

In eco­nom­ics, there’s a con­cept known as Pare­to effi­cien­cy. It means that you ought to be able to elim­i­nate any choice if anoth­er one dom­i­nates it along every dimen­sion. The remain­ing choic­es sit along what’s called the Pare­to fron­tier.

Sil­ver then fol­lowed up with a real world exam­ple that speaks to my inter­est in food:

Imag­ine that in addi­tion to White Castle and The French Laun­dry, there are two Ital­ian restau­rants in your neigh­bor­hood. One is the chain restau­rant Olive Gar­den. You actu­al­ly like Olive Gar­den per­fect­ly well. But down the block is a local red-sauce joint called Giovanni’s. The food is a lit­tle bet­ter there than at Olive Gar­den (although not as good as at The French Laun­dry), and it’s a lit­tle cheap­er than Olive Gar­den (although not as cheap as White Castle). So you can elim­i­nate Olive Gar­den from your reper­toire; it’s dom­i­nat­ed along both dimen­sions by Giovanni’s.

The­se days we choose more than our din­ner des­ti­na­tions. Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty has become a mar­ket­place. While there have always been con­verts, it feels as if the pace of reli­gious lane-changing has steadi­ly quick­ened in recent times. Many peo­ple are choos­ing their reli­gious affil­i­a­tion rather than stick­ing with the faith tra­di­tions of their par­ents. For Quak­ers, this has been a net pos­i­tive, as many of our meet­ing­hous­es are full of “con­vinced” Friends who came in to our reli­gious soci­ety as adults.

Quak­ers are some­what unique in our mar­ket poten­tial. I would argue that we fall on two spots of the reli­gious “pare­to curve”:

  • The first is a kind of mass-market entry point for the “spir­i­tu­al but not reli­gious” set that wants to dip its toe into an orga­nized reli­gion that’s nei­ther very orga­nized nor reli­gious. Lib­er­al Friends don’t have min­is­ters or creeds, we don’t feel or sound too churchy, and we’re not par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about what new seek­ers believe. It’s a per­fect fit for do-it-yourself seek­ers that are look­ing for non-judgmental spiritually-minded pro­gres­sives.
  • Our sec­ond pare­to fron­tier beach­head is more grad-school lev­el: we’re a good spot for peo­ple who have a strong reli­gious con­vic­tions but seek a com­mu­ni­ty with less restric­tions. They’ve mem­o­rized whole sec­tions of the Bible and might have the­o­log­i­cal train­ing. They’re burned out by judg­men­tal­ism and spirit-less rou­tine and are seek­ing out a more authen­tic reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty of reli­gious peers open to dis­cus­sion and growth.

It seems we often reach out to one or the oth­er type of “pare­to” seek­er. I see that as part of the dis­cus­sion around Mic­ah Bales’s recent piece on Quak­er church plant­i­ng–do we focus on new, unaf­fil­i­at­ed seek­ers or seri­ous reli­gious dis­ci­ples look­ing for a dif­fer­ent type of com­mu­ni­ty. I’d be curi­ous to hear if any Quak­er out­reach pro­grams have tried to reach out to both simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Is it even pos­si­ble to sucess­ful­ly mar­ket that kind of dual mes­sage?

The two-touch pare­to nature of Friends and pop spir­i­tu­al cul­ture sug­gests that meet­ings could focus their inter­nal work on being the bridge from what we might call the “pare­to entrances.” New­com­ers who have walked through the door because we’re not out­ward­ly churchy could be wel­comed into Quak­erism 101 cours­es to be intro­duced to Quak­er tech­niques for spir­i­tu­al ground­ing and growth – and so they can deter­mine whether for­mal mem­ber­ship is a good fit. Those who have come for the deep spir­i­tu­al ground­ing can join as well, but also be given the oppor­tu­ni­ties for smaller-scale reli­gious con­ver­sa­tions and prac­tice, through Bible study groups, region­al extend­ed wor­ships and trips to region­al oppor­tu­ni­ties.

If you add charts you don't understand to blog posts, people will think you're extra smart.
If you add charts to blog posts, peo­ple will think you’re super-duper smart.