This weekend was the annual Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey, a two-day celebration of shoreline sentinels during which every working lighthouse is open and staffed by volunteers. The truly committed drive hundreds of miles over the two days to visit the eleven lighthouses open to the public. Because of a scouting weekend for Theo, we just hit one on Saturday and three on Sunday. But these are the last four for our lighthouse-obsessed son Francis, who has been to the others over the course of the summer.
One of the most famous scenes in the AMC show Mad Men comes near the end of season one. Kodak has asked the advertising firm to create a campaign around a new slide projector that has a circular tray. Don Draper presents the Carousel and gives a nostalgia-steeped presentation that use his personal photographs to move both the Kodak execs and the viewers at home, who know that these semi-focused pictures will soon be all that left of his disintegrating family.
No falling apart family for me, but I find myself already feeling nostalgic for a family vacation to Disney World that doesn’t start for another six days. I’ve recently been looking through our Flickr archive of past trips (four for me) and realize that they are our Carousel. The start with my fiancée taking a cynical me on my first trip. Later visits bring kids to the photographic lineup: newly-found legs to run, the joys of messy ice cream, the scare of not-very-scary rides and the big eyes of parades all run through the sets.
In less than a week we’ll start a new set. There will be two new children in this one. “The babies” are both walking and toddling and are at their peak of baby photogenic cuteness. The older two are real kids now and the eldest is starting to show early glimpses of teenage-hood: eye-rolling, exhalation of air (“uh!”) to show disapproval of inconvenient parental instructions.
Iconic family pictures will happen. Since our last visit five years ago, my wife’s lost her father to cancer and my mother’s been slipping into the forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s. As the wheel of life turns it somehow becomes more possible to see ourselves as part of the turning Carousel. Some decades from now I can imagine myself going through these pictures surrounded by indulging children and antsy grandchildren, exclaiming “look how young everyone looks!”
Sometimes I see blog posts that make me really sad at the state of journalism. PhilyMag is the latest but you have the follow the daisy-chain of ramped-up hyperbole back just to make see how ridiculous it is.
The restaurant chain Red Robin recently made a fifteen-second TV ad whose joke is that its veggie-burgers are perfect for customers whose teenage daughters are “going through a phase.” It’s had rather limited airplay (it’s the 450th or so most run ad in the past 30 days) but still, Business Insider ran a piece on it which claimed that “the chain managed to insult all potential vegetarian and vegan customers” with the ad. For evidence, it cited three mild comments on Red Robin’s Facebook page. Fair enough.
But then the page-view-whores at Huffington Post saw the BI piece and wrote that Red Robin is “under fire for dissing vegetarians,” still citing just those Facebook comments. Under fire? For three comments?
Sensing fresh (veggie?) meat, Phillymag links to HuffPost to claim that ”vegetarians and vegans far and wide are freaking out” and that a boycott has been declared. The author tells us that “‘Offended’ gets tossed around so rapidly” and it must be true, right?, as she uses it three more times just in her opening paragraph. It’s a pity that none of the three Facebook commenters were considerate enough to actually use the words “outrage” or “boycott.” One described the ad as “disappointing” (ouch!). Another used the word “dissatisfied” (zing!), though he was speaking not about the ad per se but rather a recent visit to the restaurant.
Seems like if there is an epidemic of offended-ness going on, we might take a look at the desperation of what passes for modern journalism these days. Offended-ness must get page views, so why not be offended at being offended? (I imagine some hack further down the pageview food chain is right now reading the Phillymag piece and typing out a headline about the worldwide vegan army issuing a fatwa on the teenage daughters of Red Roof executives.) Is this really the kind of crap that people like to share on Facebook? Do Internet users just not follow links backward to judge if there’s any truth to outrage posts on outrage? I usually ignore this kind of junk even to read past the ridiculous headline. But the phenomenon is all too ubiquitous on the interwebs these days and is really so unnecessarily divisive and stereotype-perpetuating.
— Rani Monson (@RaniMonson) March 23, 2013
To translate, SEO is “search engine optimization,” the often-huckersterish art of tricking Google to display your website higher than your competitors in search results. “Usability” is the catch-all term for making your website easy to navigate and inviting to visitors. Companies with deep pockets often want to spend a lot of money on SEO, when most of the time the most viable long-term solution to ranking high with search engines is to provide visitors with good reasons to visit your site. What if we applied these principles to our churches and meetinghouses and swapped the terms?
Outreach gets people to your meetinghouse /
Hospitality keeps people returning.
A lot of Quaker meetinghouses have pretty good “natural SEO.” Here in the U.S. East Coast, they’re often near a major road in the middle of town. If they’re lucky there are a few historical markers of notable Quakers and if they are really lucky there’s a highly-respected Friends school nearby. All these meetings really have to do is put a nice sign out front and table a few town events every year. The rest is covered. Although we do get the occasional “aren’t you all Amish?” comments, we have a much wider reputation that our numbers would necessarily warrant. We rank pretty high.
But what are the lessons of hospitality we could work on? Do we provide places where spiritual seekers can both grow personally and engage in the important questions of the faith in the modern world? Are we invitational, bringing people into our homes and into our lives for shared meals and conversations?
In my freelance days when I was hired to work on SEO I ran through a series of statistical reports and redesigned some underperforming pages, but then turned my attention to the client’s content. It was in this realm that my greatest quantifiable successes occurred. At the heart of the content work was asking how could the site could more fully engage with first-time visitors. The “usability considerations” on the Wikipedia page on usability could be easily adapted as queries:
Who are the users, what do they know, what can they learn? What do users want or need to do? What is the users’ general background? What is the users’ context for working? What must be left to the machine? Can users easily accomplish intended tasks at their desired speed? How much training do users need? What documentation or other supporting materials are available to help the user?
I’d love to see Friends consider this more. FGC’s “New Meetings Toolbox” has a section on welcoming newcomers. But I’d love to hear more stories about how we’re working on the “usability” of our spiritual communities.
A few weeks ago we were contacted by someone from the St Nicholas Center (http://www.stnicholascenter.org) asking if they could use some photos I had taken of the church my wife is attending, Millville N.J.‘s St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic. Of course I said yes. But then my correspondent asked if I could take pictures of another church she had heard of: St Nicholas Old Believer’s Church. It’s on the other side of Millville from our St Nick’s, on an ancient road that dead ends in woods. We had to visit.
The Old Believers have a fascinating history. They were Russian Orthodox Christians who refused to comply with liturgical changes mandated by the Patriarch and Czar in the 1650s. As usual, there was a lot of politics involved, with the Czar wanting to cozy up with the Greek Orthodox to ally Russia against the Muslim Ottomans, etc., etc. The theological charge was that the Greek traditions were the standard and Russian differences latter-day innovations to be stamped out (more modern research has found the Russians actually were closer to the older forms, but no matter: what the Czar and Patriarch want, the Czar and Patriarch get). The old practices were banned, beginning hundreds of years of state-sponsored persecution for the “Old Believers.” The survivors scattered to the four corners of the Russian empire and beyond, keeping a low profile wherever they went.
The Old Believers have a fascinating fractured history. Because their priests were killed off in the seventeenth century, they lost their claims of apostolic succession – the idea that there’s an unbroken line of ordination from Jesus Christ himself. Some Old Believers found work-arounds or claimed a few priests were spared but the hardcore among them declared succession over, signaling the end times and the fall of the Church. They became priestless Old Believers – so defensive of the old liturgy that they were willing to lose most of the liturgy. They’ve scattered around the world, often wearing plain dress and living in isolated communities.
The Old Believers church in Millville has no signs, no website, no indication of what it is (a lifelong member of “our” St Nick’s called it mysterious and said he little about it of it). From a few internet references, they appear to be the priestless kind of Old Believers. But it has its own distinctions: apparently one of the greatest iconographers of the twentieth century lived and worshipped there, and when famed Russian political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn visited the U.S. he made a point of speaking at this signless church on a dead end road.
* Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Believers
* Account of US Lithuanian Bespopovtsy communities: http://www.synaxis.info/old-rite/0_oldbelief/history_eng/nicoll.html
* OSU Library on iconographer Sofronv (PDF): http://cmrs.osu.edu/rcmss/CMH21color.pdf
* Solzhenitsyn’s 1976 visit: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2057793/posts