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 cliché 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?

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 coör­di­nate 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 Quak​erfind​er​.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 Quak​ermaps​.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, Quak​ermaps​.com proves that Quak​erQuak​er​.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:

Extending customer relationships through social media

Over on my O’Reilly Media blog, I’ve writ­ten “Will Face­book (all but) replace cor­po­rate web­sites?,” a look at where I think the third-party social media web­sites are going. Here’s a taste:

The goal of most web­sites is to extend­ed the inter­ac­tion with the vis­i­tor beyond this one vis­it: we seek to sell them a prod­uct, join our mail­ing list, buy tick­ets to our event or sub­scribe to us in a news read­er. Face­book is quick­ly becom­ing the most impor­tant email list and news read­er. If it con­tin­ues to inno­vate (and bor­row ideas from inno­v­a­tive com­peti­tors) it could quick­ly become a major com­mer­cial por­tal as well. As its adop­tion rate climbs with­in the ranks of our tar­get audi­ences, it becomes an effec­tive way to extend vis­i­tor rela­tion­ship and build more inti­mate brand identities.

This will change company’s inter­ac­tions with cus­tomers, who will start to expect and then demand real-time inter­ac­tion. This can take many forms – sta­tus updates, cal­en­dars, videos – but the empha­sis will be on imme­di­a­cy. The style will shift from slickly-produced mass mar­ket­ing to a one-on-one respon­sive back and forth. Smart mar­keters will think less in terms of sell­ing and more in terms of rela­tion­ship build­ing. Ana­lyt­ics and constantly-rolling A/B tests will give us a near real-time gauge with which to mea­sure the suc­cess of these rela­tion­ships. The reces­sion is bring­ing a new urgency for mea­sur­able results and might actu­al­ly help shift cor­po­rate and non-profit bud­gets away from high-price opin­ions and toward this new style of social-network-mediated marketing.

It will be inter­est­ing to see how orga­ni­za­tions adapt to social media’s evolv­ing role.

Invisible Quaker Misfits

This week I received an email from a young seek­er in the Philadel­phia area who found my 2005 arti­cle “Wit­ness of Our Lost Twenty-Somethings” pub­lished in FGCon­nec­tions. She’s a for­mer youth min­istries leader from a Pen­te­costal tra­di­tion, strong­ly attract­ed to Friends beliefs but not quite fit­ting in with the local meet­ings she’s been try­ing. Some­where she found my arti­cle and asks if I have any insights. 

The 2005 arti­cle was large­ly pes­simistic, focused on the “com­mit­ted, inter­est­ing and bold twenty-something Friends
I knew ten years ago” who had left Friends and blam­ing “an insti­tu­tion­al Quak­erism that neglect­ed them and
its own future” but my hope para­graph was optimistic:

There is hope… A great peo­ple might pos­si­bly be gath­ered from
the emer­gent church move­ment and the inter­net is full of amaz­ing conversations
from new Friends and seek­ers. There are pock­ets in our branch of Quakerism
where old­er Friends have con­tin­ued to men­tor and encour­age mean­ing­ful and
inte­grat­ed youth lead­er­ship, and some of my peers have hung on with me. Most
hope­ful­ly, there’s a whole new gen­er­a­tion of twenty- some­thing Friends
on the scene with strong gifts that could be nur­tured and harnessed. 

Hard to imag­ine that only three years ago I was an iso­lat­ed FGC staffer left to pur­sue out­reach and youth min­istry work on my own time by an insti­tu­tion indif­fer­ent to either pur­suit. Both func­tions have become major staff pro­grams, but I’m no longer involved, which is prob­a­bly just as well, as nei­ther pro­gram has decid­ed to focus on the kind of work I had hoped it might. The more things change the more they stay the same, right? The most inter­est­ing work is still large­ly invisible. 

Some of this work has been tak­en up by the new blog­gers and by some sort of alt-network that seems to be con­geal­ing around all the blogs, Twit­ter net­works, Face­book friend­ships, inter­vis­i­ta­tions and IM chats. Many of us asso­ci­at­ed with Quak​erQuak​er​.org have some sort of reg­u­lar cor­re­spon­dence or par­tic­i­pa­tion with the Emerg­ing Church move­ment, we reg­u­lar­ly high­light “amaz­ing con­ver­sa­tions” from new Friends and seek­ers and there’s a lot of inter-generational work going on. We’ve got a name for it in Con­ver­gent Friends, which reflects in part that “we” aren’t just the lib­er­al Friends I imag­ined in 2005, but a wide swath of Friends from all the Quak­er flavors.

But we end up with a prob­lem that’s become the cen­tral one for me and a lot of oth­ers: what can we tell a new seek­er who should be able to find a home in real-world Friends but doesn’t fit? I could point this week’s cor­re­spon­dent to meet­ings and church­es hun­dreds of miles from her house, or encour­age her to start a blog, or com­pile a list of work­shops or gath­er­ings she might attend. But none of these are real­ly sat­is­fac­to­ry answers. 

Else­where:

Gath­er­ing in Light Wess sent an email around last night about a book review done by his PhD advi­sor Ryan Bol­ger that talks about tribe-style lead­er­ship and a new kind of church iden­ti­ty that uses the instant com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools of the inter­net to forge a com­mu­ni­ty that’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly lim­it­ed to local­i­ty. Bolger’s and his research part­ner report that they see “emerg­ing ini­tia­tives with­in tra­di­tion­al church­es as the next
hori­zon for the spread of emerg­ing church prac­tices in the Unit­ed States
.” More links from Wess’ arti­cle on emerg­ing church­es and denom­i­na­tions.

Save St. Mary’s

Julie’s been busy this week­end fol­low­ing up on the ral­ly she attend­ed Fri­day, hook­ing up with all of the orga­niz­ing that’s hap­pen­ing to save St. Mary’s Church in Mala­ga NJ. She’s tak­en lots of pic­tures of St. Mary’s and yes­ter­day made up t-shirts for the cause!
One pos­i­tive ele­ment to come of the Bishop’s deci­sion to close down St. Mary’s and half the Catholic church­es in South Jer­sey is how parish­ioners are com­ing togeth­er for their church­es. Julie’s already typed in half of a 1997 his­to­ry of St. Mary’s onto the inter­net, and there are plans to inter­view elder­ly mem­bers, the old­est of whom remem­ber the church being built.
The sto­ry of a lit­tle church in a sleepy rur­al town is the real­ly the sto­ry of the Ital­ian Catholic expe­ri­ence in Amer­i­ca. There’s a cer­tifi­cate in the back of the church that lists all of the dona­tions that were col­lect­ed to build the church, some from dirt poor farm­ers who couldn’t even afford a dol­lar but still put all they could to build a house of worship.
To my Quak­er read­ers: don’t wor­ry, I’m not going Catholic on you all. It’s just that even I can tell there’s some­thing spe­cial about St. Mary’s and the devo­tion and the newfound-feistiness of it’s com­mu­ni­ty (how did they makes the Times?! And two pic­tures!). The bish­op wants to sell all these lit­tle rur­al church­es and replace them with imper­son­al mega-churches. The strug­gle for authen­tic­i­ty, human­i­ty and the remem­brance of the expe­ri­ence of those who strug­gled before us tran­scends reli­gious denom­i­na­tions. We’d all lose some­thing if church­es like St. Mary’s were all torn down to make way for more Super Wawa’s.

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