Social Networking: A New Space for Faith
In February 2004, a group of Harvard students got together and changed the world. Mark Zuckerberg, with help from Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes and Eduardo Saverin, started Facebook. In less than 10 months, more than a million people were active users of Facebook. Today the number of users is more than 500 million. According to its website, Facebook's purpose is to be a social utility that enables communication between family, friends and co-workers.
A similar yet simpler social networking application is Twitter. Begun in 2006 during an Odeo Corporation (now Obvious Corporation) brainstorming session, Twitter asks, "What's happening?" and limits people's responses, called "tweets," to 140 characters. In short, Twitter is a mini blog.
What's a blog? The word "blog" is a shortened version of "web log," which is itself a shortened version of "logging the web." Started in 1994 by Swarthmore student Justin Hall at Links.net, a blog is a website that features regular updated posts or stories on a variety of topics. A blog functions like an online diary on which bloggers post everything from what they had for breakfast to breaking news stories.
Facebook. Twitter. Blog. Communication today is vastly different than it was even five years ago. Every medium has its advantages and disadvantages, each better at one function or another. But given all the new technology that, in theory, makes it easier for people to connect with one another, is it really happening? How are women connecting today?
Perhaps it's best to start with the basic tool of communications: language.
"I believe, especially for women, that the language we use creates our reality and crafts our memories and our futures," said Melissa Lauber, editor of the UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. "For me, language shapes my relationships — with those I love, with the world at large and with God."
Ms. Lauber said that for her, it is important that she be intentional about the messages she gives and receives and the conversations she has with the culture at large.
"I need to avoid the shallow and the things that cheapen what I believe God intends for God's children," she said. "The words we choose define us — not just our perceptions, but who we are at the very core of our beings."
How we share our language is changing rapidly. Spending time online is becoming increasingly more common, as are some of the problems that it brings. According to a survey of more than 1,000 business professionals released in November 2010, workers are spending more than half of their working day (4.45 hours) on business and personal e-mail while also monitoring a wide range of social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Two out of three respondents said they monitor more than one e-mail inbox on a daily basis. E-mail and social media also take up a lot of time — more than two out of three people surveyed said that they interrupted their work constantly or too often just to check their inboxes.
"The New New Inbox: How E-mail and Social Media Changed Our Lives" survey by Pierre Khawand, founder and chief executive officer of People-OnTheGo, noted that only two out of 10 respondents said that they have a clear strategy for dealing with their inboxes, while the remaining eight out of 10 have little or no strategy for dealing with e-mail or social media monitoring.
How people use social media differs widely between different age groups, according to the survey's results. Younger generations lead the way in their use of social media with Generation Y — born between 1982 and 2000 — spending an average of 1.8 hours per day on it compared to 1.21 hours for Generation X — born between 1965 and 1980 — an hour for baby boomers and 0.59 of an hour for seniors.
More than two-thirds of respondents (71.8 percent) reported using social media for both work and personal reasons. Ginny Underwood would be one such person.
"In my situation, new media has significantly helped me improve my quality of life," she said. A communications consultant living in Oklahoma City who once worked for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn., Ms. Underwood works from home and is able to "pick up my kids every day from school, take them to practice, etc., while still being a professional communicator."
Ms. Underwood serves clients in Washington, D.C.; Helena, Mont.; Nashville; Dallas; and New York. She uses Skype and Facebook to keep up with her clients.
"I do some travel, but for the most part I am able to maintain my lifestyle of choice as a mom and stay connected as a professional," she said. "If I did not have all of these connections, there is no way I could do this. For me, I am able to focus on what matters off-line and still do quality work."
Sandra Brands agrees with Ms. Underwood but says there's another facet that has become important to her over the past few months. Ms. Brands, former director of communications for the former Troy Annual Conference now living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has joined a number of writing groups, most of them involving women members, and she says the support there has been fabulous. And all of the interaction is online.
"You know how hard writing is," she said, "and women have a tendency to be easily discouraged or full of self-doubt, especially in a field that is so public, where we put ourselves so much on display. The support of women in the writing groups I've joined and in private online conversations has been amazing."
Ms. Brands said that sharing ideas is what is important. "I'm a firm believer in sanctified stealing, so sharing ideas, seeing people put things into place and being able to ask them about it — this is not gender specific, by the way — has been fabulous."
Garlinda Burton, general secretary for the United Methodist General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW), is a member of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. Ms. Burton said that practically the whole congregation is on Facebook.
"We share information, prayer requests and more every day," she said. "I get as many messages about GCSRW via Facebook and Twitter as I do from e-mail. I love it!"
Still, Ms. Burton said, face-to-face connections are important to women of all ages. "I'm in a group at my church called ‘The Cookies,' in which the majority of members are under 40 (the youngest is 30), and we meet regularly for sisterhood and social time. We connect online, but we try to get together regularly in person."
Tita Parham is managing editor of the e-Review of the Florida Conference United Methodist News Service, and she uses e-mail and social media to stay connected at work and at home.
"On a personal level, I don't think new technologies like Facebook or Twitter take the place of face-to-face interactions," she said. "Rather, for me, they enhance relationships with people I do see on a regular basis and help me maintain relationships with people I don't see regularly because they either live in another community or state."
Ms. Parham, who works mainly out of her home in the Orlando area, said the same thing is true on a professional level. "Face-to-face interactions are still important, but technology helps keep people connected when getting together is not practical."
Technology can also increase efficiency in the workplace, Ms. Parham said, but for the technology to be beneficial there needs to be a common understanding of the value of the technology and willingness to use it.
"Working from home as I do is effective only if those with whom I work value the use of technology to maintain daily relationships," she said. "I have found that the ‘out of sight, out of mind' phenomenon is often a challenge."
Cynthia Astle, who has served in several professional communication ministries, is the editor of the national magazine The Progressive Christian. She said that today's communication technologies, "like all human works," have both benefits and drawbacks.
"As editor, I conduct all of my work through a ‘virtual office' of e-mails, websites and telephone calls," she said. "All this occurs fairly easily from an office in my home." On the personal side, Ms. Astle echoes many others in noting that e-mail and Facebook have helped enormously in staying connected with friends and family.
"We're able to exchange news quickly and to follow up with phone calls and other contacts," she said. "I've delighted in being able to see frequent photos of our nieces and nephews and our grand-niece and grand-nephew, but nothing takes the place of being within ‘huggable' space."
Setting boundaries, however, becomes the hard part, Ms. Astle said. "The difficulty comes when the media becomes intrusive," she said. "Working from home it becomes difficult to set and keep appropriate boundaries. I often think of today's media age as the new frontier, where we are virtual pioneers working from our homes with professional and personal life blended together just like farmers and ranchers. There are some days when I can't stand to sit at the computer for another minute. That's when I take a mental health break and walk the dog or go to the post office or even take an afternoon off."
The printed word is still alive and kicking, as both Ms. Astle and Ms. Lauber's ministry attest.
"While I know it's not true, I still think of print as the place for longer, more in-depth and thoughtful pieces to be published," said Ms. Lauber. "On the Web, the church tells a shorter story, and while it can still hold wisdom, it often feels less nuanced than its print counterpart.
"I want our faith to have depth," she continued. "I want the church to possess a thirst for complex learning and deep wisdom. I want mature discourse. Because of tradition, I think print is still the place for that. But I also want the church to be astoundingly creative and to innovate in remarkable ways that reach directly into our culture, and print often seems to fail at that."
Ms. Astle's publication is being creative. This past November The Progressive Christian embarked on what Ms. Astle called a "new mission to amplify the progressive Christian message in today's world of manipulated and fragmented media." This is being done via a new website with interactive capabilities, Ms. Astle said. "We will become much more than a magazine, either in print or online; our intention is to foster a dynamic community that can counterbalance the often erroneous messages of the religious right."
Ms. Lauber said that she thinks print and electronic media can, and should, exist in the church and our culture at the same time. "We should be able to use both in ways that best serve God. My nieces and their daughters won't discover the world on pages of newspapers, magazines and books the way I did. That's fine, but it doesn't diminish the awe-inspiring grandeur and transformative power of a phenomenal newspaper."
For Ms. Lauber, more important than the newspaper/Facebook/television/podcast/Web/Kindle/Twitter/Blackberry/iPad debate is story, simple story.
"For women, a good story, well-told, will always be essential," she said. "Story is our blood. God spoke, and we became written people. Whether it's shared in 140 characters or read with ink-stained fingers from a broadsheet, the stories we tell illuminate the sacred. If we ever lose our stories, or allow them to shrink into something mundane, we die. That's why we need to listen — and talk, write, type and share. The church's role is to live the story of God. "
Erik Aldsgard is director of communications for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.