September 2, 2009
This is the third part of my series on using social media to build local community. I argued in Part I that churches and community organizations should not resist social media but rather ought to consider it as one tool in the toolbox of building community. In Part II, I discussed very briefly some ideas about how applications such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter could be used to benefit local community organizations by building community within them. Today I ruminate further about the interrelationship between online versus embodied communities.
If you prefer not to read too much and are already sold on social media as communication tools for local organizations, I'll share some links to practical tools for increasing social media effectiveness. The list is by no means complete or exhaustive, but just what I've run across today: Nine YouTube Features You May Not Know About , Ten Cool Twitter Applications , and How to Create a Podcast
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For those who enjoy a longer discussion:
I observe the earth is shifting in terms of how people communicate, get information, and even how they define community. People -- particularly those under the age of 40 -- are finding and participating in "like minded" communities that are unbounded by physical proximity. Younger people are abandoning more conventional notions about the value of "local" friendships and community organizations. People also no longer exhibit so much loyalty to "brand names" in terms of denomination or other community outreach.
Community organizations, including churches, grapple with the challenges of how to adapt to this new world. I believe that while churches must be careful not to abandon older and more physical notions of community, it would be a mistake to fail to adopt new tools that add vitality to community and build deeper, more meaningful relationships.
Social media, generally speaking, unleashes individuals from geographic constraints in terms of building relationships and community. In the book The Language of Genes, author Steve Jones explains how invention of the bicycle resulted an entire new level of genetic mixing in the human population: with invention of the bicycle, a young person could actually travel to the next village and meet a future husband or wife in that venue rather than being limited to the small group of people in their native village. Well, the Internet makes even the next village seem provincial. According to some rumors circulating on the Internet, one out of every eight people who got married last year in the USA, met in an online context. The Internet, and the social media revolution, has indeed flattened the world and opened up entire new possibilities for relationships, unbounded by geographic limitations.
Because of the way social media does open windows to relationships that might not be possible in a strictly local society, social media is often viewed as something unrelated or even harmful to local community. Perhaps it is! As people satisfy more and more of their relational needs through use of online and non-geographic based communities, there has been a decline in reliance on, and support of, communities based more on geography. Because relationships based on social media can directly compete with geographic based community in meeting social needs, social media can be a threat to local communities -- like churches and food banks -- where ties are primarily based on geographic proximity.
If social media is a threat to the traditional idea of community, what can (or should) local community organizations do to "fight back" against this weakening of traditional community ties? Should social media be viewed as evil for contributing to the demise of local community?
I would argue that social media is not the enemy. Social media is nothing but a tool for building communities. So far, social media has been used mainly for the building of "virtual" communities -- it enables communication and organization to a degree which frightens governments like China and Iran, which have cut off access to online communities for that very reason. If local community organizations use social media intentionally, however, meaning in a way that has intention and is not accidental, I believe social media can be used effectively to build local as well as non-geographic community.
Social media have many positive uses, one of which is actually to liberate people from geographic constraints on information. Suppose a person is passionately interested in topic A. Perhaps that person is able to find or build an online community that is build around topic A. Assuming that topic A is something positive (perhaps a topic like, how to use social media to strengthen community organizations?), the person can engage with people from around the world in dialogue devoted particularly to that topic. An entire world of ideas -- and contacts with people who share the same interest -- has been opened to that person. Another positive use is that social media enables people to maintain ties that they might otherwise lose to time and distance. Many people have experienced this through location of a long lost high school friend by way of the Internet.
In the case of the person interested in topic A: If no one in my local community organization has a similar interest, perhaps I might view my local organization as quaint and irrelevant. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Part of the value of a local community organization is that it keeps us rooted in the important soil of who we are, where we are. There is a famous cartoon from the New Yorker Magazine in which a dog, while using the Internet, tells his friend, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
That's certainly true. Exchanges of the type I just described -- passionately shared interest in one narrowly focused subject -- and friendships made on that basis, are extremely limited. When I "talk" in an online context, I am interacting with another individual merely about one small aspect of that person's life. For example, unless you knew me in person, you might not know that I have written this blog entry in my free time today instead of washing laundry to make sure my family has clean clothes to wear. In contrast to this, the people in my local community know who I really am. They can see -- from looking at me -- that I am really a dog. They know if my family is wearing disheveled or unlaundered clothes.
Jesus ran into this issue -- the disjunction between how his local community perceived him versus who he felt he really was -- when he returned to his home town after traveling as an itinerant Rabbi. Traveling outside his home community, Jesus had become known as a powerful voice for truth, but when he came back to his hometown those gifts were not recognized. In the story, told in Matthew 13:54 - 58, it's apparent that the local people knew his physical background so well that they could not accept his "online" persona. They said, "Is this not the carpenter's son?" In response to their unbelief, Jesus replied, "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household."
This illustrates that Jesus was confronted head on with the disjunction between who he felt called to be -- his "online" persona if you will, meaning his passions and calling and his non-local community of people who "followed" him -- versus the local boy he had been known as in his home town. In other words, his local friends and family knew him only as a dog, and they weren't going to accept him any other way.
The tension between Jesus's identity as a dog -- as the carpenter's son -- and his online identity, the prophet, seems irreconcilable, doesn't it? And there is but one correct response to those who would limit us in life to our previous identity as a dog. Jesus demonstrated this when he encouraged Mary to pursue her calling as his student; and he demonstrates it in his response to the disbelief of his own local community and his family.
In what may be one of the more difficult family episodes in the New Testament, Jesus is confronted by his family in Mark Chapter 3, when they frankly think he has gone insane. Arriving where Jesus is teaching to a large crowd, they have the intent to "take charge of him" and take him home. His mother and brothers, unable to get squeeze into where his is, send someone in to Jesus to call him out. The person delivers the message to Jesus that his mother wants to see him. His reply?
"Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother!" (Mark 3:34, 35)
Jesus, known as the son of Joseph the Carpenter, was so much more than that. He had a vision of a community that extended far beyond the borders of the town where he lived as a child. I don't really know if he would have tweeted. But I'm pretty sure it would be a mistake for community organizations to overlook the potential of social media as a tool that can be used intentionally to build community.
For my ideas about specific ways social media can be used to build community, click HERE for the next installment in this series.