In the mid-1990s, I was a member of an AOL book discussion group. There were about 40 of us who would read the same book, and then have a chat about it. Between chats we got to know each other as we suggested new books and talked about what was going on in our lives. I drove from Abilene TX to New York City to meet up with 15 of these people. Along the way I stopped in Nashville TN, Dayton OH, and New Hope PA to have lunch, dinner or spend the night with more of those group members. On the way back, I stayed in Richmond VA with a member and had visits with folks in North Carolina, and Georgia. Later that year my husband had a business trip to Las Vegas, and I went along for the ride. While we were in Vegas, we took a weekend and drove to San Francisco to have lunch with another 8 or 10 folks who had only met on-line.
Fast forward to 2008 and Facebook and Twitter burst on the scene. It was nothing particularly earth-shattering for me. I had developed virtual friendships 15 years before. It feels like the rest of the world has finally caught up to me in Social Media.
As I have wound down my professional life, I’ve looked for activities and friendships to fill my time and I’ve found several wonderful places to spend my time. I play bridge, I’m knitting again, and I’m putting in more and more time with my church. I was elected to the session (that’s one of the ruling boards in the Presbyterian Church), and my calling has been to try to get the church to use modern tools.
The greater church (Presbyterian Church (USA)) was fortunate to have a tech savvy moderator and vice-moderator for the past two years. They were and are active on Facebook and Twitter, and through their “friend” recommendations I have found a wonderful virtual community on line. The community is made up of pastors and lay people from all over the country. Most of them are Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, or United Church of Christ. I’m not sure why that is, but we seem to be the denominations that have embraced social media. There are even some who are non-denominational. They call themselves the Outlaw Preachers. The pastors usually preach from the common lectionary and post their sermons on their blogs for others to see and get ideas from. We share recommendations of books about the emerging church, conferences that might be worthwhile and generally get in each other’s lives. We pray for each other, support each other, and love each other, although many, if not most, have never met IRL (in real life) or f2f (face to face).
Carol Howard Merritt, a pastor from Washington DC, and one of my Twitter friends has recently published her second book. She is an advocate for the emerging church which seeks to “do church” in a way that will speak to a younger generation. In this book, Reframing Hope, which I was fortunate enough to get an advanced copy of, she talks about how Social Media is changing our way of forming community.
“I’m tangled up in a tight web of people right now. I have gotten to know them through e-mails, blogs, and social networking sites. I know what they ate for breakfast this morning and what’s going on in their lives from day to day. I could easily pick each of them out of a crowd because I have seen so many photos of them and their families – although I have never met them in the flesh.
“This new form of intimacy has developed as the capacity and availability of the Internet has evolved. We are in the midst of a third wave of Internet communications. The first was for military defense. The second included one-way websites, commerce, and e-mail. The third wave (also called Web 2.0) is interactive. It allows the reader of a website to talk back, discuss, and question. It encourages ratings on purchased products. And, most importantly, this wave allows communities to form across continents, and even around the globe, as networks of people no longer have to be in geographic proximity to interact.”
People have complained that social media is contributing to a fragmentation of society. Carol addresses it this way.
“Through the Internet and our ability to use it to publish theories, disseminate ideas, and organize people, community is forming and friendships are emerging. People who were once segregated are able to hear one another and live together in a different way.
“Our communication has changed so we can easily move from face-to-face interactions to interfacing communications. Speaking to one another, seeing the expressions, and hearing the tremble in each voice has not waned in importance; it is just that we have additional tools that can enhance our personal narratives and make our interpersonal communication even deeper.
“I was reminded of the depth and power of our stories and the way technology has shaped our sharing of them a few weeks ago when I got home from the office. As soon as I came in from the cold and set my laptop down, my husband asked with urgency, ‘Have you been following Twitter?’
“‘No, I had a meeting and needed to get some stuff done. Why?’ I responded.
“‘Gideon committed suicide.’
“I knew Gideon. I mean I sort of knew Gideon. I never met him in real life, and yet I understood all sorts of things about him. We ‘talked’ to each other often through regular updates of Twitter. Reading about the joys and struggles of Gideon’s day became a part of my regular rhythm…
“I pored over his thoughtful prayers until they became my own. He was an intelligent young man, an Episcopalian, full of care and remorse, trying to sort out what he was going to do in the next step of his career…
“When Gideon took his life, hundreds of people grieved. I heard the sorrow echoing from men and women across the country, from every sort of religious tradition. The despair rose, until it became clear how many people had prayed, complained, struggled, and studied with Gideon. As a compline of laments reverberated over the Twitter feed, it seemed that we were listening to a holy chorus. Living through the death of Gideon made me realize how this man’s story, which had arisen through short updates and woven through so many lives, created a powerful community.
“That evening, the Twitter status of Jon Fogle, a pastor inPennsylvania, summed up our sentiments: ‘Anyone complaining about the superficiality of social networking wasn’t paying attention today.””
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to update my Twitter feed and let all my tweeple know that the speech is over, and it went well. They were encouraging me.
(After I sat down, I got a Facebook reply saying “Good Luck on your speech” and found these Tweets in my timeline.
From Carol Howard: @AbbieWatters courage to you! And thanks for the quote. 🙂
From John Harrison: @AbbieWatters I knew it would go great! Way ta go!!!!
From Christy Ramsey: @AbbieWatters Hope the Ah Counter at Toastmasters was kind. Congrats for standing and delivering.
From Kevin Murphy: @AbbieWatters All the best with your talk. I referred my church to your writings on using twitter for outreach
From Kimberly Dinsdale: @AbbieWatters so cool! Howd it go? (Kimberly lives in California and hadn’t yet gotten my report))