12.12.2008

Tweet, tweet

At my day job, we're looking at what the rapidly evolving communications technologies mean for building community with younger church members and their peers, many of whom believe church/religion to be unconnected with and irrelevant to their lives.

Mark, a pastor in NC, observes the disconnect with younger people and wonders, "could it be that in holding on so tightly to the past, we are letting the future slip away from us?" His great post, "Can the Church catch up?" notes that the church has spent much of the last 200 years, during which we have gone from Charles Babbage's concept of a computer to ubiquitous handhelds, resisting the change exploding in human history. (We've gone from being earthbound to space travel, horses to jets, carrier pigeon to Twitter, while our hymnals have a lot of songs more than 200 years old.)

It's time that we catch on to the revolutions in connecting people that are taking place every year or so. I just hope we realize that we have to change our message and our style of communicating, not just the channel.

It's not just that printed newsletters work for almost no one, and email doesn't work for anyone under 25 anymore. We're used to sending out messages, while people are becoming more and more used to engaging in conversations. This means that a lot has to change.

In his book Tribes, marketing guru Seth Godin notes that the ad model that I grew up with, which interrupted us while watching TV, listening to radio or reading newspapers (remember them?) with ads we didn't ask for, is quickly dying. No major consumer brand has launched with that as its main strategy in the last decade, he says. Instead brands, especially Internet brands, are earning the loyalty of key fans who participate in and expand the company's sphere of influence.

The danger is trying to move old style interruption communications into the twittersphere. Young people may get status updates, invitations, news and weather by text message, but its wrong to think that we can just send the same old announcements and insider messages by SMS to any but those who are already loyal fans. The digital native generations may be less protective of their contact info -- when I first got a cell I limited who knew the number to avoid dreaded overage charges, now teens ask for texts in their facebook status messages -- but it is far easier to text "OFF" or click "ignore" than it is to throw away junk mail.

Getting into these new communications channels requires restraint and wisdom. We need to be thinking about how to equip those who are already linked-in with us to include their friends, share relevant info, offer events, etc. And we need to think how we can communicate more transparently, to acknowledge questions and doubts, to point out useful info and events even when they are not ours, to really communicate and not hide behind institution-speak. Perhaps more importantly, we will have to discipline ourselves to listen in these new communities before we speak.

From my sampling of the growing body of work on non-profit use of social media, it's clear that the church needs to be in this space. As Ed Stetzer says, "it is better to be connected using social media, recognizing the limitations, than to be disconnected." There are ways to do good: We can ask questions (as long as we listen to the answers), connect people with kindreds and with Christ, and generate energy around causes and ministries that solve problems. We can share perspectives from inside and outside the church. The key is putting attention on building community. We already have experiments with "social networks," and we have found that they languish without a champion who facilitates and expands the conversation.

But it is also wise to know what not to do. Having a blog, a Facebook account or a Twitter ID doesn't give you automatic access to people. As NP tech advocate Beth Kanter writes, the top of the list of the signs you're not ready to engage people on Twitter is:
You think Twitter is a bull horn and is a great way to broadcast campaign messaging from a Twitter account that is branded with your logo.

I think its going to be fun building new networks. I just have to remember that everything I learn is obsolete as soon as I learn it. :)

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