I’m writing this shortly after the Christian New Media Conference 2012 (#CNMAC12) which was an event held in central London on the 20th of October.
Since context is important, let me set the scene. The conference was focusing on “new media” – the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, Pinterest, etc. The theme of the day was supposed to be “story” though this was something of a tentative theme, from what I saw.
There were a few seminars that everyone went to, which was in a very snazzy modern lecture theatre, kitted out for microphones and electronic presentations instead of blackboard & chalk (the latter of which, as a maths graduate, is still my preference).
There were a few sessions which were attended by everyone but most of the day was split into 5 “streams” entitled:
Theology – what it says on the tin
Jump-Start – for beginners/non-experts on new media
Deeper – For more experienced new media users to explore the issues of the day
Story – How do we tell our ‘story’ online?
Interact – Less of a seminar session, more of a helpdesk
I went to the first two Theology seminars, one Deeper seminar and one Jump-Start. I can’t comment on any of the others and will only give highlights of what I pulled out of those that I went to.
The day ended with a summary of the day that had been put together as the day as the day had gone on, focusing on wordles and some closing remarks from a selection of guest speakers, on which I’ll say a little more below.
While I sat in the café before the start of the event, I scribbled down the following thoughts on a pad of paper:
“This is quite an intimidating atmosphere. After being misdirected as the location of the café, I ended up wandering around empty corridors in a building that felt far too new to be a proper seat of learning.
The kind of bustling atmosphere is one that makes very uneasy. I’ve tucked myself into a corner and put my white sugar mouse on my laptop to signify who I am. Even though there are people around who I recognise (@layanglicana is sat behind me, talking to someone from CAFOD) they are all in conversation, and it would be most impolite for me to interrupt.”
After this, I pootled off and found a seat in the lecture theatre; on the left hand side, fairly near the front.
The opening address by Sheridan Voysey cast the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman by the well in terms of crossing boundaries and telling our personal and cultural stories. The main point was that in our modern, wired world, there is an opportunity to cross boundaries, to listen to voices that you might not have had the opportunity to hear before and also to speak into places where you might not have previously had the chance.
The only thing that caused me to shake my head here was when he said “church tradition tells us her name was…” – regular readers will know what I think of using tradition as a source of authority. For those of you new to the blog, the answer is: not much! Aside from that, it was quite good. Sheridan was evidently a well-practised public speaker and got his message across very clearly.
After lunch, there were a few quickfire presentations.
One was on the #PrayForMuamba hashtag and how it resulted in The Sun printing the headline “God is in control” (shame it couldn’t have been a more respectable paper). There was nothing particularly earth-shattering here but the speaker @vahva was evidently nervous but held it together talking to a room of about 400 people.
The second was on online engagement with the book 50 Shades of Grey, which few people admitted to having read. Most interesting here was a dichotomy between the speaker, @vicky_walker, saying that if we condemn without engaging, we cut ourselves out of the conversation; while one of the organisers, @pmphillips, got retweeted quite a lot by saying “retweet if you won’t be reading 50 Shades?”
The last of these seemed a little off key with the rest of the conference but was very interesting nonetheless. It was from a chap whose ministry is in working with British christians of Pakistani origin. One interesting claim he made (though I would want some supporting evidence before propounding this myself) was that Pakistani Muslims were burning pages of the Koran and “planting” them outside churches, to invoke a riotous mob to destroy the church. He also claimed that those who were behind the recent videos mocking Muhammad which caused much violence in September were “undercover Muslims” masquerading as Coptic christians in order to stir up violence against the Copts.
All of these were OK, but there wasn’t much which was paradigm-shifting.
Following this, I headed off to hear @Batty_Towers’ talk about church websites, very pertinent since this is the subject of her PhD. As an aside, if she’s not asked to be a judge next year on the “best church website” category, there will be an outcry! The overall verdict, backed up with some neatly presented statistics, was that most church websites are bit crap. By highlighting this issue and implementing improvements, the hope is to get churches to pay more attention to what is increasingly a “porch” before someone gets to the church door. If the porch looks shabby, are you really likely to go inside? While it’s good that the research is there to provide some quantitative data, I don’t think anyone could be surprised by the findings.
What we learn about God we learn ultimately through media; input through our senses.
Our online presence may well be one of the few (or the only) exposure people get to the idea of God or christianity. If so, is the view that we project out to others something that is close to the real thing or is it an idol? Any media is suited to its age, but not all last. Well-developed oral history is something rarely seen in modern western culture, but different media now exist to fulfil the same role. So it’s good to master the tools of communication in our age, but not to get tied to them. The message is more important than the means by which the message is transmitted.
It may have appealed simply because it’s a view I hold to and try to live out. This blog, for instance, incorporates theology, book reviews and some real life. For me, that whole package is an honest view. The only thing I omit is work (when I have a job) because a previous incarnation of this blog, which dated back to 2004, had to be shut down for legal reasons after a previous employer found it.
For me, the highlight of the day was @Byers_Andy‘s session entitled “Theology Online?” which was a good follow on from the opening session. Regular readers will know I regard myself as an ‘amateur theologian’ – I have no formal academic training, but I do my best to dig diligently. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing theology online?
For starters, online and offline have to interact and critique one another. Online theology has the advantage of being more ‘immediate’ – so if pertinent issues come up then it’s easier to write a short blog article than it is to write and publish a book. Of course, this needs to be tempered by a need for reflection; hitting the ‘publish’ or ‘send’ button can be done in haste.
The aim of theology ought to be the same as John the Baptist’s mission: to point to something greater than themselves and to then fade into the background. Having theology online allows it to be more interactive, which books rarely are.
However, online theology is inherently oversimplified and lacks the nuance that is sometimes needed. For example, it would be hard to do justice to the nuances of Barth’s Church Dogmatics in a single blog. There is also a danger that it might be untested, though comment facilities do allow for a blog to be a testing ground.
Theology online runs the risk of being divorced from church (a very pertinent subject for me at the moment – keep following the blog over the next week for more on this). Theology has to be informed by church life as well as informing it. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Theology, online or offline, still needs to be approached with a mindset of fear & trembling, remembering about whom we are writing.
The final point was nice little soundbite: “Do we understand theology via the internet or do we understand the internet via theology?”
Prior to the day, it had been advertised that there would be WiFi available so users could connect and make the whole day relatively interactive and “participant driven” (though I have reservation about the semantics of this phrase!). This turned out not to be entirely correct. Some people were given a username and password for the WiFi, but not everyone. I spent most of my time in the café trying to hack in to it, but couldn’t.
As the main auditorium was in a mobile blackspot, the WiFi was necessary in order to participate, but being unable to do so resulted in digital isolation. It was rather akin to being stuck in a soundproof glass box when you’re at a party. There’s a conversation going on around you, but you are not allowed a voice.
After the event, I was told by some that you had to request a password, yet nothing was said during the day, so how people came by this gnosis is beyond me. To improve next year, I would recommend more of a focus on making the communication good, rather than focusing on the means by which it is delivered.
On the whole, the day was very rushed. While @digitalnun advocated silence at the end of the day, it was a shame the message hadn’t been taken on when it was being planned. The coffee breaks didn’t afford enough time to actually have a cup of coffee and there was little time for proper conversations between sessions. So for being focused on social media, there wasn’t room for being properly social – there was less time available for people than there would have been had it been a speed dating event. There was an informal gathering at a pub at the end of the day, but by then many were tired or had to go home and I was a bit hacked off. So next year, I would recommend maybe cutting out one seminar and making more time for the “bits in between”.
One problem that a lot of people had was the lack of power points. With people running phones, laptops and tablets, there was quite a high energy use. But sockets were few and far between. My phone has a very short life, but my laptop is a bit better. So I fully charged both before I left. By the time I arrived, my phone was at about 60%, but I can charge my phone off my laptop, effectively using the laptop battery as a backup for the phone. But a lot of people ran out of power before the end of the day. Next time, I would recommend (depending on the venue), that a dedicated room be set up, possibly commandeering an IT suite, a dedicated room for recharging. Brining plenty of multipoint extensions, people could leave their devices in a secure, supervised room, for half an hour or an hour. Some sort of cloakroom-style ticketing may be needed, but I think it would be popular.
The one “jump-start” seminar I went to was a it disappointing, though I seem to have been in the minority in thinking this from what I saw of the reaction. It may be down to what people regard as “beginner” and “advanced” in social media. Although I’ve been on Facebook since it first came to the UK in 2005 (when it was restricted to just a few unis, before it was made public), it has morphed into a hideous beast that use far less now. So I still regard myself a relative amateur. After all, I still haven’t been able to get Disqus comments successfully installed on my blog and I haven’t the foggiest about generating or using QR codes. Anyway, the session was on “social success” but the aim seemed to be about generating web traffic to your ‘product’ and trying to get it seen by as many people as possible. I remain highly sceptical about such empirical measures of success when it comes to social media. Next time it might be helpful to lay down some more guidance over what counts as “beginner” or what counts as “advanced” as I just think I ended up in a session that wasn’t meant for folk like me!
As mentioned earlier, the final session was trying to tell the story of the day through wordles. This was a bit of a muddle as the technology kept failing which resulted in those awkward times when watching IT gurus fiddle with devices becomes a spectator sport. The audience got distracted at this point and the Twitter fall began to fill with references to some of cliquey in-joke about pickles. Trying to summarise the day was never going to be a rip-roaring success given the 5 different “streams” and the fact that no one could attend them all. For next time, I think this could be cut down to just a simple closing address, making more time elsewhere in the day for meeting and greeting.
For further reading:
As I’ve taken a bit of time before publishing this, there are others who have been rather quicker off the mark. So you can read some alternative views at the following:
Revd Claire (may need to search as the link I had didn’t go straight to the right post)
This is Christine
Tech, Tweets and Theology
This is my story, this is my song