Archive - June, 2010

On Being Re-wired

Until recently, I resisted the idea that we’re being “re-wired” by new media.

After all, at our core we like to say we humans are all the same. We have the same needs, desires and hopes, though our life experiences are sometimes vastly different.

I was skeptical about the claim that superficial media could actually change the way our brains work. I’m less sure today.

Recently, while doing a search online for articles about social media and their effects on human communities, it occurred to me that the act of searching online is a different way of thinking about research. In contrast to my former visits to brick-and-mortar libraries, I can conduct research differently today than in the ancient past of pre-Internet days.

I was sitting at home, late in the evening, tapping a keyboard to get at various sources, not perusing a card catalogue and shuffling though shelves of hardbound books. The latter sounds almost archaic, in fact.

I found Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus” article and saw that it was expanded into book form and published recently. I read reviews, checked to see if it was on Audible.com or Amazon (available from both) and downloaded it from Audible.

In a matter of minutes, I was listening to the book.

This is only one example of how new media have changed my everyday life. Wherever I am, it is second nature for me to use my iPad or handheld device to check the news, respond to e-mail, share photos and video, get directions, and perform a host of other tasks. Easy access to limitless information has become the norm, and I’m almost always connected.

In retrospect, I concede I am being re-wired. Not knowing enough about how our brains work to make a scientific assessment of whether our neuron pathways are being changed, I’ve concluded that at the very least how I perceive and act upon my perceptions, expectations and access to information has changed how I function in pretty basic ways.

Not only has my method of research changed, so has my ability to check trusted sources online to assess the reliability of information, to secure opinions about the value of books and other information, and to act upon my desires or needs and get instantaneous feedback or gratification.

Until I reflected upon this later, it seemed quite normal. But it’s really quite amazing. I am being re-wired. I did not go to a bookstore and buy the book. I did not consult with a friend face-to-face about its content. I expected I could find it in a digital format and gain access to it immediately. I found it, ordered and downloaded it, and began to listen.

What I have not yet fully assimilated, and may never, is what this says about human interaction, trust, business, education and personal fulfillment. There are layers and layers of questions about human development, behavior and community.

These are the stuff of faith and the faith community. They are not necessarily the ultimate stuff, which is our relationship to God. But they come close.

A friend showed me an iPhone application that displays biblical text on-screen as a narrator reads it. This gets closer to how we relate to Scripture and perhaps how we use such tools for better or worse to relate to God.

So, the issue isn’t only that I’m being re-wired.

As if that weren’t enough, I’m discovering my spiritual practices could also be re-framed by these new media. I’m not afraid of this reality, but I am approaching it less casually than before.

The new media do change us in ways that are not merely superficial. This is a mixed blessing, one that I must continue to assess.

Have you been re-wired? Could new media change how you relate to God? Let me know what you think.

New Media, New Reality

As I sat in an airport waiting lounge, I got the news on Twitter via cell phone that the 16-year-old sailor attempting a solo trip around the world had been found alive.

Getting news this way didn’t strike me as unusual. In fact, it didn’t strike me at all. It’s just how I sometimes get news today – from someone I trust through a social network. And I’m not alone. According to a Pew Research Center survey, news is increasingly a shared, social experience. Half of U.S. citizens say they rely on the people around them to find out at least some of the news they need to know.

In another survey, an overwhelming majority (92 percent) told Pew they use multiple platforms to get their daily news. For example, more of us get our news online than through radio, television or newspapers.

If you’re interested in how to reach people with the stories of the church, this research presents both an exciting challenge and a frustrating change from the recent past. Whether we have fully engaged these challenges yet is an open question.

The Pew surveys found that most original reporting still comes from traditional journalists, but all of us are using social media in a variety of ways to stay up to date with news of particular interest to us.

Moreover, technology makes it possible for anyone to influence the impact of a story through comment, sharing and immediate reaction. Street protests following the election in Iran were relayed by Twitter and the story stayed alive longer than most on the social sharing site. However, it was more the exception than the rule. Twitter users are more heavily into technology news than foreign events, politics, the economy, or health and medicine.

And that highlights another feature of new media. According to Pew, people use different media for different purposes. Bloggers tend toward stories that elicit emotion, emphasize individual or group rights and spark ideological passion.

YouTube is both more serendipitous and global. What works are visually compelling stories that don’t depend on language for viewers to comprehend them.

Consistent with our own research at United Methodist Communications, Pew says attention spans are brief across all social platforms and we don’t stay long on any site. Therefore, stories change and go away in an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Self-selection has never been easier.

At United Methodist Communications, we are responding to this reality by making our Web presence more dynamic, refreshing our content lineup each day and using research to understand how that content resonates with audiences.

Part of our challenge is to be effective archivists and what some today are calling “information curators.” This is new territory for us, but it’s essential if we’re to remain relevant and accessible to the people we want to communicate with.

The Pew research team says that users are making news portable, personalized and participatory.

A third of cell phone owners now access news on their phones. Slightly less than a third of Internet users have customized their home page to include news that interests them. And almost 40 percent have contributed to creating news, sharing it or commenting on it through social media.

What is to be learned from this new context?

  • First, our messages must be relevant to the audience and available in the environment in which the audience is comfortable. People are not waiting passively to receive pronouncements from on high; they are deciding for themselves what interests them, whom they trust and how they will authenticate what they read, see or hear.
  • Second, we must become proficient in multiple ways of distributing information and in the writing style that each imposes. This doesn’t mean we develop different messages for each audience. In fact, it means we need message discipline for consistency and clarity. But it does mean that Twitter, online publications, e-mail, blogs, videos and podcasts are different, and each places its own demands on how content is packaged.
  • Third, it means storytelling is more transparent and conversational than it’s ever been. It’s a participatory interchange in which we share content with friends, react to it, and comment upon it. As Dan Gillmor has written, journalism today is more seminar and conversation than lecture.

Gaining attention and holding it in this age of information overload is a whole new game. But the opportunities to reach out and communicate are expanding in equal measure.

I’m interested in hearing how you are adapting to new media and using it for creative ministry.

A Nation of Minorities

Sitting in the waiting lounge of the airport in Lincoln, Nebraska, I watched a tall, slim little girl of about fourteen and her younger brother walk down the hall with great energy. I surmised they were Somali.

Moments later, a woman in a long, white African dress, her head wrapped as many Somali women entered and followed the children to the waiting area. My musings aside, an African family greeting an arriving passenger in Lincoln is not even cause for notice. Even here in the heartland, we are a nation of diversity, a fact that we sometimes forget and something major media often overlook as they picture us as mostly white of Euro or Nordic stock.

However, the news that the U.S. in 2010 is a nation with no majority confirms our diversity and raises many interesting questions. It may also provide insight into some of the current swirling divisions that leave us so conflicted, immigration being one of the most contentious.

The presumptive image of the country as mostly WASP may linger with the visibility of  the Boomers but a growing population of children and youth who are ethnically diverse has already changed us. We just haven’t quite fully comprehended what’s happened, nor the implications for the future.

Whether mainstream institutions (at least what we used to call mainstream) such as mainline religious denominations and mass membership organizations such as service clubs populated by the old majority can stand remains to be seen.  The development of ethnically diverse congregations has lagged behind the population shift in part due to cultural, language, economic and class differences.

Facing changes in youth culture, mainline groups haven’t been able to attract and keep their own young people, so the changes necessary to be hospitable and welcoming to people who come from different cultures and speak different languages will prove no less difficult.

Beyond cultural differences, a deeper challenge is embedded in the demographic changes we’re going through. The Census Bureau analysis of the population makes a case that change is coming “from the ground up.” By this the demographers mean the changes are occurring because young couples are having more children. Thus, the population changes are not the result of immigration, they’re from propagation. This is home grown diversity. It isn’t an immigrantion issue.

It does raise challenges we’re not giving much thought. We’re challenged to think seriously about quality public education for all children, now more than ever. We’re challenged to consider our attitudes toward national identity in a globally interconnected world. Those nations that effectively adapt, incorporate diversity and understand global connection will be better situated to play a role in shaping the world to come rather than merely reacting to what comes from elsewhere.

And those of the former majority are challenged to overcome fear of new people who have different cultural practices, language, dress and ways of doing things. This will require developing the capacity to be comfortable in a multicultural world.

This is already happening, of course, but it’s also true that cleavages and conflict plague progress toward an inclusive society. The immigration debate about border control is the most contentious example. But there’s also the English-only movement and the long-simmering issue of white privilege that some deny and others claim still afflicts relations between blacks and whites.

Even more deeply embedded in this change is something we just don’t like to talk about in the U.S.–class differences based in part on economics. The widening gap between rich and poor is far deeper than multiculturalism.

In fact, elites from every ethnic and language group may share more in common with each other than they share with the poor from within their own ethnic heritage. In the past several years, an affluent, elite global class has developed that enjoys wealth and privilege quite apart from the day-to-day struggle of working people and the poor within their own ethnic and language groups.

This cleavage isn’t addressed by the Census Bureau study, but it is the one with the most potential for social harm and long-term damage to social progress and harmony. If the mainline churches were to address the justice issues inherent in this challenge, they would be tackling one of the foremost issues at the root of the changing demographic landscape.

Whether they can do it and survive is altogether another question. But it may be the most important question they face.