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.

2 Responses to “New Media, New Reality”

  1. Sean June 16, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    I work for a daily newspaper, updating the website and sending headlines to Twitter. I also run the website and Facebook page for my church. I am also a frequent commenter on stories at Yahoo news, commenting from the increasingly unpopular Christian perspective. I also have a blog about Christian and faith topics. I know firsthand what this article is dealing with.

    I was saved almost three years ago during a personal crisis in my life. Since I have begun my relationship with God I have realized He has me right where He wants me, in the new territory of the Internet in what I call my “Web Ministry.” Sometimes all I do is find “good” stories to post on the newspaper website, or stories about churches and religious organizations, or individuals, making a difference in the world. Other times I offer “The Good News” of salvation through Christ to unbelievers who are making immature comments or attacks on news stories. And I continually update my church’s website and Facebook page with announcements, scripture, and links to other websites.

    The Internet is the new frontier and is largely populated by younger people who are strongly atheistic in their views. While there are many, many church and religious websites in existence, they are largely for those already saved. It is shining the light of Christ to those who are still in the darkness where the largest efforts need to be made in web ministry.

  2. Myka June 17, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

    As a United Methodist Deaconess, I am engaged in rethinking library and information ministries. This is taking shape through the cultivation of an online resource for congregational librarians and others related to congregations and community service organizations engaged in information ministries (www.mission-information.org). What you observe here in how technology trends impact the way in which we communicate and receive information is related to a series of articles I have been writing on navigating the digital divide.

    As church leaders, we must remember that we are ministering to and with multiple generations with a range of economic and educational backgrounds. To be successful, we must coordinate our communications efforts to incorporate technology trends, not launch separate endeavors. There is a “digital divide” that separates us on more than one front. To focus on digital media at the risk of neglecting print media will have an impact on our communities and result in growing divides on the lines of age and economic status. I don’t have an answer for the growing problems, only to say that we need to recognize that there is an issue and work toward ways to help each other navigate the digital divide. This can be accomplished through training, guidance, technical assistance, sharing Internet access–all part of information ministry.

    On the other side of the digital divide issue, is a growing concern over the effects of heavy technology use. A group of articles published in the New York Times on Monday, June 7, 2010, reported that heavy use of social media, Internet, and personal technology can lead to one’s lack of ability to focus and spending more time in a state of distraction. While we may believe that we are multi-tasking and being more productive, in reality, the stress and strain of constantly encountering news and information is taking a toll on our health and family/social life. I see that library and information (and communication) ministries have a responsibility to be mindful of our users/readers’ health and well-being. We could utilize some pastoral care methods to ensure that our partners in ministry (church leaders, pastors, church administrators, etc.) do not “burn out” while trying to keep up with technology or, worse yet, become addicted to technology through over-use.

    Thank you for broaching this important topic and inviting comments. In this information age, the conversations we have on these topics will lead to new and exciting ways to share Christ and make disciples.

    Deaconess Myka Kennedy Stephens, MDiv, MLIS
    Morton Grove, IL
    myka@mission-information.org

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