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‘The People Formerly Known as the Audience’

That’s the description Professor Jay Rosen expanded upon after journalist Dan Gillmor wrote about the “former audience.”

It’s about the new relationship we have with each other and traditional media as a result of new media.

In its simplest definition, it means that we are no longer passive receivers of information sent through elite media channels controlled by someone else. Those channels continue to exist, to be sure, but they are no longer our sole sources of information, and because we have access to a variety of media ourselves, we have the ability to participate in news coverage by commenting upon it in ways unknown until now. Under certain conditions, we even make news through these new media.

This is turning traditional media on its ear because it upsets a fundamental business model that has served to create huge media conglomerates over the past 70 years.

A new survey report from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press gives an even more interesting and complex picture of our use of news and information. The researchers say we’ve moved into a new phase even beyond a participatory culture for news. We are now utilizing specific platforms in different ways to receive, process and utilize news.

This means a smartphone is used for one purpose, a tablet for another and newspapers for yet other reasons. Moreover, we’re using specific newspapers for specific reasons–USA Today for news updates, the New York Times for in-depth reporting.

The report also finds the power of social networking as a news source. Many of us turn to Twitter to get immediate information about breaking stories before we turn to major media.

What this means for the church is also telling. The same people formerly known as the audience make up the community formerly known as the congregation, a phrase popularized by blogger Bill Kinnon.

On the one hand, we no longer sit passively and receive pronouncements as if we are simply on the receiving end of the church’s messages. On the other, there is great opportunity in the current media landscape. It is the opportunity to be connected, resourced and empowered in new ways.

For United Methodists, for whom connection has been a part of our community life from the beginning, this is an exciting time to be exploring new ways to be the church. These tools provide us the means to test new ways of learning and acting together. They provide us with information greater than our ability to absorb. They reveal the world to us more immediately and comprehensively than we’ve known before.

How are you managing these new media to connect, learn and act?

19 Ways I used the iPad while traveling in Africa

The iPad has been described as a tool primarily for consuming media. That may be too limiting. It’s useful for many other reasons.
While traveling in Africa, I discovered several uses that go beyond consumption. Some of the most useful apps are free. Some I bought on the app store. Because apps are being added daily, I might have chosen differently if options had been available when I made my trip. 

Here’s the list and how I used the apps:

1. Travel monitor for flight status, itinerary planning, electronic ticketing, seat selection using an online airline site and TripIt, FlightTrack and Flight Status apps.

2. Note-taking using the Notes app supplied with the iPad. I also have added Pages, Apple’s word processing software re-worked for the iPad, and Docs to Go from the app store. The Notes app is sufficient for quick note-taking but does not have formatting functions for document creation.

3. Calculator XL to determine exchange rates. This is always a trial for me. I’m mathematically challenged when it come to valuing dollars to local currency.

4. Business expense record using BizExpense. Extremely useful app that can scan in, or receive from an iPhone camera, copies of receipts, which can be assimilated into an expense record and e-mailed for submission. Of course, accounting will require the real thing, but nevertheless, this is a great record of expenses.

5. Free telephone calls back home using Whistle. This app worked amazingly well when the wifi signal was strong. A weak signal renders the app much less useful. You have to listen to a 15-second ad using the free version, but it takes me that long to plug in my earphones and adjust the volume, so it doesn’t bother me. I called my wife, Sharon, on our home landline and on her cell phone from the iPad — for free.

6. Real-time text messaging in-country to another iPad and to Sharon and my daughters in the U.S. using TextNow, also free.

7. Reading the news using the Safari web browser supplied with the iPad in addition to Pulse and Flipboard. OK, children, now gather ’round. I remember the days when I would buy a Sunday NY Times to hand carry to staff in Africa who had not seen a recent newspaper or magazine in months. Given this history, I’m amazed to be able to sit in a wifi zone and read today’s news online, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.

8. Alarm clock using Alarm Clock Pro. A reminder: At this writing the iPad doesn’t multi-task, so an alarm app must be open for the alarm to work. It doesn’t run in background — yet. So, if you want to wake up on time, plug your iPad into the socket to charge up overnight and make this the last app you open before going to sleep.

9. Posting to Facebook and Twitter using the Facebook mobile app and Tweetdeck. Here’s another amazing change. (Maybe I’ve just lived so long everything new is amazing to me, but I can remember when it was nearly impossible to call from the African continent. That was when the postal service ran the telephone service and you had to schedule a call at a post office, take your turn — perhaps a day later — pay for the call, wait for the operator to place it and take your place in a booth when your name was called. Really! It was this way across Africa.) So, as we’re driving into rural Manjama village, I’m texting our arrival using the 3G connection on the iPad, notifying whomever cares in the U.S. of our whereabouts, and remembering the old days.

10. Bible reading using the Olive Tree app. I’ve put The Message, The New Revised Standard Version and the American Standard Version on the iPad. The new Common English Bible wasn’t released when we were traveling, but I’ll put it on when the app is available from Cokesbury. Incidentally, I note that most mainline publishers don’t have the extensive variety Bible reader apps available from evangelical publishers.

11. E-mail using Google’s gmail, Apple’s mail and our Microsoft Exchange server at work. The iPad syncs up transparently and effortlessly with these mail apps and functions without a hitch. I’m very pleased with this seamless operation.

12. Calendar management using the calendar app that comes with the iPad. This, too, is a great tool. If you’ve wrestled with getting Entourage, Mac and Google calendars to sync, you know how frustrating it can be. Sometimes they work, sometimes they duplicate entries, drop entries, and generally make you want to tear out your hair. But the calendar app on the iPad syncs easily with the exchange server at work without the hassles of duplicate entries and other glitches. I am using the iPad calendar as my primary calendar for work because it functions so flawlessly.

13. Filing addresses using the native iPad address book from Apple. As with the calendar, this app has become my primary address book because it works so flawlessly and does not fight with all the other address books I’ve got elsewhere. When they play together well, I’m satisfied.

14. Document-sharing using Dropbox. This free app is a workhorse for me. It’s a cloud-based storage location to which I can upload documents and photos and then share them with others. This avoids e-mail size limits that frequently make document sharing a problem, especially photos or video files.

15. Research using Google. While I’m overseas, I often find need for information that escapes my memory or that is pertinent to a discussion I’m engaged in. I use Google to get me up to speed. And, speaking of speed, while it wasn’t available at the time of my trip, I’ve been checking out the Google Realtime search the past few days and it’s an impressive search engine that returns immediate results from various sources in real time.

16. Saving and storing notes. I’m an inveterate note maker. I don’t mean meeting notes, I mean notes on napkins, boarding passes, receipts or any other ephemera that I have in my pocket at the time. Needless to say, these sometimes survive to the end of the day and sometimes don’t. So I’ve been using Evernote, a free online note service that is another workhorse app. I file a variety of material to Evernote and then transfer to other places as appropriate. However, Evernote syncs to my laptops, desktop and Android smartphone in addition to the iPad. It illustrates the real value of cloud computing. I also use DevonThink database (it’s not an iPad app) for my heavy-duty filing system on my laptop, but Evernote comes in handy for reminders, thoughts, to-do lists and article links I intend to return to in the future, among other things.

17. Planning and diagramming processes using Popplet, a free app. As we discussed a communications process for Imagine No Malaria while in Sierra Leone, I mapped out my own version of the process on Popplet on the iPad as the discussion progressed in the meeting. When the discussion was concluded I shared the diagram with members of the committee via e-mail on the spot. There are other more full-featured apps like Omni-Graffle, which I use on my laptop, but it’s pricey for the iPad and for what it does. Popplet worked fine for me in our meeting.

18. Listening to audio books using the app. I find I retain as much by listening as by reading. I read a lot, but listening to some types of information seems to cause it to stick in my consciousness and I can recall it in a way that’s not true when I read. Maybe that’s why I loved radio when I was on the air. Whatever the reason, I listened to audio books in-flight and at night when jet lag made sleep impossible. Audible’s app is not as full featured as reading apps yet. It doesn’t sync to multiple devices, it’s too easy to accidentally touch the screen and cause the reading to jump to another location and it needs an easy “return to last location” function. These limitations aside, I like listening to audio books and Audible is a good source for the most recent and the largest selection.

19. Mapping our location using Google maps and related apps. For example, iTrips includes a Google map when it prepares a selection of travel information for you. The Google map for Freetown, Sierra Leone, from iTrip identified landmarks and even showed a British Methodist church we happened upon while in downtown Freetown. It also located the United Methodist church where we worshipped and other key points of interest to us. I wouldn’t use it for a true GPS, but for these kinds of sightings, it was a useful tool.

So that’s how an iPad becomes more than a tool to watch YouTube and play games online. I’ve purchased a keyboard, which makes it even more functional for note taking in meetings, and I got a camera adaptor that allows me to download images from my camera to the iPad and send them to interested friends via Facebook, Twitter and other programs.

Others may have found different ways to use the iPad. I’d be interested in hearing from you, and hearing about your most useful apps.

Sharing our lives in a connected world

Villagers in Manjama, Sierra Leone, welcome a
group of United Methodist visitors in August.

Two weeks ago as we drove into the village of Manjama, Sierra Leone, after a four-hour drive from Freetown, I tapped notice of our arrival into my iPad and posted it on Twitter and Facebook. The import of this led me to flashback more than 20 years ago.

I was in a remote village in east Africa. Back home, my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife was attempting to reach me to discuss how to proceed. I was two days from the nearest telephone service, which was housed in the post office of a regional city.

A Lutheran World Relief staff person got the message from Sharon, drove two days to reach me, and I went to the post office to schedule a telephone call. All told, the effort took three days.

By the time I would return to the U.S., my son would be recuperating. That’s what life was like before cell phones and satellites. For rural Africans who could not get to a post office, it was a disconnected, isolated world.

Now, using a relatively inexpensive device and equally inexpensive airtime, I was messaging my arrival at a remote point in the most unremarkable way. Moreover, I had spoken with Sharon earlier using the iPad and a free app called Whistle.

Beyond noting the obvious — my, how things have changed — there is within this tale a more significant learning. The world has shrunk. We are not disconnected. Our destinies are interwoven in ways never conceived by our parents and grandparents.

Our hopes and aspirations, dreams and desires — even our arrivals and departures — can be shared globally. Knowledge is no longer contained in hierarchical institutions or organizations. Relationships are no longer limited to the people in our geographic village. We are influenced by an emerging global culture that sometimes battles with and sometimes complements our own local culture. We can tell our stories without the mediation of professionals who add their own judgments and analyses.

How we understand ourselves and our place in the world is changing, and it will continue to change and evolve as new technologies become affordable, dispersed and accessible. Forms of this technology have already penetrated the most isolated places. It’s no longer just the elite who are connected.

The key question that will be answered, perhaps generations from now, is this: How will this technology change the quality of life, especially for those who have been isolated and voiceless? We don’t know how. We’ve only scratched the surface.

It’s a theological question. A faith question. A question about community. As I looked into the faces of the people of Manjama, I thought, “Things have changed. And it’s only just begun.”

Freedom of the press comes under scrutiny

United Methodist church law provides for an official newsgathering function that is editorially independent. Moreover, the Book of Discipline charges United Methodist Communications with the responsibility to work toward promotion and protection of the historic freedoms of religion and the press and to seek to increase the ethical, moral, and human values of media structures and programs.

Those freedoms will come under closer scrutiny as a federal court reviews a motion filed by lawyers for United Methodist Communications this week to quash a subpoena requesting the entire, unedited version of a video interview conducted by journalist Kathy Gilbert with an interview subject who subsequently sued local government.

The matter concerns an article published by United Methodist News Service in July 2008 by Kathy Gilbert and Amanda Bachus (both employees of United Methodist Communications) concerning Juana Villegas, an illegal immigrant who was arrested for a minor traffic violation and jailed in Berry Hill, a small incorporated city inside Metropolitan Nashville.

According to the UMNS story, “Villegas went into labor on the night of July 5 and was taken to Nashville General Hospital, where she was handcuffed to the bed by her right wrist and left ankle until two hours before her son, Gael, was born on July 6. Six hours after the birth, she was shackled again, and a guard was with her at all times. Villegas returned to jail July 8 and was not allowed to take a breast pump, causing her breasts to become infected, according to her attorney. She did not see her baby again until her release on July 10.”

Villegas’ story drew national media attention and her treatment gave rise to a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. As part of the discovery process, lawyers for the Metropolitan Department of Law issued a subpoena for Gilbert’s unedited video footage.

Tennessee state law protects any information obtained for publication or broadcast by a person employed by the news media or press, or who is independently engaged in gathering information for publication or broadcast. This provision ensures that journalists can do their jobs—securing information and reporting—without threat of subpoena. Tennessee is one of approximately three dozen states that have some form of a shield law.

Journalists should not be required to be information-gatherers for court cases—and non-profit journalism should be no less entitled to protection of unpublished information than a commercial news organization.

What makes a journalist a journalist? In this case, the court will decide. But the 2010 State of the News Media Report, an annual report on American journalism by the Pew Project For Excellence In Journalism says, “the data continue to suggest a clear pattern in how Americans gravitate for news: people are increasingly ‘on demand’ consumers, seeking platforms where they can get the news they want when they want it from a variety of sources rather than have to come at appointed times and to one news organization.”

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.

Open leadership builds trust

There are three ways to look at how society is informed. The first is that people are gullible and will read, listen to or watch just about anything.

The second is that most people require an informed intermediary to tell them what is good, important or meaningful.

The third is that people are pretty smart; given the means, they can sort things out for themselves, find their own version of the truth.

The means have arrived. The truth is out there.
–Dale Peskin, co-director, The Media Center

As United Methodists, we can draw a strong sense of assurance from the system that we have developed over the years for handling issues facing the church – a system that values open conversation, honest disagreement and Christian conferencing.

A case in point: The Council of Bishops recently heard an update on a study commission’s work focusing on clergy appointments. The bishops discussed the topic in an open meeting and in a public setting. Since it was newsworthy and important to the church, United Methodist News Service covered the discussion, noting in its coverage that the study commission’s work was still ongoing.

The two stories that the news team did – one on the council’s discussion, the other on reactions from clergy – sparked a lot of discussion on Facebook and on the comment pages accompanying the stories. The topic is clearly one that people care about and felt moved enough to comment on.

Deliberating on a challenging issue in an open meeting reflects well on the Council of Bishops and serves the greater good of the church. When issues are discussed in closed meetings, or when news is not reported about issues of consequence, the result is that the church is cut out of the conversation. Not informing the church about a major issue until a final report is presented is not the most constructive or transparent way to do the business of the denomination.

In contrast, open discussions can lead to conversations among a wider constituency. These conversations, in turn, can inform church leaders as they process an issue. In this case, news coverage of clergy appointments prompted people to speak out on the issue, and it generated conversations among the people most affected: church members and pastors themselves.

Openness and transparency give church members greater trust in their leaders. Likewise, open disagreements on an issue can be healthy and constructive, if done in a positive way. Leading a church or any other large organization can be messy. People don’t expect their leaders to always be perfect or in agreement with each other. Open and forthright deliberations, done in a spirit of Christian conversation (in United Methodism we speak of “holy conferencing”), go a long way to build trust and lead to a better-informed church.

A well-informed church is a blessing for good leaders because it becomes a partner in the journey and not just a passenger.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at how new media are enabling conversations in our age of disruptive technology and asynchronous communication. And I invite you to share your thoughts and carry the conversation forward.

Getting Outside the Bubble

In “They Like Jesus But Not the Church,” conservative author Dan Kimball contends that some of his colleagues live in a bubble of Christian subculture. As a result, they use insider language and presume that values they share within their faith communities are more broadly accepted in the wider culture than they truly are.

Kimball says emerging generations know little of the religious values that shaped older generations. In fact, some have no understanding of organized religion and those who do are often skeptical or reject it outright.

Studies by the Barna Group confirm the bad reputation of organized religion among emerging generations.

As bad as this is, Kimball says the reality is even worse. Because they live in the subculture bubble, these church leaders are unaware of negative perceptions about them, and they don’t hear the many conversations about organized religion occurring outside the bubble.

I suspect we are all subject to living in bubbles and I’m not rushing to judgment. I doubt it’s unique to the conservative leaders Kimball is addressing.

Important conversations about religion and spirituality are occurring in various places relevant to local congregations and mainline faith communities that we aren’t aware of because we can’t keep up with all of them, and we’re not present in some of the media where emerging generations are living their lives.

This is one reason I think being a pastor of a local congregation today is among the most difficult vocations in the church. Managing multiple expectations about values, priorities, perceptions and judgments about what it means to be a person of faith in the fragmented and polarized dawn of the 21st century is an extraordinary challenge.

It’s a daily, ongoing feature of our media-driven lives. It occurs at the intersection of faith and culture. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of that intersection I feel caught between irreconcilable differences, and occasionally I’m lambasted by one critic and then another, and they hold opposing views! In a two-sided debate I’m wrong on both counts!

And I’m not charged with delivering a word of hope every Sunday in front of a flock with such disparate expectations. To do so is an act of courage I deeply respect.

Communicating isn’t easy

Going beyond the bubble is a challenge we are trying to meet at United Methodist Communications.

The past few days have reminded me that we live in an unfettered environment of judgment and critique, affirmation and agreement. We’ve had some invigorating theological discussions at United Methodist Communications as we’ve considered how to partner with local churches in public media to communicate about the church and faith.

We’re considering messages to be delivered through external media such as television, print publications and the Internet. We contend with issues of language and values that push the edges of institutional constraints and traditional religious language.

This isn’t merely because we want to test limits, but because communicating today is no easy task. Simple phrases like “organized religion” carry negative connotation among those in the United States who’ve been burned by experiences with a church in the past or who only know organized religion by what they see on television or read in news stories.

In a media-saturated environment, religious perceptions are shaped by televangelists and the religious right. But people who don’t know us lump us into the same category.

And that’s only part of the challenge. Some congregations are more willing and able to push the edges of language and messaging than others.

Then there’s the absence of mainline voices in mainstream media. Lack of significant presence in media-digital and other forms-only adds to the misperception of irrelevance, or worse, unconcern. It leaves the presentation of values from the Christian tradition to celebrity megachurch pastors and other media-savvy religious entrepreneurs who are not representative of the whole diverse community of faithful Christians.

Add to this generational, cultural, racial and ethnic considerations, and communicating with those who don’t know the language of the church becomes even more complex.

Seizing opportunities

Stepping outside the U.S. bubble, we at United Methodist Communications don’t assume that what works in the United States will apply to Europe, Asia or Africa, and we consult with persons in various global contexts to gain perspective about communication in their unique circumstances.

We learn a lot from local churches around the world. They help us to break through our own bubbles, and we hope we partner in a helpful way in a reciprocal learning process.

After writing about these challenges, I must also say there could hardly be a more exciting time to be a communicator in a faith community. The tools and the opportunities have never been greater.

At United Methodist Communications:

  • We’ve expanded our global engagement with people through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
  • We offer online training in various skills relevant to local church ministry.
  • We produce a weekly webinar on using technologies to get outside the bubble.
  • In non-church media, we invite people unfamiliar with The United Methodist Church to come to to learn more about the church.
  • We’re frequently updating the front page of to keep it fresh.
  • We publish a digital edition of Interpreter magazine.
  • We’re using more videos and blogs on several Web sites.
  • Increasingly, we’re publishing in nine languages and striving for consistent global coverage of church stories.

We’ve seen conversations grow and take flight. We’ve seen visitors to the Web sites increase, and more pages opened and read. We’re continuously monitoring what people are interested in and how long they stay on various sites, and we adjust content to attract them.

And it will come as no surprise that we’ve received accolades and taken criticism.

God’s love: Too big to contain

We may not have broken the bubble yet, but we’re working hard to expand it. We work from a premise that The United Methodist Church is concerned about the conversations occurring around it, especially about spiritual concerns and organized religion, and that we as a church can be more expansive in our outreach and sensitive to those with whom we want to communicate.

We work from the conviction that the teachings of Jesus about the love of God cannot be contained in any bubble. God’s love breaks through our isolation, fragmentation and division, and embraces all who seek it.

And we follow the lead of John Wesley, who said more than 200 years ago, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”

The Digital Media Movement

As Haiti moves toward recovery and as Christians look at how faith is reflected in major issues confronting the world such as this one, I am interviewing knowledgeable people who can offer insight on the interaction between faith and culture.

These interviews may be in podcast format, video or Skype, depending on circumstances and our capacity to reach them.

You may have noticed that United Methodist Communications has moved into providing content through digital media in a big way. You can get updates on Facebook and Twitter, through email and online at, and

The world is moving at breakneck speed to online distribution of meaningful content. And we are using cell phones, laptops and desktops among other tools to receive this content.

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 8- to 18-year-olds are living their waking hours online. They pack in 10 hours and 45 minutes receiving and distributing media content every day, according to the Kaiser report.

In every age group, the movement to digital media is growing rapidly. On behalf of the church, we at United Methodist Communications seek to engage, inform and inspire—and we recognize we must do this with every tool at our disposal.

Digital media are about more than one-way information, of course. They are about conversation, participation and interaction. My hope is that the informed material we offer about Haiti will carry out these three goals.

I also hope you will give me feedback about what you would like to see discussed and persons you would like to hear from.

This ain’t Uncle Walter’s world

If there were even an iota of doubt that the world has changed because of digital technologies, it should be erased now and forever by the Haiti earthquake. As I listened recently to an official source tell me “off the record” information, I was reading that same information on Facebook, and I received a link from a colleague about an online newspaper article containing the information. My “source” wanted to keep this “under the radar,” but he couldn’t keep it off the Internet.

Today information moves at the speed of the Internet. “Under the radar” is a quaint colloquialism. This new reality comes as disruptive and threatening to established communications patterns and traditional command and control organizations because it introduces a new set of values and new ways of perceiving.

It means the gatekeepers have lost control of the gate through which information flows. They can’t move fast enough because there are just too many cell phones and laptops in the hands of too many individuals with data packages and wireless access. There are too many gates to control. Those institutions that try will break down under the strain or become irrelevant. We will simply go elsewhere for information.

In this superheated environment, if you do not contribute to the conversation, you cannot expect to influence it, and you are irrelevant to it – even if you are an official source. The conversation will continue without you, making up the story as it moves along.

Of course, this is uncomfortable. It is certainly frustrating. And it results in a crazy mix of fact and fantasy. Yet it happens and it won’t stop. Yearn as we may for yesteryear and news anchor Walter Cronkite telling us “that’s the way it is,” those days are gone and they’re not coming back.

As I have worked with staff of United Methodist Communications during this week of earthquake coverage, I have felt like the steel ball in an old pinball machine, buffeted in every area by new information, decisions or challenges. I move through one passageway and I get slammed backward and have to adjust because a new force has been exerted. Not just the news operation, but marketing, fundraising, technology infrastructure, web utilization, graphic design, and public information are all affected by these changes.

Add to this, input from Twitter, Google and Facebook – real-time conversation, reaction and utilization – and you have a rock ’em, sock ’em communications environment that is always on and always moving. And that, as Uncle Walter used to say, is the way it is.

Digital culture demands relevance, change

Can The United Methodist Church survive in the digital culture? If so, in what form will it exist? How must it adapt to be relevant to life in this new cultural reality?

We talk about this a lot at United Methodist Communications. We just spent a day discussing the challenges we are presented by the new digital culture in which we work, and how this new environment is shaping the church we serve.

Technology changes how we think, act and perceive the world around us. How we access, store and utilize information influences the culture. Perhaps influence is too mild a descriptor. It shapes culture.

That’s the thesis M. Rex Miller advances in The Millennium Matrix, a new book about faith and communications technologies. It’s a thought-provoking look at how technology affects culture and in turn shapes our perceptions about faith.

As communicators, we exist in an institution shaped by print technology, and cultural change is coming to it as a disruptive challenge that causes some to wonder if it can survive. In our day together, we didn’t pretend we could answer that question, but we did talk about how we can engage some of the specific challenges we face in the digital age.

We know the information we provide must be relevant to the needs and interests of the user – that it must go beyond merely the messages the institution desires to push out.

We understand that we are engaged in an interactive conversation and not in a one-way flow of information.

We believe we must reconsider how to make information more accessible in many different ways, from style of writing to format to placement on the screen to hyperlinked connections to multiple languages.

We know our audiences are global, and we must develop a more robust network of communicators who can tell the stories of the church and support its global conversation more adequately.

And we know that information flows continuously today. It is not limited to our timeline. It moves in real time and often it is unfiltered and unrefined-as when a passenger on a ferry in the Hudson sent cell-phone photos of the US Airways jet floating on the river before the tower knew it was down. In events like this, everyone is potentially a journalist.

We also discussed the intriguing word Jon Pareles cited in a New York Times article about how digital technologies have affected the music industry-“disintermediation.” He points out that no one must rely on an intermediary for approval or distribution of media or content. We can do it ourselves.

Digital technologies have empowered people to become producers, commentators and distributors without the need for gates or gatekeepers. The conversation will happen regardless of institutional controls or desires. The gatekeepers have lost control of the gate through which information flows.

The most critical challenge of the digital culture, I believe, is to engage in the conversation with relevant information, provide the deep support that we all need to live fruitfully in this atomizing and fragmenting reality, and to compete within a marketplace of ideas and messages that come at us as a cascade of appeals for our attention.

Whew! It was a busy, interesting, exciting day. I’ll be writing more about this in the next several posts. And I’m particularly hopeful that you will respond to these reflections with your own insights. I think this is both an exciting opportunity and a critical moment in history, and I invite your conversation.

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