network society, blogs, and the church – draft

July 17, 2008

OK, I finally got around to writing the draft of my contribution on “Theology and the virtual world” which will happen in October. It’s a first draft, written in the last two days. I will deliver it to probably the largest yearly gathering of pastors of our church. This will be part of one of three open sessions, and I’ll have only a few minutes. In these few minutes I have decided to make the case for blogging as an important tool in the “virtual world”. I’m expecting a 40/50 something crowd, highly intellectual, but with little to no Web 2.0 experience. I’m using a number of different types of sources, academic journals, books, a TED video, blogs etc, so my referencing is still a mess. Well, for the past two years I’ve been formed by the blogging community, so if you are reading this, input will be appreciated, either as comments, changes to the wiki space or as email. You can download the PDF version of the paper here, or visit the wikispace where I’ve uploaded it here. Happy reading, it’s about 2000 words.

Network society, blogs, and the church

Cobus van Wyngaard

 

Introduction

The Internet is more than a new technological medium, it is a new world. This world is transforming our way of communicating, our language, our attitude to writing, our social relationships, our relationship with space and time, our way of learning and much more (Bazin & Cottin 2003:3). Working from the theme “Theology and the virtual world”, I will focus on the Internet, the most popular manifestation of the virtual world (Bazin & Cottin 2003:2), on what has become known as Web 2.0, and especially on blogging. What is currently happening in the Web 2.0 sphere can rightly be called a revolution, both technologically (O’Reilly 2007:17), but also in the way people organize themselves (Shirky 2005:19:50-20:05). The virtual world is not longer only virtual, it’s effects can be seen all over society. In what follow I will explore some of the possibilities of blogging in this network society.

What is Web 2.0?

With the dot com collapse in 2001 many thought that the heyday of the Internet was over. Today this is seen as the shakeout where a new technology was ready to take centre stage. Enter Web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2007:17). The term Web 2.0 does not refer to any technological innovations, and is therefore seen by many as a meaningless marketing buzzword (O’Reilly 2007:18). However, the millions of citations of a definition of Web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2007:18) and countless conversations, posts, wiki’s and pages on this is just some of the markers of a growing consensus that a totally new understanding of the Internet has emerged. Although a final definition of Web 2.0 is still eluding us, and this paper won’t even try to attempt giving one, some understanding of the shift that has taken place is critical in this conversation when looking for the place of theology in the virtual world.

By the end of 2006 the Time person of the Year was “you”, it was everyone who participated in web 2.0 (Grossman 2006). Time talked about a story of community and collaboration, called it a revolution, said that it has just got started. This new Internet is characterized mostly by collaboration among users. It has given rise to, among others, social networking sites (for example Facebook), wikis (wikipedia being the most notable example) and blogs, which we will discuss in this paper. This said, it should be clear why the words of Bart Decrem (2006), the participatory web is appropriate to describe Web 2.0, as opposed to the web as information sharing.

Blogs and the blogosphere

It seems like a popular understanding of blogs by those who are not involved with the blogging community is that blogs is online dairies. This understanding has it roots in some truth, but underestimate the influence of blogs. A Blog (shorthand for web log) is a website with different entries, called posts, with the latest post displayed on top. Blogs has evolved to become much more than an online dairy, with Bloggers blogging about whatever topics matter to them (Gill 2004:3), and the influence of blogs on mainstream media, business and politics have been seen on many occasions (Bailey & Storch 2003:3-8).

Blogs is considered an important part of Web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2007:24). Essential to Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence, turning the web into a kind of global brain. Within this the blogosphere, the term coined by Bill Quick to represent the intellectual space that bloggers occupy (Bedner 2004:7), is the equivalent of a constant chatter in the forebrain (O’Reilly 2007:26). “Weblogging is a classic example of mass amaturization, it is deprofessionalized publishing. Want to publish globally? Anything you think today? It is the one button option that you can do for free.” (Shirky 2005:15:57-16:10). Some of the important characteristics of blogs is the already mentioned reversed chronological order, regular date-stamped entries, links to related articles and blog entries and blogs (the latter called blogrolling), archiving (the old content remain available), and ease of syndication (RSS feeds) (Gill 2004:2).

If these characteristics are used, and obviously exceptions on almost all of them would be found within the blogosphere, the very important factor that blogs is not only monologues, but actually conversations. One of the things which make this possible is a technology called RSS (Real-Simple-Syndication), one of the most significant advanced in the architecture of the web. RSS make it possible to not only view a blog, but to subscribe to a blog, and be notified each time the content is updated. Furthermore, RSS readers provide the ability to bring any number of blogs subscribed to onto one interface, reading posts as they are published. Although this might seem trivial it was essentially the piece of technology that turned blogs from “an ease-of-publishing phenomenon into a conversational mess of overlapping communities” (O’Reilly 2007:25).

Christian blogs in a network society

The classic answer to how we get a group of people to do something was to find an institution, get some resources, and coordinate the institution into doing a certain task. In this approach everyone taking part would then be incorporated into the institution (Shirky 2005:00:37-00:57). However, the reality with which churches are currently faced is what Dwight Friesen (2003:15-16) describe: A woman gets together with some Christian colleagues once a week over lunch for encouragement and to be spurred on to good deeds. She reeds a book by Thomas Merton, volunteers at the midweek children’s program of the local Baptist church, usually attends an Assembly of God service, although she sometimes opts for Russian Orthodox, while her membership is still at her parents Lutheran church.

The reality is that people do not necessarily commit to a single institution, and, following Shirky (2005), Web 2.0 technologies further enable people to make such connections, to form connections within networks. A network is a set of interconnected nodes. Although social networks are as old as the human race, it has taken on a new life under what Castells calls informationalism. “The network society is a social structure made of information networks powered by the information technologies characteristic of the informationalist paradigm” (Castells 2001:166). In this world blogs, and similar spaces, become meaning-giving clusters to which people are linked (Friesen 2003:15-16). Contrary to what might be commonly assumed, a strong network is not made up of a few strong links, but of many weak links. Such a network is both stronger and more enduring (Friesen 2003:16).

At this point an important distinction needs to be made. The virtual world is not so virtual at all. It is real people connecting with other real people. These connections have a very definite influence on “real life”. Blogs provide the tool for believers to create a network of sacred places. This Tim Bedner (2004:7) call the cyberchurch, a subcategory of the blogosphere, although we should probable add groups on social networking sites and other similar sacred spaces created through Web 2.0 to this.

Blogging and the church

The Internet is more than a tool that we must learn to use, it’s a new phenomenon (Bazin & Cottin 2003:29), a new world (Bazin & Cottin 2003:3). Adapting to the network society involves more than adding a website to an old process; we should rethink our entire process (Himanen 2001:25). Blogs can help in tasks of the local church. It can be another medium for communicating with congregants. Blogs can help in giving in giving a personal feel to a large church, give people a window into the heart of the church, and help pastors connect with congregants. It can be a way of sharing stories and the vision of the church, and hearing the response on congregants (Bailey & Storch 2007:18). This is using blogs as a tool to connect people to the institution, something blogs can definitely help a church with, but from the above a different understanding also emerge. But the use of blogs must be seen from a totally different angle.

The moment you enter the blogosphere you open yourself up to a global context. I regularly blog about the congregation in which I serve, but a very small percentage of readers come from my congregation. Rather, my blog has become a node to which a number of people connect, all of them also connecting to other nodes. The moment that I enter the blogosphere I have the ability to create a meaning-giving space, a sacred space, to which anyone with internet access can connect. This, to me, seems to be the primary way in which church should interact with the virtual world through blogs. More than strengthening the communications of the local church to it’s local congregants, it becomes part of a strong network consisting of many weak links. When pastors blog they take part in this process. When this happen relationships are formed and friendships result. We take part in the endless chatter going on, voicing part of the conscious thought in the Web 2.0 brain, theologizing, posting and commenting, but most importantly, we create a sacred space where people can connect.

Conclusion

The virtual world, in this case the Internet, and specifically the use of blogs, is not the way in which we do church better. A revolution is taking place, and a new approach to how groups connect together is happening all around us. Theology in the virtual world mean that the church also take part in the endless chatter, form nodes and clusters, sacred spaces people can connect to. From an insiders perspective it would seem that the question is no longer whether this is happening, but rather who is taking part.

Bibliography

Bazin, J N & Cottin, J. 2003. Virtual Christianity. Geneva: WCC Publications.

Bailey, B & Storch, T. 2007. the blogging church: Sharing the Story of Your Church Through Blogs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bedner, T. 2004. We Know More Than Our Pastors.

Castells, M. 2001. Epilogue for The Hacker Ethic. London: Secker & Warburg.

Decram, B. 2006. Introducing Flock Beta 1 (http://www.flock.com/blog/introducing-flock-beta-1)

Friesen, D. 2003. Scale-Free Networks as a Structural Hermeneutic for Relational Ecclesiology. Washington: George Fox University

Gill, K E. 2004. How can we measure the influence of the blogosphere?, http://faculty.washington.edu/kegill/pub/www2004_blogosphere_gill.pdf

Grossman, L. 2006. Time’s Person of the Year: You. Accessed 15 July 2008, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1569514,00.html.

Himanen, P. 2001. The Hacker Ethic. London: Secker & Warburg.

O’Reilly, T. 2007. What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software in Communications & Strategies no. 65, p17-37.

Shirky, C. 2005. Coordination Costs, Institutional Loss, and Cooperative Infrastructure (TED talk, http://feeds.feedburner.com/~r/TEDTalks_video/~5/331825158/ClayShirky_2005G-[None].mp4)

3 Responses to “network society, blogs, and the church – draft”

  1. Jaen Swart Says:

    Cobus, I can see where you are going with this paper and would like to touch on a few things which you can consider or at least think about.

    Firstly web 2.0 like you said is more a way of doing things than a technology as such. It basically puts the power of the web back in the hands of the user instead of the site administrators.

    Blogging is but 1 of many facets of web 2.0. Others that play a big role is things like social networks, social bookmarking, contact management etc etc.

    It is all about expression, expression by users for users. With that comes a huge problem too. There is no censoring, no right or wrong, it open. That in itself makes its users vulnerable in many different ways.

    To get back to the topic and how we can get the new web to work for us and the church, we need to start somewhere.

    Firstly we must consider what part of our church will be involved, be able to be involved and as a matter of fact who will be benefiting from it?

    Don’t take me wrong, I’m all for it, but just don’t think it will solve any problems, it will most likely introduce plenty more from an opinionated youth crowd that makes up 80% of the so called online community.

    I believe that for a church to be truly successful at delivering content and messages through the web, it people first of all needs to participate. Without people these things just don’t work.

    Secondly it needs to be rolled out in stages, must leverage off existing platforms and be easy to use for all involved.

    Remember it can never replace the current way of doing things, at most we hope that it will compliment it.

    Secondly the church needs to back this enthusiastic surge forward by managing it both from a content level, a financial level and a resource level.

    My personal experience is that social networks gets boring after a couple of months when you realise there was a reason you left those people behind.

    Blogging gets useless when only a handful of people participate.

    Anyway, it sure is a nifty new medium and if used correctly can probably help the church connect back with a crowd that has been lost to the church for years.

  2. Roger Saner Says:

    Cool – this is good, Cobus. I’d focus more on social networking than on blogs, and the flatter heirarchy that the internet offers. Look at participation rather than legislation. There’s a need for digital missionaries sanctioned by the church and released by the church to operate in a new environment.

  3. cobus Says:

    Well, still waiting for the guys from the conference to come back to me… time will tell what they thought.
    I guess mostly because this is where I’ve spent the most of my Web 2.0 time. But I’ll keep the comment in mind when I update the paper (as soon as I hear from them organizers).


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