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Clay Shirky: Social Media And The Communications Revolution

In a wonderful TED Talk recorded last month, Clay Shirky details why the arrival of social media on a massive scale is a true communications revolution. His talk is prescient at a time when Twitter has been seen to be the most immediate way of delivering news from the front line of the Iran election protests.

Much of what he says derives from his fine book ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ that I blogged earlier this year during my sabbatical. If you don’t have time to read the book, watch this video, which is only seventeen minutes long. It introduces you to some of his key thinking, and it is highly relevant. Here are a couple of salient points he makes in this talk.

It isn’t when tools are shiny and new that they are revolutionary; it is when they are familiar and boring – because then they are widely distributed and used.

Furthermore, the contemporary communications revolution works on a number of fronts. First of all, we are no longer passive consumers. We do not simply receive what the professionals and the powerful broadcast to us. The same tools that make us consumers also make us producers: computers are not just for looking at websites and receiving messages, we can send messages and create our own websites and blogs. Mobile phones are not only for telephone conversations, we can send SMS and MMS messages.

And not only can we reply to the powerful and the professionals, we can then network among ourselves. We are way beyond ‘one to one’ and ‘one to many’ conversations; we now have ‘many to many’ conversations, and their significance grows exponentially with each new participant.

When the last Chinese earthquake happened, Twitter was the first service to break the news, because eyewitness accounts could be uploaded immediately. The BBC learned of the quake from Twitter. The so-called ‘Great Firewall of China‘ which existed to censor unsuitable material from the rest of the world was facing the wrong way. It was a long time before the Chinese authorities reverted to their normal clampdown methods.

Ultimately, though, the nature of the new social tools is such that there is no point discussing whether we like them or not, professionalism versus citizen journalism and all that. The horse has bolted, and this is the new world. Not to operate in it is like refusing to have a printing press, a camera, a telephone, a radio and a television.

The Barack Obama presidential campaign understood the new world well when they set up the My Barack Obama site for supporters. When Obama announced his support for something unpopular, they formed a forum on the site to oppose him and lobby him. Obama had to reply, explaining he had considered the issue and come to a conclusion they did not like, and that he would take the hits for that. What the campaign never did was censor the supporters. It realised that in the new world they could only convene them, and that was their task on the website.

Where does this leave Christians? Firstly, ignoring the new world is not an option. Communications (in all directions) are key to our faith. While we shall want to beware any values that might be inimical to our core beliefs (for example, the ‘instant’ or ‘real time’ nature of this stuff cuts both ways, between news spreading fast – good – and stunted reflection – bad), we cannot opt out. Churches that just want to set up static websites and think they are hip are behind the times. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Flickr (I simply name the ones where I happen to have a presence) are now critical. We need to be active there. They are about more than the popular stereotype of Facebook and Twitter updates of saying what we had for breakfast. It is heartening in my own denomination to see that this year for the first time the Methodist Conference (which happens in a couple of weeks’ time) will have a Twitter feed. It’s already up and running. It will be the primary way in which I stay up to date with debates and decisions. Why wait two weeks for a Methodist Recorder report? Our weekly newspaper has instantly been rendered even more moribund than it already was.

By virtue of where I am publishing this article, I am probably to a considerable extent typing to the converted. But the argument needs to be carried elsewhere. I am not suggesting that every ninety-year-old in our churches buys a laptop and sings up with Twitter (although plenty with lively minds certainly could). However, it is as essential for the church to embrace the life in this new world as it was for the Jewish exiles to embrace life in Babylon. Not everyone will like it, but it is where we are right now, and we need to be involved.

Secondly, we must recognise that these different forms of communication will affect our worldview. Rex Miller argued as much, if not more, in his book ‘The Millennium Matrix‘. He said that Marshall McLuhan‘s famous dictum that the medium is the message wasn’t radical enough: the medium is the worldview, Miller claimed. Social media moves us from one-way proclamation of the type I engage in when I preach on a Sunday to an interactive and conversational approach. This must affect how we do church and especially how we do mission.

Thirdly, while some will be bewildered and confused by the new world, I think it gives us cause for hope. If others can get their message out so quickly and broadly, then we can too. And we should be at the forefront of the revolution, not merely copying a new trend but innovating. We are the children of the Creator God. The Church’s history of arts patronage is something we could recover here, in that we could be leaders, not simply followers in the social media world. Why not?

Anyway, I said this was a conversation, and I’ve rattled on for a thousand words now. Over to you. What do you think?

Sabbatical, Day 20: Libraries, Linux And Slow Broadband

If anything demonstrates a failure to understand different religions today, it’s this story: Bible moved to library top shelf over inequality fears. Muslims in Leicester had been upset to find the Koran on lower shelves of public libraries. They felt their holy text should be on the top shelf to show that it is above commonplace things. Librarians agreed to their request, but also moved copies of the Bible to the top shelf.

I’m prepared to believe they did so out of good intentions. Perhaps they didn’t want to look like they were favouring Islam over other faiths. Perhaps they thought all holy texts should be treated the same, as if the holy book of a religion occupies the same relative place in each faith. If so, they were adopting an approach that has been used in schools to teach about different religions. It takes the phenomena of various faiths, and directly compares them. It is a flawed approach. For, as reaction to this story shows, religious texts are treated differently. My research supervisor, Richard Bauckham, used to say that the place of the Koran in Islam was more akin to the place of Christ in Christianity, because it is revered as eternal, uncreated and coming down out of heaven. 

Christians do not treat the Bible that way, however ‘high’ their doctrine of inspiration. In the story, even the spokesperson for the extremely conservative Christian Institute is concerned that the scriptures are not placed out of reach. They are meant to be within the reach of all, a point understood by the spokesperson for Civitas when he called for libraries to be run on principles of librarianship rather than as places of worship. However much we honour the Bible for its revelation of God, we do not worship it. Only God is to be worshipped. The Bible is a holy tool. Like all tools, it needs to be close at hand.

How ironic this news comes in the same week that the atheist Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has said that children need to be taught the Bible or they will fail to understand our culture. As a Christian, I would of course want to make much larger claims for the narrative of Scripture than that, arguing that it is the framework to make sense of life, the universe and everything. However, I welcome his comments nonetheless.

Meanwhile, on the personal front, once again family circumstances have meant I’ve achieved none of my sabbatical aims today. I stayed in with Mark this morning while Debbie, Aunt Pat and Rebekah went into town. At lunch-time, Debbie and Pat left for a day trip to Sussex. However, Mark has been full of beans – or, more accurately even more pasta shapes – and we managed his first trip out this afternoon since he became ill. The local library was putting on a James Bond afternoon for children. If I took it seriously, I wouldn’t like it. Although I’m not a convinced pacifist, I don’t believe you talk about guns and poison casually. The visiting speaker was from a military museum, and was showing examples of equipment used by British spies a few decades ago. Thankfully, it went over our children’s heads and they were more keen to take out some of the books to which they normally gravitate. 

Finally, I’m trying to install some extras to the Ubuntu Linux partition on my laptop, ready for my next sabbatical jaunt on Monday. Some things install better on that Vista laptop than our Vista desktop – Ubuntu, for one! I might reboot into Windows and see whether the software for my Sony Ericcson Walkman phone will install properly on that machine – it doesn’t on the desktop. Everything so far has been immensely frustrating, because our broadband has slowed to a crawl in the last day or two. I tested it at and it reported a download speed of just 0.1 Mbps. I’ve been trying to find out tonight whether we’ve been throtted by our ISP for over-use, but so far I can’t find anything – not that it’s easy to find out. I’m going to sign off now and try again to find out some answers.

Sabbatical, Day 7

Just a quick post tonight as I’m busy packing for the drive to Cliff College tomorrow. The weather forecast for the Peak District tomorrow isn’t as sinister as it sounded a couple of days ago, so it looks like the trip is on after all.

By the way, if you’re in the UK, check out the new Weather Beta service on the BBC site. Much improved. You can set several favourite places, see three-hourly forecasts for them for the next twenty-four hours, and a five-day forecast. Plus you can see a video of the forecast on the relevant BBC regional news programme.

Today has had little overt sabbatical work. I took Mark to the library this morning while Debbie took Rebekah to her ballet lesson. This afternoon I took Rebekah into town while Debbie took Mark to a party.

Coming home, I went to check and pump up my tyres ready for tomorrow. Having trouble with the digital pump I have that plugs into the cigarette lighter, I borrowed Debbie’s foot pump. However, I have some kind of Midas touch, except that rather than everything I touch turning to gold, it tends to break. She has just ordered a new pump off eBay. After that, my pump more or less decided to work – well, enough to get the requisite quantities of air into every tyre.

Tonight I’ve tried to catch up on comments here on the blog, and apologies again if my replies have had to be brief. I’ve also been photographing objects Debbie wants to sell on eBay.

If you have a moment, say the odd prayer for our children. They’re not happy about me going away for five days, and aren’t used to me disappearing like this. And it’s the first of three such trips during the sabbatical. Thanks.

Hopefully the next update will be via wifi or mobile broadband from Cliff tomorrow night.

Sabbatical, Day 4

At last. I’ve just finished typing my summary notes of ‘The Starfish and the Spider‘. They exceed three and a half thousand words, so when I post them to the blog I shall certainly split them up. There are probably about seven sections in what I’ve summarised.

The job got finished, because the children’s school was open again today. Snow still lies thick on much ground around here, including the school playground, which was out of bounds, but a path had been cleared to enable parents to get children to their classrooms this morning. Peace at last!

I made one or two phone calls this morning. I am due to travel on Sunday to Cliff College in the Peak District to spend five days studying there. Every day I enter their postcode into the five-day weather forecast section of the BBC website. Currently, heavy snow is predicted for them on Sunday. It’s too early for them to consider cancelling the course, but clearly it is a possibility.

During the day, I found a particularly interesting blog post on Mark Batterson’s Evotional site. Entitled ‘Chief Storyteller‘, Batterson proposes this as a description of a senior pastor’s rôle. We are called to retell ‘genesis stories’ that show where we have come from and where we are headed. There is an intimate connection between the past and the future, to the point that ‘stories of the past … frame visions of the future.’

I think there is a lot in this. My one query (which I left in a comment on the blog) runs something like this. I see great value in this approach in that the ‘genesis stories’ tell us key things about our spiritual DNA, the purposes for which God called our community into being. I’m not so sure they remain the entire framing reference for all future vision. We need to make allowance for the possibility of paradigm shifts that appear to come out of nowhere and seem to bear little relation to our prior trajectory. Even where genesis stories do give us vision for the future, that vision can change shape drastically. A classic example would be the radical reinterpretation of Old Testament texts in the New Testament. In the light of Christ, OT texts bear a wieght they didn’t originally carry in the minds of their authors.

Let’s end today with this. I received a friend request on Facebook today and I didn’t recognise the name. I sent a polite message to the person, asking her to remind me where I knew her. Back came a reply in which she admitted she didn’t know me, but had seen my name on a mutual friend’s list and she thought I was ‘an awesome man of God’.

Well, the lady is clearly very kind, but Debbie would soon correct her misapprehension of me. I am nervous of these descriptions, not out of low self-esteem, but out of a need to protect myself. I have seen Christian leaders who believe the hype, and I wait for them to fall. I can remember one grisly example back in Kent.

Eleven years ago, I was involved in putting on a one-day conference for members of worship bands. Cutting a long story short, at the end of the evening celebration, two women went from the conference to pray with a man who should have been there but had sustained a fall. As they prayed, he felt the heat of the Holy Spirit and was healed. I emailed this story around a few networks at the time, and back came a reply from someone who ran an email group about revival: “David, you mighty man of God.” I had to sit at the computer and type back immediately, explaining I hadn’t even been one of the people who had prayed for the sick man. I was merely recounting the story. As I said, believing the hype is dangerous. The glory must always go to God. And not just in the times of ‘success’, but the opposite too. ‘Though the fig tree does not blossom … yet will I praise him,’ said Habbakuk.

But for those of you who might enjoy a satirical take on self-important and self-deluded leaders, I can do no better than to recommend the wonderful Brant Hansen’s 417 Rules Of Awesomely Bold Leadership. Have a smile. Or a hernia, if you read too many.

Just Another Brit Offering Thoughts On Inauguration Prayers

Today’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth (what’s the obsession with numbers?) President of the USA was the first one I have watched on the Internet. Thank you, BBC. I guess it was appropriate, given the way Obama leveraged the web in his campaign.

Actually, I can’t remember the last one I watched on the small screen. Watching on the web was a pragmatic decision, knowing that if I put it on the television, the children would cry out for Nick Junior.

I didn’t catch the whole shebang, since I was dashing in and out of the study from the kitchen where I was cooking the family meal. What I saw of Obama impressed me. Yes, the words of his speech were very general, but I don’t see how they could be otherwise. I felt he communicated honesty and realism with his evident oratorical gifts. As everyone says, the real test will be in the days to come. Well, no surprise there.

I caught a fair bit of Rick Warren’s prayer, but again not all of it. The whole of it was inevitably up on YouTube rather quickly:

If I thought about it, there would probably be parts with which I would quibble. However, it seemed to me that the tone of Warren’s prayer was one of evangelical conviction combined with a reaching out rather than a tone of condemnation. You may feel differently – do say below.

I found quite a contrast with Gene Robinson’s prayer earlier in the week, also available on YouTube:

Now I admit openly that theologically I am far more likely to be close to Warren than Robinson. I also left a barbed comment on a friend’s Facebook page when she rejoiced that Obama had invited Robinson and that the bishop had promised not to be overtly Christian in reaching out to people of other faiths.

But having said that, I felt I owed the man a fair hearing in case I had been wrong in the heat of the moment. So tonight I watched the clip above.

And I’m still disappointed. I don’t want to get into the pro- or anti-gay issues here, there are larger questions about the theology and tone of the prayer. There are things in it with which I can happily agree, especially the importance of remembering the poor in the world rather than being triumphalistic. However, my concern about the tone is that it all sounds rather hectoring. It seems to fall into the category of prayer as ‘preaching with eyes closed’. Am I being unfair? I realise this is a rather subjective judgment. It may be his accent!

The theology is of rather more concern. His opening phrase is the one that sets up the idea of reaching out without being specifically Christian: ‘O God of our many understandings …’ You will not be surprised to know that someone of  moderately conservative theological persuasions has difficulties with this. Is belief in God a matter merely of human understanding? If so, where does the Christian belief in Jesus fit in? Granted, the doctrine of revelation has its problems, especially when some people claim a near-infallible understanding of the whole counsel of God, but I’m just not prepared to trade in the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ, especially focussed in his incarnation, his exemplary life, his atoning death and resurrection, and his reign at the Father’s right hand. Has Robinson merely baptised secular inclusivism with God-words?

I’d be interested in your opinions. I just ask that since Warren and Robinson are both the subject of passionate views for and against, that we keep our tone as civil and loving as possible, without compromising our convictions.


We arrived home at the weekend from a fortnight on the Isle of Wight. I thought I’d type up a few highlights. No, please keep reading: this is meant to be more than those boring ‘let me show you my holiday pics’ conversations. I’ve tried to offer some reflections in what follows. If any of my stories or observations are helpful, feel free to pinch them. You might also smile or laugh – I hope.

Friday 15th August A wild fox entered the garden of the bungalow we were renting. The children (and we) were full of wonder. We are used to direct encounters with tame animals. Meetings with wild animals are usually managed or mediated, such as at the zoo. A direct encounter with the wild is not encouraged in our society – nor in our church. Was it Brennan Manning who called Jesus ‘wild’?

Saturday 16th We’re doing our little bit to make our break as eco-friendly as possible. Although we had to drive here and take the ferry, Southern Vectis Buses do a great ‘freedom ticket‘: £40 for two adults and up to three children for a week. I know friends would advise cycling, but I have a poor sense of balance and can’t ride a bike.

Sunday 17th A return trip from last year to one of the most family-friendly churches we’ve ever come across: Shanklin URC.

Meanwhile (not during the service!) I’m finally reading Tom Wright‘s ‘Surprised By Hope‘. Great quote on page 87, recounting part of Oscar Wilde‘s play ‘Salome‘. Herod the tyrant wants to forbid Jesus from raising the dead. He asks his courtier, ‘Where is this man?’ The courtier replies, ‘He is in every place, my lord, but it is hard to find him.’ Jesus is elusive in so many ways – not just the sense of his absence since the ascension but yet present by his Spirit, also the way that we no more than Herod can control him.

Monday 18th Two newspaper articles over the weekend bring out the dark side of the Olympics. Matthew Syed in The Times points out that the modern Olympics were founded with an elitist bias and they remain so, especially in favour of western sports and the privately educated. Ian Gallagher in the Mail On Sunday tells an awful story of how one Chinese pistol shooter managed his best ever score. He won bronze, only to be humiliated on national TV for not winning gold. And before we get too snooty about the Chinese (who clearly used the Games rather like Soviet Russia and the USA before the Berlin Wall fell), let’s remember the ritual humiliation the British press has handed out to sports stars like Tim Henman in the past.

Tuesday 19th We’re waiting at Ryde bus station to catch either the number 2 or 3 back to Shanklin. Rebekah and Mark have been frustrated that only Mum and Dad have had a bus timetable. They find a box of them on the ground. A customer assistant walks over to take one for a passenger who has made an enquiry. Beautifully, she asks our children if she may take one from the box. ‘Yes,’ replies Mark, ‘but you must put it back!’

Wednesday 20th A trip to Amazon World: not only a chance to see some animals, but the opportunity (if the kids let us read the displays, ha ha) to learn more about conservation projects and the plight of the world’s rain forests. In the gift shop, Rebekah’s eye is taken – as always – by bright and sparkly things. In this case, they are small chunks of rocks and minerals. Since they are only £1.50, I agree she can choose one. She selects Pyrite, a.k.a. ‘Fool’s Gold’. She spends the rest of the holiday desperate to take her Fool’s Gold everywhere. I’m sure you can find your own parallels …

Thursday 21st Fired Art Ceramics Café in Ryde is our venue to decorate a bowl ready for my parents’ golden wedding anniversary in October. We didn’t notice the café bit, but the proprietor was warm and welcoming. She struck the right balance between needing to protect delicate and hot items, yet children feeling safe and happy. Now there’s a challenge for our churches.

Friday 22nd If you’re ever in Shanklin Old Village, you have to buy an ice cream at Pearly Boise. An unbelievable huge range of home made flavours. It’s three months to the next dental check-up. More on ice cream in the next few days’ entries: you’ll see why.

In the afternoon, we take the children for their (and my!) first ever experience of live circus. Jay Miller’s Circus does not use animals, so we are happy. It’s not the biggest one you’ll ever see, but there were some astonishing acrobats, and we were ringside – which meant that Debbie and Rebekah got covered in spaghetti and custard pie from Peppi the clown. They weren’t distressed: Mark was.

Saturday 23rd Rebekah has an invitation next month to a ten-pin bowling birthday party, so we thought we’d better introduce her to its delights. At least it proves to be a delight to her when she wins, but not when she is second or lower. It turns out that on Ryde Esplanade there is a branch of LA Bowl ten-pin. Finding details before we went to the Isle of Wight had been frustrating. Tourist information sites listed the bowling alley, and it’s mentioned on LA Bowl’s home page, but not when you click ‘locations‘! They have a visibility and communication problem – not unlike the church.

Sunday 24th My sister and her boys come over from Hampshire for the day and meet us at Dinosaur Isle. (I’m a theistic evolutionist, not a creationist or Intelligent Design guy.) The Isle of Wight is rich in fossil history. It was over the heads of our kids, who still haven’t grasped that dinos are extinct, unlike my ten-year-old nephew, who fancies a career as a paleantologist. One section of the exhibition invites you to put your hand inside slots in a box and guess what you are feeling. Unfortunately, the first thing Mark feels is dino poo! We hear for the rest of the holiday about how it should have been flushed away.

Later, watching the BBC Ten O’Clock News, James Reynolds reports on the closing ceremony of the Olympics. He opens by saying, ‘In a state which has no god, the Olympics have been a religion.’ He closes with the words, ‘Now these people will have to find something else to believe in.’ Perhaps G K Chesterton was right all those decades ago when he said that when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Or as Bob Dylan said, you gotta serve somebody.

Monday 25th Rain makes us reverse our plans. An afternoon visit to The Old Smithy at Godshill becomes a morning visit. Instead of gorging ourselves on the finest cakes we’ve ever found in four holidays on the island, we settle for morning scones. Still stunning.

Then we make a return visit to Robin Hill. We’d been the previous Monday, and if you return within seven days, you get in free. Bad news: no longer do they sell New Forest Ice Cream, they’ve gone over to Minghella’s. The latter has apparently won forty-four awards, and was described in the Sunday Times as the best tasting ice cream ever. Could have fooled us. It melts in seconds, is indistinguishable in taste from ordinary stuff, and costs £1.70 per cone instead of £1.40 for New Forest. The biggest taste in Minghella’s is the hype.

Tuesday 26th We’re in Newport when Debbie suddenly sees a bus for Alum Bay. Now I’ve wanted to go there all holiday, I just can’t take her sudden and impulsive plan-changing approach to life. We won’t have time for everything there in a couple of hours. But we do get to the spectacular chairlift. Debbie and Rebekah, the family daredevils, love it. I have to restrain my intermittent vertigo to be safe person for little Mark, who is frightened at first. Sometimes that’s what I’m called to do in other ways as a minister. Churches don’t like looking down at the drop sometimes, but rather than staying on terra firma, I have to encourage them to get out on the chairlift, even if I too am frightened at the thought of looking down.

Wednesday 27th The Isle Of Wight Zoo And Tiger Sanctuary (‘Home Of ITV’s Tiger Island‘, we are repeatedly told) is much smaller than our much-loved Colchester Zoo. Enclosures are overgrown, with some plants even growing up the sides, making it difficult to see some animals. We have overgrowth in the church, making it hard for people to see Jesus.

More light-heartedly, we were watching some lemurs when one spontaneously urinated in front of everyone. Rebekah launched into an instant chant or rap: ‘Do some wee! Do some wee! We want you to do some wee!’ Thank goodness they didn’t know I was a ‘vicar’.

Thursday 28th On an X40 Island Coaster, returning to Alum Bay. The bus is crammed with people most of the journey. We stop en route at Ventnor. The bus driver calls out, ‘Anyone for Ventnor?’ Not thinking everyone has heard he even climbs out of his cockpit and comes upstairs where we are. He repeats, ‘Anyone for Ventnor?’ ‘No!’ cries back Rebekah, obviously thinking she has the right to speak for everyone. Do you know people like that.

Well, I think that will have to do. Hopefully this has raised a few smiles and given the odd pause for thought.

Tributes To Rosa Parks

Some beautiful quotes from the Rosa Parks memorial service on the BBC website today:

Condoleeza Rice, US Secretary of State:

“I can honestly say that without Mrs Parks, I would not be standing here today as secretary of state.”

Bob Riley, Governor of Alabama:

“I firmly believe God puts different people in different parts of history so great things can happen. I think Rosa Parks is one of those people.”

Daniel Coughlin, Chaplain to the House of Representatives:

“Tonight, inspired by her life and leadership, as your free children, we say to Mrs Rosa Parks: Ride on, ride on, ride on in the direction of endless hope to the table of equal justice and eternal peace.”

Put these quotes together and we have a beautiful and challenging picture of holistic Christian faith lived out in the crucible of the world. May we all aspire to that.

The BBC And Religious Broadcasting

The Director-General of the BBC has said some interesting and provocative things about religious broadcasting (see Ekklesia News report here). Here’s a call for creative involvement: sounds like an invitation to incarnation to me, and to use the arts as arts, not as propaganda.