Facebook Home: Revisiting Jeff Jarvis And The Church as Platform

Yorocko.com started in 2010 with a series of posts on Jeff Jarvis’ book What Would Google Do? Jarvis’s central assertion was that Google’s success derives from its decision to function as a platform rather than a portal, allowing developers to do their mapping and book publishing work on top of Google’s own infrastructure rather than creating its own mapping and book publishing software. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how this approach might be applied to the church.

Just this week I had a conversation with a nonprofit executive who’s interested in partnering with churches to start community farms. Churches would offer up their property as a literal platform on which a local organization can do good work. A good thing–even a gospel thing–gets going at the church, yet the church doesn’t develop and run it; it merely functions as a platform for others to do it. It’s pretty exciting.

It gets tricky, though. Ownership becomes a critical question, and fast. Consider the announcement yesterday that Facebook is developing an app to run on Google’s Android mobile operating system, an app that will completely take over the device, transforming it, effectively, into a Facebook device. It’s a blatant exploitation of an open platform.

If a church wants to function as a platform and invite committed communities to do their good work on top of the church’s own infrastructure (both physical and relational), this ownership question is going to surface. How do churches maintain ownership of the platform? Should they?

Tofu on the Facebook Pizza

I unfriended (Facebook) a family member in December over the poisonous speech of her friends in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. We’ve since re-friended (if that’s a thing), but the episode taught me something about social media and meaningful speech.

Here’s what happened:

Only hours after the shooting, the family member in question posted something to their Facebook wall that amounted to, “Don’t start talking about gun control. Guns don’t kill people . . . ” Now, no one learning the news from Connecticut was in any kind of emotional state to engage in rational conversation about it, yours truly included. I felt compelled to respond, though, so I hastily commented, “How can you defend guns right now? Seriously, how?”

The next several hours unleashed an increasingly abusive stream of comments directed at me. I was accused of insulting this family member. My Christian faith was questioned. I was told to “SHUT THE HELL UP!” All of this came from people I don’t know but who are part of my family member’s social network. As the thread of comments grew, I defended myself. Finally, though, I stopped, and I unfriended my family member. I wanted no part of this network of people.

If you insert yourself into controversial conversations on Facebook, people are going to attack you, probably with more vitriol than they would if you were in the same room. Everybody knows that. Something else has occurred to me as I’ve thought about this incident, though, and that is the notion of pizza. Facebook conversations are less like democratic exchanges of ideas and more like pizza parties.

When we share something on Facebook, whether we compose it ourselves or post it from another source, we’re offering a hot steamy pizza to our social network. Some of our friends will gobble it up, liking it and commenting, “Amen!” and “Thanks for sharing.” Others, though, won’t like it. And their comments effectively throw tofu on the pizza. And nobody likes tofu. Especially on pizza.

It’s as if I showed up to my family member’s pizza party, looked at what she was offering to her social network, and announced, “How can you eat that?!” and then tried to correct its flaws by adding healthier ingredients to it. That was a very unwelcome move to the vast majority of the network. It rendered people unable to assess the nutritional merit of the tofu I’d sprinkled on top of the pepperoni because they were so angry it was even there. I’d ruined their pizza.

I’m friends with my family member again. Only now, when she serves up one her contentious pizzas, I politely decline and move on. Her social network likes pizza that I think is unhealthy. My social network’s pizza tastes are different, and she wonders about them, “How can you eat that?!” But, for my part, I’m done trying to improve other peoples’ pizzas.

My Church Killed Twitter? Personal vs. Institutional Use of Social Media

Is it better for pastors and churches to use social media institutionally or personally?

I set up a Facebook organization page for the youth ministry at my church several months ago, and it has attracted all of eight followers, most of whom are parents. Most of the content the page features is pushed from a Posterous blog I created to autopost content not only to Facebook but also to a Twitter account and a Flickr photo stream, all of which are “official” church youth ministry offerings.

I’m confident nobody uses those.

By contrast, when I use my personal Facebook page or Twitter account to narrate something going on in the youth ministry or the larger church, conversation reliably ensues.

Personally, I’m interested in people: what they think, what they’re doing, what they want to know. I’m much less interested in organizations. Yet pastors and youth leaders have well-advised instincts to make the things they’re involved in about the organization, the larger collective, and not about themselves. This is standard ministerial competence.

Social media are exposing that, at bottom, things that churches are doing are being done by people, and you can put those people on social map. And that’s okay. In fact, it may be a misuse of social media tools to employ them in the service of organizations instead of actual people.

One of the things from last year’s Theology After Google event that has stuck with me is Monica Coleman’s description of how she came to attend her present church. A friend connected her to the pastor through Facebook, and it was her interest in his theology and vision for the church that drew her to participate in the congregation. It was a person (it could just as easily been an elder or another member), not the organization.

So is it okay to scrap the “official” church Facebook page and instead cultivate the church’s relationship with the world through the personal social media presence of its leaders and members?


Facebook and Proverbs

Tonight we started a new unit on Proverbs with the high school youth group. We’re mostly using Youth Ministry Architects’ Spice Rack piece for this. I’ve had good experiences with YMA’s curriculum, because it’s really customizable and, on the whole, thoughtful.

Part of the introductory lesson has basic facts and trivia about the book of Proverbs, including that there are 31 chapters in the book and that a person could read through it entirely in one month by reading a chapter a day (I did this regularly in college). I hadn’t planned it, but I just sort of blurted out, “Who’s up for that? Who could read a chapter of Proverbs every day for . . . the next seven days?”

Somebody asked if I could email it to them.

“You guys don’t use email,” I answered.

“What about Facebook?” She asked. “Could you put a chapter on Facebook each day?”

That I can do.

Here’s the plan: using the new group I set up last week for our high school youth group (not the CPC Youth organization page I started last fall), I’ll either post the text of an entire chapter on the wall or message it directly to students who want it.

And only the ones who want it. I took down the names of interested students, and there are about five.

I’ll take that all day.

Anybody done anything like this? Does this strike you as a good idea or a bit of techno-flattery?


Facebook and The Privacy of The Least of These

A timely text from a friend yesterday asked if I had read danah boyd’s anti-Facebook rant. I hadn’t. Well, I’d skimmed it. So I went and read it. Thanks, friend.

The privacy conversation has never really interested me. I have no illusions about the possibilities when I share something online. I’m making an informed choice to share something about myself and calculating that the potential negative consequence is worth what I gain from sharing it. I do this with strict personal rules: I don’t share things about other people without their consent. I don’t post pictures of other peoples’ kids.

I’ve always assumed that everyone else does this too.

But Boyd has carefully stated what’s at stake with Facebook’s activity. It’s not really privacy, but informed consent. Facebook  has made it confusing and difficult for its users to control the people (and–more to the point–advertisers) who see what they share. The privacy settings are confusing, and for that reason, users are being coerced into sharing personal data with audiences they never intended.

When it comes to my stuff, I can handle this. But churchy social media types ought to be more concerned with other peoples’ privacy than their own. How concerned are we that scores of teenagers, for example, are having their personal data mined without their consent? Facebook is providing a platform for ill-intentioned audiences to harvest personal information shared by users who, developmentally speaking, are still learning how to navigate complicated privacy legalese.  It’s opportunistic, and it presents real problems for people (like myself) who are otherwise rosy about young people’s social media activity.

The Facebeook defense has been, essentially, that people choose to participate in Facebook, and so they should be willing to accept the consequences. But when that choice is made by people who are developmentally or socially vulnerable to complex and even misleading privacy settings, the integrity of their “choice” has to be questioned.

A teen may accept an invitation to a party as an opportunity to mix with their friends. But if the host of that party invites lots of people the teen doesn’t know, people who are after the teen’s personal information for economic gain; if the host establishes a default “public” setting to the interaction–that just by being there the teen is consenting to sharing everything they do there with with everyone else–and everyone who everyone else chooses to share it with; if the teen can opt-out of that arrangement only by leaving their friends behind at the party or taking valuable party time to fill out forms specifying who’s allowed to see what they’re doing: who would say that the teen had a fair shot at protecting their privacy?

Douglas Rushkoff, Prophet of Our Era

This one’s been killing me for a few days.

I love me some Douglas Rushkoff. From this documentary to this media primer, and from this comic to this economics text, Rushkoff’s stuff influences my thinking about our culture and the church’s relationship to it as much as anything I read or watch or listen to. It never fails.

Rushkoff addressed the SXSW interactive festival a couple of weeks ago. The above video contains clips from that talk. Watch the thing. Here are some money quotes, though:

“We are attempting to operate our society on obsolete code.”

“If you are not a programmer, you are one of the programmed. It’s that simple.”

“And now we get the computer. Do we get a nation of programmers? No, we get a nation of bloggers. We write in the box that Google gives us.”

“Text gave us Judaism. The printing press gave us protestantism. What does this one [the computer] give us?”

For churches, what does this one give us? That seems to have been the question driving Theology After Google, and it’s the itch I’m scratching while reading What Would Google Do?

As for an answer? I can’t say for certain, but I’m a bit worried.

The early evidence suggests that this one gives churches Facebook pages, populated by comments like, “What should we use this Facebook page for?” This one gives churches online giving. This one gives churches websites that are either miserable because they don’t understand the web and so function as online marquees or stellar because they do understand the web and so can manipulate traffic through Search Engine Optimization.

Program or be programmed: that’s Rushkoff’s maxim. How do churches program? Somebody please tell me. I don’t have any positive answers or illustrations or examples.

Maybe start with the negative questions first: how do churches avoid being programmed by the technology?  How do churches learn the biases of the media the culture is using? How do churches help people (inside the church and out)  understand those  biases as well?

I’ve toyed with the idea of a media literacy unit for the church youth. Rushkoff makes that notion suddenly feel urgent.

News Flash: Life Still Hard, Despite Facebook

I don’t agree with Umair Haque’s latest post.

Haque, director of the Havas Media Lab who blogs and writes for the Harvard Business Review, says that, just like during the dot.com bubble and the sub-prime mortgage bubble, we’re witnessing a social media bubble; people are ignoring the warning signs of a great collapse.

Here’s the money quote:

During the subprime bubble, banks and brokers sold one another bad debt — debt that couldn’t be made good on. Today, “social” media is trading in low-quality connections — linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships.

Haque is worried that the prevalence of Facebook “friendships” are cheapening our notions of friendship altogether. If these social network relationships were in any sense real, then social conditions would be improving. They’re not, so . . . they’re not.

Haque’s right that internet connections are not making the world a better place, at least not if you’re looking for poverty, racism, sexism, and the like to be overcome. People still treat other people contemptibly, especially in online forums, and, as danah boyd is chronicling, white flight (for example) is just as pronounced online as off.

But forming new relationships to fix the world is not what social media wants to do. New social technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and even text messaging don’t bring new people together as much as they extend and strengthen existing relationships. Teenagers, for example, use instant messaging, status updates, and texts to “hang out” with their offline, real-life friends, online. They don’t go looking for new friends.

Haque’s concern is misplaced, but it’s not uncommon. People often complain that online relationships are “thin” or “less real” than real face-to-face relationships. Of course they are. But most online social media connections aren’t things in themselves. They’re ways of making existing relationships better.

And, in my view, they do that pretty well.