Love Twitter? I do.

Twitter @lizclutterbuck

A week ago, I sat in the bar at the BFI having drinks with three other women, only one of whom I’d met in the flesh before. But she, and another at the table, were people with whom I’d conversed regularly in recent weeks – thanks to Twitter.

Thanks to Twitter, I knew we were heading to the same event. Thanks to Twitter we weren’t starting with a completely blank page, conversation wise. Really, it was thanks to Twitter that I was there at all – because it was Twitter that really got the whole Wittertainment ridiculousness going.

Last week was not the first time that I’ve socialised in this way. Getting to know strangers on Twitter has led to a lunch at the Gherkin; pie at Piminster; meeting up with prospective students at college open days (or just coffee to talk vocation); and much more…

Exciting things have happened thanks to Twitter. Like giving this blog a wider audience (back in the days when posting was much more frequent!) which in turn led to a week in Uganda with Tearfund three years ago. That ongoing relationship with Tearfund took me up to the top of BT Tower a few months later for a DEC appeal Twitter Q&A. It’s connected me with an amazing network of support. Like the outpouring of affirmation of women in ministry that flowed tweet after tweet after the ‘no’ to women bishops back in 2012, and has continued through the ‘yes’, the ordinations, and still knocks again and again at the stained glass ceiling of patriarchy in the church. During the difficult days of curacy hunting in 2014 and 2015, Twitter was there with support from friends and strangers alike. Look down my ‘likes’ tab (still not over that move from favourite btw) and the ones that stay there (rather than simply being bookmarks) are those that I like to go back to on occasions when I need a bit of encouragement. Oh, and once I won cake from the Hummingbird Bakery…

There are many worthy things that have emerged from my use of Twitter, but there are plenty of less worthy things (like the cake). Twitter is a brilliantly level playing field. Unlike Facebook, it gives you direct access to people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to communicate with. I love the immature shudder of excitement that a tweet from a Twitter celebrity elicits. I can’t remember when it first happened, but I do recall some gloating with a friend when a Christian celebrity (it’s a niche genre) tweeted me for the first time. [Ironically, that person is now someone I also count as a friend. Thanks Twitter!]

There was the week the fabulous Hadley Freeman finally joined, and we had a conversation about how much my Dad loved her fashion column. Or the day my mum sent Chris Addison (the comedian/satirist) a very funny tweet, thinking that he was my colleague Christopher – and got retweeted! Or when my 12 year old self’s musical theatre hero favourited a tweet of mine. Or the fact that the lovely Mark Kermode was officially the first person to wish me a happy new year in 2016. I haven’t yet achieved the delights of a Caitlin Moran tweet, but I did once get favourited by Lauren Laverne, so that helps… [It’s the little things!]

I’ve used Twitter for work – crowdsourcing ideas for all-age talks; book recommendations; and making connections with other researchers in my field. It’s a place where I’ve supported and encouraged other people going through the ordination journey. In fact, I know at least two people who ended up studying at St Mellitus after Twitter interactions in which I recommended it! (Obviously, I am not entirely responsible! I just planted a seed…)

And most of all, I’ve used Twitter for fun. I’ve laughed at cats and cute children. I’ve procrastinated for hours and hours (it’s somewhat miraculous that I’ve acquired two degrees during my 6 and a bit years tweeting). I have giggled over tweets from lovely men and put two and two together and made about a billion. I have met people who share the same niche passions as me – like Chalet School books and the weird world of Elinor M Brent Dyer. And I love that relationships formed over ridiculous children’s books go deeper, despite never having met, so that when bad stuff happens, we care for one another. That, my friends, is what Twitter does brilliantly.

This has been very me-centred, but I know that Twitter has does the same for others. People house bound with illness, who have been able to communicate and make new friends thanks to 140 character messages. Those who have moved to a new location and found Twitter’s hyper-locality to be a massive boon. On Twitter you’re never alone – just look at Sarah Millican’s fabulous #joinin initiative over Christmas and New Year. It’s not about narcissism, it’s about togetherness.

Twitter-cake-1024x683Credit

In spite of all this brilliant stuff, lately, many eulogies have been written for Twitter. User numbers have fallen for the first time. Revenue isn’t what was anticipated. Ridiculous ideas have been proposed (10,000 character limit? I think not!) and Twitter is still categorically failing at dealing with trolling and abuse. At ten years old today, it’s almost at veteran status in the online world.

I don’t want to witness the death of Twitter, especially when there’s simply nothing comparable elsewhere on the internet. It has enriched my life beyond my wildest dreams and is place I have much greater fondness for than Facebook or Instagram. When I read Timehop of a morning, I sometimes wish we could return to Twitter’s haclyon days of 2010 and 2011, when everyone seemed to be engaged in witty reparté. It’s unlikely we’ll ever get that back, but I’m hopeful that things will improve and that this social media leveller will carry on doing its thing. At least until a real replacement gets going.

Discussing the sinking ship…

That post the other day with the text of my piece that had gone missing from Threads? Turns out it had been pulled – temporarily – and when it returned on Thursday morning, it was minus the article to which it was responding.

Sinking Ship Recruiting Now

Chine Mbubaegbu (Director of Communications for the EA, who publishes Threads) explained on Twitter why this turn of events occurred – she hadn’t seen the piece prior to publication and when she did, she felt strongly that it was completely the wrong tone for the site. The page where the article once was now features an apology.

“We’re all for asking questions and critiquing but in all of our questioning and doubts and critique, we want to look for the better way – just like Jesus did. And when we’re writing about the Church; our hope is that it can become all it’s called to be. We knew many would disagree with the post – like we did – so we had tried to pre-empt that by commissioning a more hopeful response. But for some things, a response just doesn’t cut it.”

I completely agree with their decision. Turns out a response piece makes no difference when it’s on a different page; when the link to the controversial piece is being tweeted around with no reference to a follow up. The piece was very dark, which is why I agreed to Threads’ suggestion that I write a reply, I knew it was too angry to be on its own.Perhaps if we’d written the article together, kind of dialogue or Q&A style, it might have worked better? Hindsight is a marvellous thing… But, life over the last couple of days would have been a lot simpler if this had been realised before publication!

The piece in question is no longer online, but I’ve taken the decision to include a link to a PDF of it here. I wasn’t going to, but its author has been unwilling to put it up elsewhere (although he is sending it out to people who DM him about it). It’s the version Threads sent to me and I’m pretty sure it’s exactly as it was published. At least now those who have been keen to make their own judgement on it, can.

It’s an angry article, but in amongst some of the less than attractive imagery (anyone met a vicar who creeps around like ‘Gollum at an orgy’??) is a really valid point: Christianity is virtually irrelevant to British society today, what is it doing to change this and is recruiting more clergy really going to help?

This point was why I felt compelled to write the response. If someone had asked me this in the pub, I would have willingly had a discussion with them about it. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that I love being part of Matryoshka Haus – the variety of the community means that questions like this can and do crop up on a regular basis. Close friends of mine have been hurt and disillusioned by the church and conversations with them have been a hugely important element of my journey towards ordination. The church NEEDS this kind of a discussion, it can’t just hide away under a pew and think that it will go away!! [In fact, note to DDO’s and Theological College tutors: writing a response to this article would be an excellent formation exercise for any potential church leader.]

When the articles were published, I’d hoped for some constructive discussion. I know that this can be hard on social media, but the Threads comments often prove to be fruitful and Facebook is easier. (Twitter is a flipping nightmare, you can’t have a good discussion via 140 character comments!) In my mind, I envisaged the kind of discussion I have from time to time with an atheist friend on Facebook, who maturely asks interesting questions and treats my responses with respect – as I do his. (Interestingly, we met via a church youth group…)

Unfortunately, productive discussion didn’t really ensue. Apparently Alex, my ‘opposition’, has something of a reputation on Threads and on Twitter for being antagonistically controversial. (Had I realised this, I don’t think I’d have agreed to write the response.) Some people (ordained people in fact) made some rather misguided comments about him, which was wrong – although they apologised pretty quickly. Lots of people simply felt that the article was entirely inappropriate for a Christian website.

I wasn’t expecting things to get particularly nasty on Twitter, especially as before publication, Alex had said that he ‘bloody loved’ my piece. But by yesterday morning, I was rueing the day I’d ever had an email from Threads! The disappearance of the articles without (initial) explanation caused a bit of a kerfuffle. By the time I went to bed, someone I follow on Twitter was effectively being trolled by Alex for expressing an opinion on the piece without having read it – what she had read was a very interesting analysis of it that Mark Hewerdine blogged before it had been removed. 36 hours later, she was still receiving what I can only describe as abuse, because she hadn’t read it but was still discussing it – the fact that she could not read it because the author chose not to make it available was apparently irrelevant!

Nothing I’m saying here should be news to Alex. I tweeted him yesterday to explain that I agreed with Threads’ decision, and that I wouldn’t have agreed to write the piece had I known that he was going behave so immaturely. I love Twitter and hate when it gets stirred up with a lot of ill feeling! One of his replies was that he hoped I’d find a ‘nice’ writer to write with. You know what, nice is a bonus, what I’m really after is mature and respectful – which is exactly what I got from my atheist Facebook friend this morning regarding my article.

The church generates very strong feelings, in all sorts of directions, from a lot of people. There needs to be a place for healthy discussion, that hopefully yields really productive results. The church can’t turn around its fortunes on its own – it needs to listen to those who disagree with what it’s done in the past and accept that it has made mistakes. I really hope that the beginning of helpful discussions that Alex’s article generated will see some positive outcomes. Voices like his do need to be heard, but perhaps in a slightly less antagonistic tone. 

At some point Alex is intending to publish a 20,000 piece expanding his views on what the church needs to do and I genuinely look forward to reading it. Hopefully, the church will take notice…

Boarding the Sinking Ship

Tweeting Up

This evening, for the second time this year, I’m speaking on one of my favourite subjects: why the church/Christians ought to take social media seriously. If you’re London-based and churchy, you’re very welcome to come along – full details here.

Back in January, I had two hours with the students of Westminster Theological Centre as part of their Christianity in Contemporary Culture module. The hours flew by, thanks to a large group of students who proved to be very happy to get involved in discussion, despite it being the final day of a week-long residential. I’d been concerned that 2 hours would be difficult to fill, but I had material left over! Thanks lovely WTC students!

I’d meant to write up some of my work from that lecture here, but never quite got around to it. Tonight’s session provides an ideal opportunity to do so though, as in contrast to January’s gig, this is under half an hour on a topic which I’ve now proved I can speak on at length! This post also enables me to post a few things that tonight’s attendees may find helpful, but could also be handy for other readers too.

Firstly, some discoveries I made…

1. Whatever we might think about the negatives of social media – whatever it might be that prompts us not to get involved – we need to remember that at least it’s a choice that we get to make. Elsewhere in the world, that choice simply isn’t on the table, because social media or the resources needed to have it, does not exist.

Global social media penetration 2014

Also, at least at the start of 2014, only North America’s population saw social media accessed by over half its population. Social Media is a privilege, and it’s important to remember that. When you then start breaking it down into who can access mobile social media, the numbers get even smaller…

We-Are-Social-Global-Digital-Stats-2014-08-500x375

Only 22% of the world’s population are active social media users on mobiles. When we angst about social networks’ quirks, Ts&Cs and latest updates, it’s very much a #FirstWorldProblem.

2. The rise and fall of social networks is fascinating. (Or at least I think so!) Delving into the history of social media reminded me of once innovative sites that had since fallen by the wayside. “Facebook was created in response to the success of Friendster…” – I’m not sure if I know anyone who was on Friendster! This infographic goes a long way to show just how many networks have risen and fallen over the years:

Social_Media_TimelineIf someone knows of a version of this that covers the last four years, that would be amazing! (Source.)

3. The vast array of reasons why people don’t use social media. This actually came out of a discussion at the start of the lecture. The group were diverse in age, background and profession (WTC students study theology part time), so I began by asking the group who used social media – generally and then on a mobile device – to see how they compared to the global stats. There was a surprising number who didn’t use it at all, and they weren’t all from the same demographic. I invited the room to share the reasons why they didn’t use it, or what might influence their use of it, and the results were fascinating.

Obviously, issues of privacy and safety came up, as did trust. A few felt voyeuristic. Some thought that what is posted online is largely irrelevant – why do we need photos of cute cats? One example I particularly liked was a woman who said: “My daughter posted a photo of a cake. What am I meant to say about that??” I replied that I regularly use Twitter to get affirmation for my cooking from my mother! A “that looks lovely darling” goes a long way!

4. Myriad stats and facts!! I love a good factoid – my favourite from prepping this lecture was on trolling. Any idea when the first instance of trolling occurred online? You might be surprised, it appears that trolling is pretty much as old as the first ever bulletin board. In 1978, Chicago scientists created a bulletin board system that became the first online community and with it came the first trolls…

A whole wealth of stats appeared about Instagram, all embodied in a nice infographic:

Instagram infographic(As of March 2014)

One of my favourite discoveries was to do with the Pope’s Twitter account. His most popular tweet last year was “Christ is arisen! Alleluia!” his tweets are, on average, retweeted 6,400 times on his English (the @Pontifex) account. With 4.5 million followers, he’s actually very low in the rankings of most popular Tweeters – he’s not even in the top 100.

***

All this is interesting (well, I think it is), but it’s not that useful in a practical sense. Tonight I’m encouraging people in London Diocese to use social media. For some, it may be a case of persuading them that it has any place in church life – or that the church should be in social media. For others, it might be dispelling some of the fear that the media generates about social networks.

For those who wanted to read what I’ve written before about social media, here’s a run-down:

And, as promised, here’s a list of social media resources that I first put together for the WTC lecture, but I’ve updated a little since. I don’t proclaim myself to be an expert (especially in comparison with many of the names on that list!), but I do have a healthy interest in social media and want to help people use it as effectively as possible.

 

Accidentally opening cans of worms

As part of my general musing on social media and our behaviour there, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s generally not the place in which to have an informed discussion about a contentious issue. Twitter especially – 140 characters is not conducive to erudite arguments. Regardless of the platform, nuances are missed when views are typed rather than spoken. There’s a tendency to type first, think later. To not care about the person whose avatar you’re responding to. To always reply, because you can.

A direct result of this was a decision to not get involved in such discussions, unless what I could bring to the table was helpful. For example, I recently stayed silent during a 150+ comment Facebook thread on feminism when one commenter ranted over many comments and in thousands of words as to why feminism undermined men. (Other people got involved, it wasn’t like their views were going unopposed.) I don’t get involved when friends who have opposing political views to mine rant on social media. There are times and places for these kind of discussions and quite frankly, I really don’t think Facebook or Twitter ever is that place.

That is not to say that I sit and let debate pass me by. That I don’t raise my head above the parapet on things that are important. [In fact, I have two defined areas in which I’m committed to speaking up, but perhaps more on that on another occasion.] I also have a huge amount of respect for friends/acquaintances/random people on Twitter who do stand up for their opinions and receive vitriol from total strangers in return. It’s just really, I’d rather be speaking my piece in real life, with the nuances of the spoken word and preferably the convivial atmosphere of a pub.

But, every so often, these debates come right out of left field and I inadvertently get caught in the midst of them. Like earlier this month when an innocent photo in my holiday album accidentally resulted in a can open, worms everywhere situation.

It was from my Parisian adventure in July and had actually gone entirely unnoticed initially, until a friend commented and I replied – throwing it into the newsfeed of many of my friends. All of a sudden, things went a bit mad…

Parisian Locks

I happen to have a VERY strong opinion on the issue of ‘love locks’ on bridges (anywhere, not just in Paris). I’d ranted about this during the Easter Chateau Duffy trip and had been shouted down by a couple of people who accused me of being a bitter single person, moaning about the things couples do to express their love. Now, if you’ve read this blog for more than a couple of months, you should be well aware that I am a hopeless romantic. That nothing pleases me more than gestures that could be taken straight out of the plot of a Richard Curtis movie. I am not bitter or twisted. My issue with love locks is that the bridges came first, the locks came later and the former was not designed for the purpose of the latter. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the locks are causing big problems for some bridges – so much so that some Parisians are calling for them to be banned. For goodness sake, in June, part of the side of the Pont des Arts collapsed because of the locks!

Anyway, this photo prompted a massive discussion as to whether it was right to remove them; whether people were right to put them there, whether those criticising it were being unromantic etc etc. As I was moving house at the time, I didn’t get involved until late in the day – right after a friend provided the scientific evidence for my argument being correct (thank you geeky friends), but by that point the photo had already been shared by someone I’d never met (a friend of a friend) who was criticising my views over on their wall.

(Oh, and someone suggested coloured ribbons would be an excellent lightweight compromise on the padlock thing. Happy couples of Europe, try that for a while and see what happens!)

It’s now died down, I think everyone’s happy, and we’ve moved on. But I mention it to demonstrate the craziness that can be caused by something that really, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t something to get your knickers in a twist about. And, if this can happen over an innocent photo, what on earth do we expect to happen when it’s genuine hot potato of an issue? 

The Thessalonians & Social Media

Last Friday (the stunningly beautiful day in Westminster), I was at Church House Westminster for a gathering of church types who have some level of experience/expertise in the field of social media. I’m not entirely sure how I managed to find myself within such a group, given that, unlike my neighbour to one side, I’ve not written a PhD on church websites; or have a Twitter following of nearly 34,000 like the person on my left. However, having now been to two of these meetings, I can say that I’m glad to be there and hope that I manage to contribute something of worth.

[At my first meeting, I distinguished myself for seconding a proposed Easter hashtag on the basis that it was a Take That song. I then leapt to the defence of Take That fans everywhere, insisting that it wasn’t just middle aged women who had a thing for Gary Barlow…]

One of my contributions last week was in response to a question on how we, particularly as Christians, can remain authentic in our online presences. Should we have multiple presences? [A question posed by Vicky Beeching last week, in response to which Rosemary Lain-Priestly has blogged brilliantly.] Is it enough to simply tweet platitudes? [Short answer: no.] Does being ‘authentic’ mean sharing every last detail? [In my opinion: definitely not!] How do those of us in positions of responsibility maintain suitable boundaries? Should everything we post online effectively be evangelistic?

Holy Bible FacebookLiking the Bible helps… (Credit.)

It was as part of a conversation on this last question that I got involved, sharing a tiny bit of a sermon I’d preached over a year ago on the Thessalonians and social media. A couple of people asked me if I’d ever blogged it – and I realised I hadn’t. [I preached it 24 hours before flying to Texas, I guess that probably put it out of my mind. That, and I don’t think I’ve ever blogged a sermon!] Part of the sermon was based on some thoughts I’d shared here on digital discipleship, but that was it. So here, for those who asked, are some of my thoughts (only the ones about social media – the rest was on contextual mission!) on 1 Thessalonians 1. Some of it is a direct copy & paste job from the sermon, so it’s tone isn’t quite blog-like, but you should get the idea…

The first letter to the Thessalonians is effectively a progress report from Paul on how the church had developed since his last visit – and it’s a good one. This small group of Christians was already having a massive impact, as verse 8 tells us:

“The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.”

Paul didn’t need to ask how the Thessalonians were doing, because he was hearing stories about them from all over the place. In verse 7, the word ‘model’ is used, but it could be better translated from the Greek as ‘imprint’, kind of like stamping your seal into melted wax, or embossing something. The Thessalonians weren’t just acting in a certain way, they were impacting upon the people around them – they were imprinting the gospel upon their lives. Which basically, is where the connection with social media comes in.

The Thessalonians had a massive impact upon Christian communities that were forming fairly close to where they were, geographically. It wasn’t too hard for news of their conversion and their faithfulness to spread to Macedonia and Archaia, but bear in mind that the ideas they were sharing – of Christ and the gospel – were still almost brand new and totally alien to the culture in which they lived. Sharing was a risk, but they did it. For the Thessalonians the mission field was nearby provinces, I’d like to suggest that today, for many of us, it’s the online world of social media. The Thessalonians were counter-cultural in the way in which they turned from pagan idols to God, it’s not difficult to see how raising God above society’s idols of today would be counter-cultural in our own society.

In the UK, there are 7 million regular church goers, yet there are 30 million regular users of Facebook. The possibilities of reaching friends, friends of friends and total strangers via share on Facebook, retweets on Twitter and attention grabbing blogposts are almost endless. When you share something on Facebook or Twitter it’s not just your circle of friends who can see it, it can go viral – as we’ve seen when people’s use of social media has gone wrong. Yes, we need to be careful, but this is also a powerful tool that can be used to do a lot of good.

I’ve been thinking about how we can do both our imitating and our modelling in the world of social networking for a little while now. I love social media – I write a blog, I tweet, I love Facebook a little less, but I can deny that it’s incredibly useful to life. But it’s very easy to make your online life a lot more sanitised than your real, offline life. That photo you’ve detagged? The tweet you posted in error and deleted? The erudite blogposts you spend days composing? Again, when I say ‘you’, I obviously mean ‘me’ – I’ve definitely done all of those things.

What followed were the digital discipleship tips I’d already blogged about – the last of which was ‘be inspirational’. It’s that last point which I think particularly relates to Paul’s commendation to the Thessalonians for the way in which they had imitated Christ and the apostles, and how they were now modelling this for others. The Thessalonians shared their news joyfully, inspiring others – how could you do the same?

I really want to challenge you all on this. If you’re not into social media, that’s ok – consider this a challenge to reach outside of your comfort zone. But if you are, then think about how you use it and your interactions with people there. If we are living lives that are incarnational – imitating Christ and the apostles and aiming to imprint the gospel upon others – what does this look like digitally and in the real world?

If we as Christians are being authentic in our social media presences, then the gospel ought to be ringing out of us in all that we do – whether that’s quoting something spiritually inspiring, behaving in a way that bemuses society, or live-tweeting the Great British Bake Off. The point is, present yourself as you really are – don’t have one account for your Christian followers and one where you share your secular interests. You are one, single person, with a wealth of passions – be honest and authentic in all of them!