Social Media and Seduction

Everyone loves things that are new and novel. (Well, maybe not everyone.) I know that I sure do at least. No where am I seeing this love affair with the new and novel than in the world of social media sites and services. People love sharing the latest thing they’ve found with anyone they can; and that’s cool. But if everyone gets sucked into trying to keep up with the latest and the newest they’re going to miss out on the purpose of the technology in the first place – to create and foster active communities and conversations.

One of the prerequisites of a community is some degree of stability. You’re not going to get to know anyone if people only stick around for a short while because they’re off tasting the latest flavor. I’m a huge Flickr fan and post pretty much every day. A few months ago, while I was in Las Vegas for the New Communications Forum, people were talking to me about Zooomer and I’ll admit it’s pretty cool. But I have almost 1,000 pictures on Flickr, a handful of contacts, several pools I post to, etc. Do I use Flickr because it has specific features that are better than what Zooomer offers? No, I use it because I have connections and enjoy the community. The same is true for hundreds of other sites out there.

I’ve had a number of other conversations recently that have also illustrated this point. One was on a company’s desire to launch a blog to allow interaction with and between customers. They already had a mature and active forum-based community and ultimately recognized that the community they had was more important than the technology on which it was built. (I wish I could remember more details of this conversation – like who I had it with. If it was you, please let me know . . . ) And now, twice in the past three days, in talking with people about various projects and panels, I’ve heard people rat-holing on what’s “cool.” The fact is, what’s cool today probably won’t be tomorrow so find what works for you (or your company or client or friends) and get going.

What’s really cool are the communities and conversations that the technology can help create; and that’s something everyone needs to bear in mind.

[tags]social media, communities, conversation, technology[/tags]

Ohhh, shiny

A few weeks ago I wrote about some people’s wrong-headed desire to drag users back to specific Web sites rather than freeing content to live where people are already spending their time. I understand that given the way people are measured and evaluated the current approach may make sense – but it won’t forever.

I was talking to a woman the other day about this – she’s smart and well versed in the ideas of social media – and her take was that people are used to going to places to get the things they need or want. If you want food, you go to the market; if need shoes, you go to a shoe store, etc. (Of course for most things you can also just find them online, but even then, you tend to end up at a site that sells certain kinds of things.) Technology has made it possible though for the things we want to be available where we are.

You see it a lot with music – if you’re using Pandora or Peel you can click right to iTunes or Amazon to make a purchase. Google has made a science out of presenting people with what they might want wherever they go; and there are certainly plenty of services that allow people to create customer start pages, feeds or portals. The idea of providing content – even it through a user-defined space – still, in some ways, speaks to control. “If you want this, ask for it” “Here is the set of things we think you ought to have,” etc. But that’s not the same as creating content and releasing into the wild to see where it takes root and who gravitates to it.

This is what millions of people are doing every day with services like YouTube and Flickr. Sure, the content starts off on a given site, but people can take it from there and use it where they will. And even on the sites themselves, you can see what people are attracted to and respond to. It’s not perfect, but it allows content to be free and its use be flexible. (This raises issues of rights and ownership which approaches like Creative Commons seek to address.)

In any case, the bottom line is that information and content ought to be viewed independently of the entity that creates it. This doesn’t mean you take no credit or abrogate responsibility for things, only that it be allowed to leave the nest. It all gets down to content, control and choice around consumption.

Very few people agree with me on this. Even people who like and get social media see the value in content residing at some fixed address. Of course you need that, even if only as a staging area; but we need to move away from the fixed address concept as much as we can. It’s the next step in social media and one that we need to be thinking about and preparing to take.

The flipside of this coin is that the freedom to create and consume content will be co-opted. While PR people that get social media seem to be in the minority, there are an increasing number who seem to be thinking about it as a shiny new (and exploitable) channel for reaching their audiences.

Despite some stellar screw-ups, it seems that there are people who look at these cases and say to themselves, “I see what they did wrong,” instead of “how can I do that right?” The channels that are available through social media can’t become tools for manipulation. When found out (and it will be found out) it only gives everyone involved a black eye. So naked manipulation is out.

What about influence – manipulations cute cousin? I suppose it’s a step in the right direction; but it’s still built on the foundation of “us” and “them.” What prompted this whole digressive post was a post by Melvin Yuan a few weeks ago where he wrote about Ogilvy PR and the idea of 360 Degree Digital Influence. At the time, in a comment on his blog, I wondered if influence was too much of a one-way concept to describe how we ought to be communicating.

What I am more comfortable with is the idea that we (and by extension our clients) advocate for ideas and issues through transparent engagement with the community; that we share ideas (and content supporting them) in an unfettered way to see where they come to rest; that we bring ideas to communities that we believe will benefit from the information and that in all cases we openly support these ideas using the tools at hand.

Social media has lots of cool bells and whistles, that for sure. But we can’t get so caught up in the cool tools that we ignore the fact that these tools can represent an opportunity to communicate in new and more open ways. And we can’t support, condone or reward attempts to misuse this technology to create a false sense community, conversation or engagement.

[tags]social media, public relations, PR, communication, manipulation, influence, content, information[/tags]

MIT Center for Collective Intelligence – 4/23 – The developmental arc of massive collaboration

Yesterday’s session of the Center for Collective Intelligence addressed the issue of massive voluntary collaboration (MVC), how and why it works and what motivates people to participate. Kevin Crowston, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University, presented some early ideas on the topic.

The work he and his colleagues are doing seeks to answer two questions:

    What practices make some distributed work teams more effective than others?
    What dynamics help self-organizing distributed teams work effectively?

To consider these issues, they are looking primarily at participation in open source software development projects, as well as at Wikipedia (though less intensively).

One thing I wondered about was the fact that both of these require relatively intensive participation and, in the case of software development, a set of requisite technical skills. These would seem to limit the number of participants and so could unintentionally influence the research.

They want to understand why people contribute to these types of communities in the hope of providing insights for creating more effective ones and to be able to estimate the likelihood for success of a massively collaborative project.

Open source software is a good community to consider in part because there is some much data about the data (and the process behind the data). The same is true for Wikipedia.

An earlier CCI event focused on considering the data behind Wikipedia. You can find my summary here.

People’s motivation for contributing to an activity has, in the past, often been considered solely from an economic model (benefits exceed cost). In the case of MVC, the presumed benefits are things like future job opportunities, ego gratification, etc. In most cases, the only cost is time.

When Crowston and his team looked into the motivators, they found that self-determination and human capital (the ability to develop ones-self) were at the top of the list. When they looked at why people were spending time working on specific MVC projects they found that in many cases the reasons for spending time did not match up with the stated motivations. It was this disconnect that lead to the desire for a better model for understanding motivation.

[Crowston presented a series of detailed slides on these finding which were broken down by salaried participants, participants paid directly for their work and students. I don’t have access to these slides but trust me, the picture they provided was interesting.]

Past research on peoples motivation for participation also didn’t take into account their role in a given project – which could also play a role. Crowston breaks participants in open source software development into six categories – passive users, active users, co-developers, core developers, release coordinators and initiators. Each of these, he suspects, is motivated by different things. (This structure differs from that of Wikipedia. Another difference is that about 40 percent of open source software contributors are compensated.)

In order to understand motivation to participate in a project, it is also important to understand the philosophy of the organization behind the project and the status of a project – whether it is its initial stages, is growing, or is mature.

An effective model for understanding participation in MVC projects would provide a better understanding of how the core job activities, psychological states of participants and expected work output for the project motivate people. Such a model would need to be dynamic because of the dynamic nature of these types of activities – and peoples involvement – over time.

The dynamic aspect of this understanding is important because people move through different stages or participation and are motivated by different things at each stage.

The three stages are:

Initial curiosity – which requires that a project be visible enough to attract attention and that the curiosity/interest it engenders exceeds the perceived cost in time of participation.

Volunteering/ongoing contribution – as contributors receive feedback for initial contributions they are encouraged to do more, with more substantive contributions receiving more positive feedback resulting in a virtuous cycle that helps people to become active participants.

Sustained contributors – while in the early stages of a project contributors may be motivated by the idea of “helping behavior”; in the later stages of a project, participants – particularly sustained contributors – often view their involvement as being akin to joining a social movement.

These sustained contributors – or meta-contributors – (of which there are very few), are frequently no longer doing the core work of a project. Their focus is often on making what exists more usable, essentially become stewards for the project. Their work often enables others to continue to contribute to the core project.

As is the case in virtually every endeavor, in MVC projects a small percentage of participants are the most active contributors.

Crowtson and his colleagues are particularly interested in the factors that sustain MVC projects as they evolve from the early curiosity stage to active and sustained participation. They believe that the feedback loop to contributors is a critical factor.

The practical insights and applications of the early thinking on this topics include the following.

For projects at an early stage:

    Make the project visible
    Reduce barriers to participation
    Provide positive feedback

To cultivate ongoing contributions:

    Provide continual opportunities to contribute
    Ensure tasks remain meaningful
    Articulate shared values

To sustain meta-contributors:

    Reward sustained contributions with increased responsibility and deeper involvement/participation with the project organization or foundation

Some of the general implications of the initial thinking are:

    Consideration of the role of participants
    Consideration the developmental stage of the project
    Maintaining focus on the small number of people that does most of the work
    Providing recognize the contributions of the long tale contributors
    Recognizing the different roles of contributors and meta-contributors

Aside from further development of the motivational model he presented, Crowston and his team also hope to understand why so few women appear to participate in MVC projects and at what point they drop out. They also plan to study the process of socialization that shapes group identification in these types of projects, the growth of project for evidence of the role of feedback and evaluate the limits of their model by testing it in other environments (games for example).

There was an interesting conversation on the role of negative contributions to MVC projects and how that participation should be viewed. This was discussed in the context of Wikipedia as a political tool. The vague consensus in the room seemed to be that negative contributions remained valid forms or participation.

All-in-all, although the ideas and research are still at a very early stage, it was an interesting topic. I have had several conversations with people in the past few weeks about encouraging participation in large projects and this event has helped develop my own thinking on the issue.

[tags]MIT, CCI, collaborative intelligence, massive voluntary collaboration, Kevin Crowston, open source, Wikipedia, motivation[/tags]

Different Strokes for Different Coasts

I spend a lot of time talking to people about social media, thinking about it, blogging about it, etc. A frequent refrain that I hear is that here in Boston we’re playing catch-up with X (where X equals pretty much any city you can name, but most especially San Francisco). I wanted to share my thoughts on this and to get a response from people about some of these ideas.

First of all, I think that all individuals, communities, regions, countries, etc. have something valuable to bring to the table when it comes to social media. This is because all of them have something of intrinsic value to begin with and social media simply provides new ways for this value to be expressed.

That said, it seems that the number one means of measuring the contribution of social media takes the form of how many new or interesting companies are being spawned, or how many events happen on a given night. That certainly says something, but not everything.

Now I’m a New Englander at heart and I take seriously what that means. The main thing it means is putting up with shitty weather most of the year. I’m not being facetious. It’s cold more often than not and when it isn’t cold it’s wet or muddy or buggy or blazing hot. The result is that people here tend to spend more times holed up in doors than they might like.

Being stuck indoors a lot gives you plenty of time to think and dwell and obsess. You have more time to read. And think and dwell and obsess. Or watch movies. And think and dwell and obsess. We’ve got a pretty good track record of thinking, dwelling and obsessing here in New England and have even made it something of our stock-in-trade if you look at all of the colleges and universities in the area.

I also lived for six years in San Francisco and I loved every second of it. I was there from 89 to 95 – arrived just in time for Loma Prieta and left just before the whole Internet thing really got going. One of the first things I noticed about SF was that the weather didn’t suck. In fact, the weather doesn’t suck in most of California. And if you want bad weather, you can visit it like some kind of museum.

The absence of bad weather means that people don’t have to spend so much time holed up in doors. They can go out and do things! Do things with friends, hang out and do. And doing is something that people do really really well out in the Bay Area. Doing things, making things – awesome things, things the rest of us want and buy and use.

This isn’t to say that people don’t make and do things here in New England, or that people don’t think and dwell and obsess out in SF, just that there may be some impact of the elements on people’s character.

As for that “catch up” thing that people talk about here in Boston – let’s face it, we’re never going to catch up in the making and doing category. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be trying to make and do cool new things, but simply that the center of gravity for making and doing is a few thousand miles west of here.

What we ought to be doing is celebrating our tradition and ability in the world of thinking and dwelling and obsessing. Much of what I hear about social media has to do with new sites or services, new ways of doing things, etc. What I hear less of is the why, the what it means, etc. Thinking about – and providing answers – to those kinds of questions is where people here have shined for getting close to 400 years and there’s no reason to stop now.

I’d like to know if other people think this is true. And all of you here in New England, how can we help focus our thinking and dwelling and obsessing in ways that will advance and support the idea of social media moving forward?

[tags]Social Media, New England, Boston, California, San Francisco, making, doing, thinking, dwelling obsessing[/tags]

Apples and Lemons

Yesterday I was saying that my MacBook Pro was crashing regularly since I got it back from Apple from an extended repair session. I tried giving all involved – Apple, my system and me – the benefit of the doubt. I just can’t.

My system has crashed three times today. That’s a total of nine witnessed crashes since Friday. On top of that I’ve come across it powered down a number of times.

So I called Apple again today. After resetting the power management and flashing the p-RAM, the system crashed again while I was still on the phone. They determined that my system was a “looper” and that it needed to be replaced.

The downside to this is that I will need to figure out a way to backup my system, find all of the various disk, and cables and manuals that came with it, that I’m going to once again be without a computer for the better part of a week, etc.

The upside is that I get a new system that’s faster (and hopefully more reliable) than what I have now. I guess it’s a reasonable trade off but I’d be happier if everything just worked as expected.

[tags]Apple, MacBook Pro, repair, looper, replacement[/tags]

All’s well that ends well – I guess . . .

So both the botched TV purchase AND the missing Apple were resolved on Friday. My wife was able to return the TV for a full refund. That morning, I got an email from Apple saying that the repairs were complete and that my system was ready to be sent. Given that this email was send at 9:00 on Friday morning I figured it would be here on Monday or Tuesday.

I was pretty surprised when I found a DHL delivery slip on my door saying that they’d tried to deliver the system at 11:00. I called DHL and they said they’d be able to bring it by in the afternoon – which they did. Although I was meant to be getting ready for a party on Saturday, I couldn’t resist setting it up.

It turned out that they replaced one fan, the screen and the screen casing. The screen had been the item they’d been waiting for. I took it out and booted it up and within seconds it shut down. All by itself. I booted it again and pretty quickly it shut down again. I wasn’t real happy. It was happening when I was trying to move big files off of a portable drive – applications were crashing and so I gave the system the benefit of the doubt.

On Saturday though it crashed two more times while my brother was just surfing. That was kind of a bummer. It ran like a top all day on Sunday but now this morning, here at work, the system crashed two more times. I REALLY don’t want to send it back but will if I have to; and if it keeps crashing I won’t have a choice.

It would be very irritating for it to have been at Apple for two weeks and to have been sent back to me in less than tip-top shape. I sure hope that’s not case but I guess I should be prepared for bad news.

[apple, MacBook Pro, customer care, shut down[/tags]

Social Media Club – 4.12.07 – Ethics and The Social Media Generation Gap

I love a rainy night.

So this is Boston, right? I mean we are used to crappy weather and all but last night’s rain kept all but a few hardy souls from making the trek to Dedham.

The event focused on the ethical issues raised by the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guerrilla marketing hullabaloo here in Boston back in February. The evening’s panelists were John Blossom of Shore Communications, Judith Perrolle of Northeastern University and Douglas Quintal of Emerson College. Todd Van Hoosier of Topaz was the very capable master of ceremonies.

One thing that came up even before the panel started was the question of why this topic was even being discussed by the SMC. It wasn’t a social media program or even an online one; and yet here we were preparing to talk about the reaction of Boston to the discovery of these mysterious devices mounted on key elements of the city’s infrastructure. A valid point and one that was discussed during the course of the night.

Bloom kicked things off by talking about the discussions he has with clients regarding boundaries in social media and how this relates to efforts to monetize the media in general; and the risk, either online of off, of attempting to monetize or commercialize space without consent. The ATHF was one example, as was the recent dust-up between PhotoBucket and MySpace.

He went on to say that one of the problems in the ATHF case was that the marketers behind the campaign weren’t part of the community and didn’t think about who to approach for advice or permissions. This is an overall problem that occurs – again, online of off – when marketers become involved with a community they are not a part of or familiar with.

Perrolle followed and described the event as an example of “solid state spam” – unwanted and unwelcome communication appearing in public space. It represents, in her eyes, an example of advertising out of control. As a program, it failed to consider or respect the community’s views of space.

Quintal came into the discussion from a practical marketing perspective. He felt that the most important lesson to come out of this event was that the old rules still apply. Regardless of whatever buzzwords are being used, you still need to know and understand your target audience and work appropriately.

This was, in his opinion, a case where the creative overshadowed the message. It misused the space and failed to reach its target audience. The people behind the program had not adequately studied the audience or how they would react. That would have required an understanding of the landscape (both physical and cultural) and an application of the same set of ethics that would be used in any media.

For all of these reason, Quintal felt that the program had been a failure and that Boston had not over reacted. He suggested that there needed to be some sort of “opt in” from the landscape for these types of programs.

Perrolle felt that the city had over reacted – but in the way the security people do all of the time now. She feels that this level of over reaction is not financially sustainable and that marketers ought to think about the security implications or response to their planned activities. Her own rule of thumb is “would I do this while getting on board a plane.”

Bloom brought up the fact that the media has become desensitized to the idea of public space, believing that any and all space is open for media or advertising. He thought that social media was resensitizing the public to the fact that they can control the media they consume and that this sense of control might begin to reach out into physical space as well.

All three panelists described situations where public-space advertising run amok was undone by public outcry. Advertising that covered the windows of the T was just one example.

Bloom went on to say that people were beginning to assume that public space is, in fact, commercial space. He thought that this might be less so here in the Northeast because of the historical context of much of our space.

Perrolle thought that the idea of public space as something of value in and of itself has been forgotten. Quintal came in and pointed out that more and more of our public space was being used for commercial purposes with the consent of its owners. He cited names on public park scoreboards, benches, etc. Perrolle countered that in those cases there was a benefit being provided that simple advertising does not offer.

After this, the event moved into a more general discussion that included the audience. How things had gone so wrong came up and the consensus was that they people behind the campaign had failed to judge how Boston would respond. It was also pointed out that here – unlike in other cities where the campaign took place – the devices were attached to key infrastructural elements. Not a good idea.

Quintal went on to describe the campaign as a failure, saying that the ratings impact had been only a fraction of a percent – certainly not enough to justify the effort and issues. Some in the audience questioned whether it had been a failure, suggesting that the campaign might be viewed as a success if thought of as a “public secret” to reinforce those already familiar with the program and to possibly attract like-minded people.

There was also discussion of the fact that the campaign – and the aura around it – while meant to project a sense of the alternative or counterculture, was, in fact, produced by a major media company. This led to conversations about the changing nature of youth, the erosions of privacy and its consequences and the role and nature of online communication and social media as people think about content, choice and consumption.

As always, the after-party was also excellent, with much of the group retiring to the Vinny T’s bar for drinks and continued conversation.

While this summary captures well I think the key points made by the panelists during the formal portion of the evening, it gives short shrift to the follow-on discussions. John Cass writes about the evening’s program here.

[tags]Social Media, Boston, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, social media club, SMCBoston, John Bloom, Judith Perrolle, Douglas Quintal, guerrilla marketing[/tags]

Two sides of the customer service coin

I’ve been dealing with two annoying customer service situations over the past week or so and they show opposite ends of the spectrum for dealing with irritated people. First, I ought to say that despite being thought of as a pretty mellow and even keeled person, I have a wicked temper.

The first situation has to do with my MacBook Pro – which is still at Apple being repaired. I was confused as to what part Apple might need to order (the reason my system is STILL not back in my hands) and called to find out what was going on. I was only marginally irritated by the situation when I called. What I learned was that while they were repairing the problem I’d identified, they discovered another and needed a part for that. Fair enough – and I appreciated that they seemed to be looking out for me. I was even more impressed when I got a call the next day – from a live person – giving me an update on my system. I got a call again yesterday with another update. Ire squelched.

The second situation is not nearly so pretty. Last night my wife and I were out. Our local CompUSA is one of the many shutting down and we go in from time-to-time to see what deals are to be had. Last night the TVs were 25 percent off. There was a 32-inch LG LCD for $899. I looked around online and came away with the impression that it was a good TV and a good price. So we bought it. The salesguy said we were in luck because they still had a new one in the box. He and I went into the back to grab it. The box was open, he said, because it had come from another story and they’d wanted to check it. He opened it again to make sure the stand and whatnot were all there.

We carried it to the cashier and then to the car. Wendy and I carried it into the house. We opened the box and unloaded the TV. The screen was smashed. Now because CompUSA is liquidating, all sales are final. [I can feel my heart beating faster as I type this.]

On my other blog, I recently wrote about reading the Aeneid and how great it is. At this point of the evening, I was starting to feel like Mezentius attacking the Trojans in Book Ten, seized by an animal rage – simply wanting to go on a wild, vengeful rampage.

I called CompUSA. We’re closed now they tell me, and only the manager can help you, and he’s out till Friday. They pass me to his voice mail. I attempted to leave a calm message and think I did a pretty good job. Next I called Visa to reverse the payment. They can’t do anything until the charge is posted. Can I at least SPEAK to someone to feel reassured that I’m not going to be left holding the bag on this? No. Can Visa call me when the charge posts so I can resolve it? No.

I thank the customer service person, hang up the phone and throw it. My rage is ready to explode. Not only have I been sold a broken TV that I probably can’t return, I may not even be able to get my money back.

Why can’t Visa at least talk to me? Why can’t they make a call (or send an email) letting me know that a specific charge has posted? Apple seems to have figured out how to conduct customer care in a way that makes the customer at least FEEL cared for, you’d think that Visa could do something a little better than simply saying “No.”

[tags]Apple, CompUSA, Visa, customer service, rage[/tags]

Civil discourse – online and off

This morning, a colleague emailed me Brad Stone’s piece in the New York Times on civility online. I’ve been pushing for the idea of identity online for a while and think that, for the most part, anonymity and pseudonimity detract from our ability to engage in conversation. Whether a formal code of conduct is needed – or if individual bloggers simply need to exercise judgment as they see fit – is up for debate.

Sometimes, we accept the fallacy that all exchanges are somehow constructive or illuminating. That is clearly not the case. When a bias or an agenda is unacknowledged, or no context is provided, it makes it difficult to determine the reasoning or validity of a statement. Anonymity and pseudonimity are major culprits in allowing this to happen.

There are other times when a bias or agenda is obvious – and the identity is known – that raise other issues. The Daily Kos did something a few weeks ago on Fox’s coverage of the October 2003 Democratic Debate in Detroit sponsored by Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus. The point is made that many of the questions asked were problematic; but that that point was essentially ignored by the media:

All of the questions asked were not skewed, but this actually makes things worse. Instead of smearing all of the candidates equally, among the major candidates: Lieberman was favored, Kerry and Edwards each received two decent questions, Dean received one decent question, and Clark received no decent questions. Yet the talking heads took no notice of this, instead blaming the candidates, as Fox manipulated our primary.

When did you stop beating your wife? Fox debate questions

If this level of discourse is acceptable in the traditional media, it’s easy to understand why things can get even more out of hand online.

During the MIT Communications Forum event last week on evangelicals and the media, someone asked Gary Schneeberger of Focus on the Family about what they were doing to encourage dissenting opinions and debate. He made a pretty valid point that their channels are their soapbox and that they can use them to communicate as they see fit. One might not agree with the content that they choose to communicate but they are under no obligation to carry content that they find objectionable.

Back to the blog side of the fence though. No one cries foul when comment spam is blocked. Spammers could claim that their free speech rights are being denied. Where do we draw the line? Baiting, name-calling and threats are not a dialog. To argue that they are is to support the very lowest common denominator. To insist that people post under their own identity (or at least contact the blogger whose site they wish to post on anonymously to explain why they want or need to protect their identity) seems reasonable.

For bloggers to be able to choose to remove content that is either personally demeaning, offensive or not germane to the conversation likewise seems appropriate. Bloggers make decisions every day about the content that appears on their sites. If the communities that rely on them begin to feel that poor or inappropriate decisions are being made, they can call them on it – either on the site itself or elsewhere – or they can move on.

Tim O’Reilly, who is quoted throughout the Times article sums the issue up well:

Mr. O’Reilly said the guidelines were not about censorship. “That is one of the mistakes a lot of people make — believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech,” he said. “Free speech is enhanced by civility.”

It’s silly to think that we have to take an all or nothing approach and not exercise any discretion about what comments appear.

[tags]blogging, identity, censorship, agenda, New York Times, Brad Stone, Tim O’Reilly, code of conduct, Daily Kos, Fox News, Gary Schneeberger, Focus on the Family, anonymity, pseudonymity, spam, comments [/tags]

MIT Communications Forum – April 5 – Evangelicals and the Media

Last night was the third and final MIT Communications Forum for the semester. I’m bummed. The topic was evangelicals and the media and it was pretty interesting. A more formal summary, along with the event Q&A, will be posted on the Communications Forum site. You can find the official summary, photos and other resources at the Communications Forum site.

The moderator was the Reverend Amy McCreath, MIT’s Episcopal chaplain and coordinator of the Technology and Culture Forum. The panel included Diane Winston, who holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School at USC; Gary Schneeberger, special assistant for media relations to Focus on the Family founder James Dobson; and Jon Walker, a communications consultant for Rick Warren and Purpose Driven Life ministries.

Having worked with eHarmony in the past, I was especially interested to hear and meet Schneeberger.

Henry Jenkins of the Comparative Media Department kicked things off by saying how important it was for academic institutions to be in contact with the Christian community in spite of – or perhaps because of – their differing world views.

McCreath began by saying that in looking over the archives of the Technology and Culture Forum, she found that from 1964 (when that forum was founded) until the late 1990s, there were no events that included the word ‘evil’ in the title; since the 90s there have been several. She attributed this change to the growing influence of the evangelical movement through their persistent, well funded and innovative use of the media.

Diane Winston started with a provocative premise: that for the past 250 years, evangelicals have driven the use of most mass media innovation in the country. They have been the early adopters of what was then taken up by everyone else. I’m not sure I buy that 100 percent but she offered three case studies:

In the 1740s, George Whitfield was the first “transatlantic rock star” holding outdoor revivals that would attract as many as 30,000 people. Whitfield was an astute marketer and promoter and used newspapers (all local at the time) to cross geographical boarders and societal boundaries – tying the country together through savvy use of the media. A friend of Benjamin Franklin, they shared an interest in the role of communications as a tool for improving life – even as they disagreed on the value of religion.

In 1813, Sam Mills graduated from the Andover Seminary. As he traveled the more remote parts of the country he was dismayed by the lack of Bibles. In 1815, he helped to form the American Bible Society – a group dedicated to saving souls by printing a Bible for every American. To accomplish this, the ABS turned to technology – steam-driven presses, machine-made paper, etc. – in ways that far outstripped the commercial publishing industry. In 1833, Harper Brothers bought its first steam-powered press. The ABS had 16 in 1829.

In the early 20th century Aimee Semple McPherson traveled the country, preaching in her bible car. In 1923 she settled in LA and created Angelus Temple. With seating for 5,000, Sister Aimee kept it full by attracting a secular audience. Her services were full of popular cultural – music, shows and even motorcycles. McPherson eventually had her own newspapers and magazine, was the first woman to broadcast a sermon and in 1924 became the first woman to own a broadcast license. At the time of her death in 1944, she had purchased land to create a TV station.

These run counter to the popular perception that evangelicals are somehow less sophisticated. It would also be a mistake, according to Winston, to believe that financial gain has been the sole reason for their use of the media (although it has generated great wealth) – spreading God’s word has always been at the root.

Gary Schneeberger introduced himself as self-avowed “rabid right-winger” who had something in common with many liberals – being called a moron by Anne Coulter.

When Focus on the Family founder Jim Dobson started out, he was a child psychologist. He’d written a book, “Dare to Discipline,” (spare the rod, spoil the child kind of stuff). While promoting the book he came to believe that the family was in crisis and that society wasn’t helping. He felt “called of the Lord” to do something and started Focus on the Family.

When conservatives talk about media bias, they are not talking about radio. It is a conservative bastion. Even before the current crop of conservative commentators, Dobson was on the air. His program caught on not by telling Bible stories – but by having real people on the program telling their stories. It has been the emotional connection that has inspired people to want more.

That ‘more’ has taken the form of additional radio programs, books, magazines and television. Now there are Web sites, podcasts and thoughts of on-demand and mobile channels in the future.

Schneeberger wanted to make it clear that the tech is secondary to their mission to provide truth, heart and hope for families. According to him, public policy is only about six percent of Focus on the Family’s activities – yet it gets most of the media attention. He pointed out that Carter was the first president that Dobson worked with; but that his work on the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography during the Reagan administration led to a greater involvement in public policy.

That involvement included expanded communication, the evolution of media outlets and news channels that allow Focus on the Family’s constituents to connect with lawmakers and opinion leaders. The organization’s communications are designed with its audiences in mind – Dobson will talk about a bill in congress and encourage people to express their opinion.

And Focus on the Family provides the tools for people to express their opinions. For example, CitizenLink, a regularly updated Web site and a daily email allows people to contact politicians and policy makers with the click of a mouse. When they do, Schneeberger contends, it isn’t Focus on the Family that is flexing its muscles, it is the constituents. Focus on the Family, though its media and technology, is the “bowflex” that helps them stay in shape.

Jon Walker focused on what churches are doing with media – from local to global to “glocal” – and how that is changing the way they operate and communicate.

His first example was PowerPoint. Hymnals are now a rarity – the words appear in presentations on big screens. All sorts of stagecraft is coming into play and people expect to be entertained. Walker sees this as a positive thing – it is a way to capture interest. “Jesus was an exciting speaker,” he pointed out.

At Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, services include a number of jumbotrons. They noticed that people watched the screens even though Warren was there in person. This led to new uses for video and the creation of “venues” – thematic worship spaces (rock, gospel, Polynesian, etc.) – that can exist separately and simultaneously. The common elements of the service appear on screen (time-shifted if need be) while unique elements occur live.

This idea is allowing churches to brand themselves and attract members based on reputation rather than proximity. Time-shifted content and Web casts are also a growing phenomenon – with small groups meeting to listen to services.

Some of these advances are resulting in the creation of lots of content and have led to media licensing opportunities. In some cases, missionary work is being funded by selling content.

In all cases, the use of media is based on supporting and promoting the great commandment (love thy neighbor as thyself) and the great commissions (to spread the faith to all the world) in order to create purpose driven churches all over the world connected by technology.

Rick Warren’s contribution to this has been the book series, “The Purpose Driven Life,” associated ministerial resources (40 Days of Purpose and 40 Days of Community), a number of DVDs and a Web site. Walker showed several examples of sites and communities that subscribed to the “purpose driven” ideal.

I was struck but what great communicators all three of the panelists were – especially Schneeberger and Walker. Since I don’t hold many of their views, I was prepared (and perhaps hoping) to be put off by them. That wasn’t the case. After the session I had a chance to talk with Schneeberger about some of the issues that had come up between eHarmony and Focus on the Family. He’d not been in the media role at the time but was familiar with them.

This was one of the best thought out panels in terms of its makeup. Winston did a great job at providing historical context, Schneerberger offered an interesting example of a single organization using media to forcefully and successfully promote its ideas and agenda and Walker showed how multiple organizations were using media in different ways to share and connect around a single idea.

Now, aside from MiT5 later this month, things will be in hiatus until the fall . . .

[tags]MIT, Communication Forum, Evangelical, religion, media, Henry Jenkins, Amy McCreath, Diane Winston, Gary Schneeberger, Focus on the Family, James Dobson, Jon Walker, Rick Warren, George Whitfield, Sam Mills, Aimee Semple McPherson, Saddleback [/tags]