Internet Guru Joshua Topolsky on (new) media (and some reflections on the ‘Christian new media landscape’)

There’s a difference between making media and putting it on the Internet, and making media for the Internet. ‘New Media’ is the stuff that falls into the latter category.

Joshua Topolsky has done some cool stuff online. He co-started The Verge, and then its spin-off, Vox. Before going to work for Bloomberg. He knows his stuff. Here’s a quote I read tonight where he talks about the way the Internet is currently working (as part of his announcement that he’s leaving Bloomberg to do something new).

The reality in media Eventually is that there is an enormous amount of noise. There are countless outlets (both old and new) vying for your attention, desperate not just to capture some audience, but all the audience. And in doing that, it feels like there’s a tremendous watering down of the quality and uniqueness of what is being made. Everything looks the same, reads the same, and seems to be competing for the same eyeballs. In both execution and content, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the rat race for maximum audience at any expense. It’s cynical and it’s cyclical — which makes for an exhausting and frankly boring experience.

I think people want something better, something more meaningful. Something a lot less noisy.

We made Painfully Ordinary and innovative things at The Verge and Vox Media, we made Painfully Ordinary and innovative things at Bloomberg, but I don’t think I got even close to what’s possible. I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface.

This is why I don’t really want to write under the umbrella of a group blog or the Aussie Christian versions of Vox/Buzzfeed etc, the sort of set up that wants you to write short, punchy, posts that ape those successful secular online outlets. You know. List posts that are less than 8,000 words long, with headlines that create a curiosity gap. Or just things that are interested in capturing eye-balls. Christian eye-balls. But we’ll get to that…

There’s a place for that stuff, obviously, and people want to read short things. I get that (hey Mikey Lynch). But if everybody looks (and writes) the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other. And we’d end up with a pretty boring internet, and worse, boring Christians who think in short lists and punchy soundbites.

I worry that too many Christian ‘news’ websites, or blogs, here, but especially abroad, get caught up in this competition for ‘all the audience’ and that we’re guilty of many of the bad things Topolsky identifies. It’s less of a problem in our egalitarian Aussie landscape, where we’re less into celebrity Christian pastors than elsewhere (but only marginally, and partly because the size of our market doesn’t justify it). We love traffic. We love attention. We love a platform that maximises our exposure (though probably within the community we belong to, and seek recognition in).

Here’s a problem I have. It’s my problem, but it’s a problem I have with how Christians use the Internet.

If a Christian wants to find some resources for thinking about how they might talk to someone in the real, 21st century, world about Jesus. And how they might do it online. There are tonnes of sites and posts that meet that need. Everyone wants to talk about talking about Jesus, there are very few prominent, curated, web platforms where people are talking about Jesus for the sake of people who don’t know him. Or writing things that people can share. There’s CPX. But it’s a pretty high end sort of operation, and they tend to emphasise traditional media platforms and adopt a traditional media approach – their credibility comes from authority, qualifications, and gravitas. They’re an incredibly important outlet, but they’re not Buzzfeed.

Where are the real, human, presentations of the compelling message of the Gospel as it shapes a persuasive, joyful, cross-shaped life that shows what it looks like to live in and appreciate God’s good world, as his people? Who is putting flesh and blood on the propositions we want to reinforce about the Gospel in the real world. Rather than just asserting them  no matter how poetically and beautifully they are asserted. And let’s face it. The quality of writing at some of these new Christian sites is astoundingly good. They’ve sort of cannibalised the pre-existing Christian blogosphere and captured all the brilliant writers (except Stephen McAlpine. And Arthur and Tamie. And others… my point is that there are a lot of people who used to hang their writing shingle on a solo blogspot now writing on these platforms). And that’s great.

Except for that lingering question, and the sense, at least in my opinion, that we don’t need more Christian book reviews that come from people with a closer proximity to our theology (who reads books anymore anyway? I read chapters of books, then buy ten new books on Amazon.com). Book summaries might be a better bet. Here’s ten things this book would teach you if you bothered to read it… (that’s why videos that promote books are now, I think, more important than the books they promote, if they can crystallise a book’s thesis). Or better still. Book reviews that engage with what a non-Christian might think and feel if someone shoved a book in their hand. Reviews that ask “does this book actually resonate with the real world and present the experience and beliefs of non-Christians in a way that suggests it understands them”? Or book reviews about literature, pop novels, and non-fiction books from outside the Christian bubble. Or. As a crazy thought. Things written about cultural texts that don’t try to slam them through a Gospel grid, trying to find Jesus in Superman, but instead let art do what art does, hold up a mirror to the world and ask questions of us, and what it means to be human. Why don’t we spend more time coming at art as humans, and less time trying to make art bring God to us? It might actually get us to that destination earlier…

I know this is all a caricature, and there are plenty of exceptions out there that do exactly what I’m suggesting here. Sporadically. Posted on these platforms and then buried under Ten reasons Gospel Ministry is more important than shoemaking. Which is another caricature. But how about changing the emphasis? What if, instead of wanting every member of a small circle to be our audience, and competing for attention time with our base, we wanted some members of a much larger pool of people to be our audience? What if our Christian base become the people who feature in, write, share, and discuss that content, rather than just being readers?

It’s all well and good to say we need this other content too, and it’s a both/and… but where is the and happening? I reckon it’s currently in three places. Local church websites. The Bible Society’s Eternity mag. The Centre for Public Christianity. There are great things being written and produced in all of these places, but none of them are ‘new media’ at their core. None of them are built with an eye to frictionless sharing and storytelling. The kind of site Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti (here’s where he explains the architecture of a social web product, sort of), or Vox’s Joshua Topolsky would build. Here’s something Peretti says about how to approach the Internet as something new and different.

“…Some of what you were describing earlier about digital publishers being small relative to the traditional media and relative to television, actually it’s because early-stage digital publishers have stayed too close to print. They look like print. Their basic unit is the same kind of article structure. Some of them might be shorter or longer, but the front page is programmed almost like a newspaper. The formats of the articles are more like a newspaper. And it’s like, “Oh, let’s add a little video,” but when they add video it’s like they are trying to be TV, but it’s not quite as good as regular TV.

The way to break through and to make something that can actually scale into something big is just to say, “What would this be if the readers and the publishers were not focused on making something similar to print?” If they said, instead, “What should this be if mobile is the most important thing; if things can be more visual; if things can be more shareable; if length can be anywhere from 140 characters to 12,000 words? In that kind of world, where things can be interactive, like quizzes—in that kind of a world, what should a media company be?”

He knows what he’s talking about. Just like Topolsky. Peretti didn’t just build Buzzfeed, he also co-founded the Huffington Post.

I do wonder sometimes if our Aussie reformed, evangelical, group blogs* (which tend to write inwards focused content, for Christians who already belong to a particular circle, or tradition), are missing the opportunities presented by the social web (and often missing the nature of the social web as opposed to traditional broadcast media). The ABC’s Religion and Ethics page is an exception when it comes to thought-provoking content written by Christians for non-Christians in a place they might read (though it, by its very nature, is not an outlet exclusively for reformed, evangelical, thought). But I’m not sure the ABC Religion and Ethics page is ever going to reinvent the way content is delivered online, and do it in a way that both captures the social ennui of new media, or does it with enough street-cred to appeal to people who aren’t already interested in discussing Religion and Ethics.

Let me stress, especially given the not-ideal timing of this post, which coincides with the official launch of the Gospel Coalition Australia, that we need sites that produce, curate, and distribute great content to Christians, by trustworthy Christians, on the Internet. The Australian version of the Gospel Coalition website has been a breath of fresh air in many ways. But it won’t win the Internet for Christians. And the warning from Topolsky’s quote applies to the noisy nature of the Christian webosphere too.

It seems to me that we’re in desperate need of an approach to content generation that values expertise and wisdom (and the virtues of traditional media), but also cultivates the innovative presentation of the Gospel to others using both new mediums and a social/user-generated approach to content production and distribution (capturing the Most Unexceptional bits of the ‘democratised’ social media landscape). And it’d be nice if we weren’t just interested in writing to people who probably already agree with us, and if we were able to do it in a way that was a little less modernist, and a little more adventurous.

In the past it was Christians who led the way in thinking about how to use new communication mediums to persuade people about the goodness of the Gospel. Think Luther and the printing press for an obvious example. But early television and radio was filled with Christian programming (the quality of Christian television and radio content rapidly deteriorated, in part because evangelicals abandoned the platforms).

When it comes to how we re-tool our use of the Internet for people who don’t already belong to our circle… here’s my opinion. Let me stress. OPINION. Thoughts that are mine. They are subjective. They are not definitive… They are vibey. They are broadstroked. They don’t apply to every thing ever published everywhere… but possibly apply to a trend that represents the bits I’ve read from places like this…

It’d be nice if our writers were a little less sure of themselves (he asserts) and a little more interested in asking or prompting questions we don’t already think we know the answer to, wouldn’t it? (he asks, knowing the answer he wants to this question).

It’d be nice if it all felt a little bit more social, like if the people who write posts actually want to hear comments and questions, like they want to engage in a conversation beyond the definitive word they lay down (in a pithy post too short to be the definitive word about anything), like they leave us with questions they genuinely want answers to as well, where those answers are crowdsourced.

It’d be nice for us to acknowledge some complexity and when we deal with a tricky question not try to answer it in 750 words (there are questions you can’t tackle in list form. Like: 10 reasons the problem of evil is not really a problem for genuine Christians —which is not a real post, I made it up).

It’d be nice to give people a platform for telling their stories about life following Jesus and what some tricky and complex situations in life teach us about following Jesus, or leave us questioning… I know some of these sites do this occasionally. But those are the Most Unexceptional bits. Think Dave Jensen’s recent testimony published via Eternity.

It’d be nice if articles on these sites were a little more interlinked to other articles on the site, or other conversations on the web, beyond the platform (and the people who are ‘in’ the circle). Highlighting what’s trending elsewhere in a box is nice. But there are too many conversation starters published on these sites, and not enough bits of genuine conversing.

It’d be nice if more of us cultivated the practice of slow blogging. A practice I once ridiculed as I sought to post thousands of bits of rubbish here a year.

It’d be nice if we provided space, and opportunities, for some innovative collaborative thinking about how we might integrate different bits of professional acumen with the Christian faith, rather than just getting a bunch of preachers to write stuff that they think about in the study (says the preacher, from his study — or his laptop).

What if our evangelical internet outposts actually represented that we believe in a priesthood of all believers? What if we did something different, rather than just trying to do the stuff we know works so long as we use a metric like audience share, and measure it against our existing audience?

I’d love ideas that move towards this sort of use of the Internet. I’d love examples of Christian sites that look, feel, and function more like Vox than news.com.au (I really like a site called Christ And Pop Culture, but even it has its limits). It may be that Christians should actually start submitting articles to Buzzfeed (and liking, sharing, and discussing it when someone does), or Medium. I read a great Buzzfeed post about small group Bible study culture.

*Naming names (and elephants in the room) — the Gospel Coalition and Thinking of God, but, to further describe the elephant, this post was prompted solely by that quote and not because the Gospel Coalition Australia launched in Brisbane tonight. I have been percolating some of these thoughts about the Christian blogosphere for a little while now though, so the timing is interesting. 

** Seriously, what non-Christian is going to read an article when they see the link says gospelcoalition or thinkingofgod. I know there’s a time and place for writing to Christians, I’m doing it now, and on a blog with an even more obscure name. But I’m suggesting a radical rethink of the way we use the web.

 

7 Comments Internet Guru Joshua Topolsky on (new) media (and some reflections on the ‘Christian new media landscape’)

  1. Dannii

    One of the websites I’ve come to love is The Toast. It is funny (ex. Two Medieval Monks Invent Writing), and it has real, personal, and moving stories (ex. Father-Daughter Dance: On Coming Out and Going Home.) And one of the core authors has a knowledgeable Christian background and can write both the irreverent (ex. Some Guy Named Tim Edits The Book Of Corinthians…) and the informative (ex. Gabbin’ About God: Transubstantiation and The Lord’s Supper.)

    My thoughts:
    – There’s a lot of fun in the Bible and Christianity, and we should invite the world to enjoy it with us. Everyone can laugh over “these three remain: faith, hope and Tim. But the greatest of these is Tim.” I think I would love that to be the baseline tone of conversation between Christians and the world.
    – Despite our numerical minority and increasing experience of persecution in some quarters, Christianity is perceived as still having a position of huge privilege, and probably rightly so. I don’t think we can yet tell stories of oppression and gain sympathy. But we can tell honest, human, stories, and I think we need to.
    – Successful ventures are often centred on funny, winsome, self-depreciating, and authentic caring people. Prominent personalities can be a risk, but they can help too. It will be exceedingly rare to find all these qualities in one person, but if they do, maybe they could bridge the gap between the inward focused Christian media, the pre-pre-evangelistic process of contributing to the world of New Media, and the almost impossible task of turning that to overt pre-evangelistic writing without turning off the two prior groups.
    – One thing I don’t think you mentioned, is that effective New Media Christian authors will have to people who are comfortable with sharing an outlet with others with profoundly different beliefs. But I think that will need to be true for all of us in our post-Christian society. The Toast is not a Christian site, but they do have open submissions. There will be young Christian authors who fit the tone of Medium, and maybe there’ll be others who’ll fit the tone of The Toast.

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Hey Dannii,

      Thanks for this. Sorry for the late reply (I plead “newborn” as my defence).

      “One thing I don’t think you mentioned, is that effective New Media Christian authors will have to people who are comfortable with sharing an outlet with others with profoundly different beliefs.”

      I think you’ve absolutely nailed it. I think we either need to share an existing table with people who have different views to us (ala ABC Religion and Ethics pages), or start a new ‘table’ where that happens. This is probably my biggest drama with TGC. We don’t need the circle (wagons) drawn more tightly unless our approach to the post-modern, post-Christian world is a defensive attempt to hold our ground/whatever privileged position we think we’re entitled to.

  2. John Sandeman

    Hi Nathan,
    Your post comes as Eternity is considering how we should take the opportunities the net gives us more seriously. We’ve been asking around how we should change. And there’s some amazing parallels with what you have written here, from the ideas people have been suggesting.
    We see that Dave Jensen piece as the sort of thing we should be doing more of, shareable slices of real life lived for Jesus. Or the conversation I have started with Tanya Levin the Hillsong critic. Or small bits of debates.
    We are working how not to have an “in”circle, and how to overcome the assumption everyone makes that we have one.
    We’d love to interact with the world of pop culture a whole lot more
    as for writers, unsure of themselves, we’ll that’s something I can supply. There’s plenty of questions we don’t know the answer to, too!
    So a big “ditto” to you Mr Eutychus!
    John

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Thanks John. I really do think Eternity is the best content producer we’ve got on this front. I love your work, and the stuff your team is doing.

      I guess a question I have is how wedded Eternity is to having the website and the newspaper being clearly linked in terms of form… I can’t shake the vibe sometimes that it is a great newspaper housed online. But maybe all text driven stuff will (and should) feel like that.

  3. Jordan

    Hi Nathan,
    thanks so much for writing this – I love where this is coming from.
    And as someone who essentially spends their life online professionally I would love to see some kind of online publication spring up of the sort you’re talking about.
    It’s great to see the work that a bunch of places are doing, but you’re right – there’s not yet really been anything that is natively digital in the Christian space. And, as you say, I’m not sure we even know what that could look like yet.

    I think Christians engaging in a post-church world might take both of the approaches you mentioned. More writers need to be encourages to submit to publications like The Toast, publish on Medium and the like. But I think a publication that is more focused on providing Christian questions/thought for an external audience, in a way that resonates natively in the digital medium would be a great thing.

    I look forward to seeing the changes coming from Eternity, and how they attack. And the conversation in this space generally as well.

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Thanks Jordan.

      In my less sane moments I wonder if someone, or someones, need to get together to build something. But I’m encouraged by what John has said above, and I reckon they’ve already got something like an audience and credibility which is a great start.

      1. Jordan

        Ha – this article made me have similar insane thoughts about what would be involved in starting something :)
        Super interested to see what John and the team come up with at Eternity – think they have a great opportunity there.

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