Archives For Communication

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 right now 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 incredible and innovative things at The Verge and Vox Media, we made incredible 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 best 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 best 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.

 

One overwhelmingly common response to stuff I’ve been posting here in perhaps the last couple years (it hasn’t always been like this) is that there are just too many words. Here’s an attempt to explain why this happens. Just read the headings if you want the short version. I’ll use this post a bit as something to link people to when they ask about the length of my posts (or complain about them). But here’s an answer, or five, to a question you just might be asking every time you see me post anything with the words “it’s long, but…” appended to the link.

1. I write to dump my thoughts somewhere without editing. Editing would significantly, significantly, change and lengthen the time I invest here that I need to invest elsewhere.

“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” — Blaise Pascal (and many others)

I don’t do this for money, or attention. I think of this site as something of an external version of my brain. I do it to clarify my thinking, to offer my thoughts, unedited, to others, and to take part in wider discussions. I like to think that what people experience when they read my stuff, in bits and pieces, or as some sort of integrated whole, they’re getting a sense of how my brain works and how my thinking develops (or doesn’t). In one sense my greatest desire is to be understood. Sometimes people like what I write, and share it, but I’ve been blogging for nine years now and have never particularly cared about traffic. I very, very, rarely look at stats for my blog.

I don’t edit because I don’t have time. I have a wife. I have two young kids, with another one due in the next two weeks. I have a pet dog. I have a church family. I have a job. Writing takes me away from these things some times. To be honest, I spend too much time here for too little tangible return in the relationships that matter most (though I think the clarity and catharsis writing brings me helps me be a bit better at many of these jobs, perhaps with the exception of the dog).

2. Life and truth are sometimes more complex than 140 characters or a clickbaity list of n-things might allow

The internet is great for many things. But complexity isn’t always one of them. Our world reduces complex arguments to soundbites and slogans. The internet is not like a traditional media outlet with limited column space or airtime. Which is great, but it also means people sink to the bottom in order to compete for attention. Hence headlines that promise I don’t want to do that. Maybe I overcorrect. But I want to subvert the patterns people adopt to “succeed” online, because I don’t think traffic is success. I’m much more interested in developing some sense of what it looks like to be a virtuous writer and citizen in this new media landscape (here’s part 1 on humility, and part 2 on eloquence, from a never completed five part thing I once started on what this looks like).

3. Context takes time (and words) to establish

I don’t assume that anybody reads every post I write. And I don’t assume that people who read stuff here know me in real life. But since I want to be understood, I feel like each post has to present who I am and how the thing I’m writing about is a product of point 1, but I also want to be showing my workings a bit. I want to provide this context for people. But this isn’t the only sort of context I’m interested in. I want to show how a post relates to other posts I’ve written (because that’s how my brain works, nothing really gets developed in isolation, the integration of thoughts and ideas is what gets me excited).

Again. This isn’t the only way I think context works. I want to fairly represent others too. I quote large slabs of other sources, especially the Bible, because I don’t want to rip things or thoughts away from their own context without care. I also don’t expect people to follow a link to an external site to check that I’m representing a third party well. If I’m disagreeing with someone I want their argument to be clearly represented. I haven’t always done this well. But I want to treat others online the way I hope to be treated when someone wants to disagree with me.

Also, just for the record, I’ve posted more than 6,000 articles here, and the average length per post is just 258 words, so it may be that I’m not actually as wordy as you think, you might just be reading something that someone else has decided is worth sharing because they think it could be of value for you… According to the stats (at least a couple of years ago when I did check my stats as an experiment), my longer posts are shared more frequently than short posts, which seems to fit a broader trend. According to this article in the Huffington Post:

“We analyzed the top 10% most shared articles to see if this was the case. And according to our research, the opposite is true. On average, long-form content actually gets shared more than short-form content.

If you look at the chart below, the longer the content, the more shares it gets, with 3,000-10,000 word pieces getting the most average shares (8859 total average shares). Not surprisingly, there was a lot more short-form content being written. How much more? There were 16 times more content with less than 1000 words than there were content with 2000+ words.”

That’s enough about me. Here’s some about you.

4. Your media habits shape your brain. 

Do you want your brain to be shaped by a bunch of unnuanced, sensationalist, short garbage that moves on quicker than a newspaper becomes fish and chip wrapping? I don’t.

The way we use media profoundly rewires our brains. Here’s a (long) six part series on how social media rewires our brains, picking up some insights from neuroscience, theology, and media ecology.

Maybe you should take time to read a bit. It’s good for your brain. Take some time out, grab a coffee. There’s a little thing at the top of each post that even warns you how many minutes an average reader might take to read every word. I don’t think people consume the web like this. Eye-tracking technology shows that when people are reading something online they scan for headings, and tend to scroll quickly through a page to see if it’s worth investing in. Slate.com has a cool article on how people read things online, even long things, that explores this a bit, I try to write knowing that people will tune out when they feel like they’ve had enough. A blog post from Buffer, an online media tool, suggests 1,600 words is the ideal length for a blog post, which is longer than most people think they want, and equates to about ten minutes of reading time. This post will be just shy of that.

5. It’s possible your complaint about something being too long means its not actually written for you. And you should simply stop reading when you stop being interested

There’s a strong argument that has been made by people I respect that what I write as a Christian, where whatever gifts I have in this area coming from God for the benefit of others, should serve as many people as possible and that means making my writing as accessible as possible. Which means shorter. I think there’s some truth here. But I also believe the primary people I’m called to serve are those in my family, and my church family, and that takes time which I can’t devote to making this site more useful for you. Sorry. And I’m not always sure shorter is better, as the above suggests…

Look. I know you’re busy. Who’s not?

But it’s also possible that your assumption that your time is somehow more precious than mine, and those I serve with it, misses the point that reading anything on the internet is a completely opt-in activity. You can choose to close the tab any time. It’s not like a sermon where if I waffle for ten minutes, to 70 people, I’ve wasted 700 minutes for people who couldn’t easily leave. The opt-in/opt-out distinction is incredibly important, it’s a bit like permission marketing v interruption marketing (see wikipedia).

Perhaps when I post something it’s not for you. Perhaps its for me. Perhaps its for the one person googling something a year from now. One of the other media ideas that fascinates me is the idea of the long tail, that it’s not initial ‘viral’ success that counts, but a thing that has a long shelf life that is returned to by a few people here and there over a long time. Incidentally, that’s why the most ‘successful’ thing I ever wrote is the recipe I shared for Sizzler’s Cheese Toast (which is a super short post).

 

WWE_Announcers

I don’t really get to watch WWE any more. But I remain committed to the idea that it’s not as dumb as it looks, and I’m incredibly fascinated by the sports entertainment industry. I’d recommend reading Grantland’s the Masked Man, like I do every time I write about how WWE isn’t completely trashy. It holds the attention of boys and men (and girls and women, but men are its main audience) from all over the world. It uses storytelling. Or rather, it is storytelling. Preachers, communicators, and would-be storytellers can learn from the guys between the ropes, but we can also learn from the guys who are helping us see the in-ring action as part of a story.

Not all WWE storylines are good. Some are putrid. Some are inane. I’m not here to defend the content of these stories, but the mode is fascinating. Vince McMahon is the all-powerful owner of the WWE, he grew up in the industry and transformed it from a regional circus into a multi-national media business. So he knows his stuff. His handbook of rules for announcers who call the matches on TV have leaked recently, and I think they’re a fun insight into storytelling in a multi-media environment, and where small narratives happen as part of a larger story, and a larger universe. Just like preaching. When we pick a passage from a part of the Bible, featuring certain characters in the Bible, these characters relate to the whole story of the Bible in some way, and it pays to think about how.

I’ve summarised the good bits of advice under these headings. These combine various points, everything here is either a quote or a paraphrase from the document. I think following rules like this, but applying them to the context of other stories, will make a person a better storyteller/preacher/communicator. I think it’s mostly evident how this works with telling the Bible’s story, which is ultimately about the ultimate superstar — Jesus.

  1. Announcers are NOT THE STARS.
    It’s not about them, it’s about the Superstars. The Announcer’s job is to enhance the SUPERSTARS stories. To help our fans learn more about their characters and develop emotional attachments to them.
  2. Announcers are fans!
    We need to be fans and enjoy the product and ask questions that fans would ask. Manufactured passion is the kiss of death. Have fun. If you don’t like this, why should anyone else?
  3. Tell the audience something they are not thinking. And don’t tell them what to think.
    It adds another dimension to the story. Everyone hates being told what to think. No one cares about what you are thinking. Avoid words like “obviously”, “I tell you”, “no doubt.” Engage the audience, ask provocative questions rather than telling them what to think.
  4. Listen to yourself, and others. 
    “An announcer should critique themselves. They should always watch a replay of their shows. They should be their own worst, most nit-picky critics. Listen to other announcers and styles. We are always learning.”
  5. Always go back a little in your story telling.
    Take 30 seconds to set the stage before diving into a discussion. Not everyone knows who or what you are talking about.
  6. Personalise this story for us.
    Make us care. What’s the emotional story behind this match? When using a hold description of name it never hurts to succinctly explain why the hold works and what it does to the afflicted one’s body or body part. Other human beings can feel pain and can live vicariously through what they see in the ring. Always ask yourself, why is this hold or manoeuvre effective?
  7. Once the match is over — what does this mean?
    What are the consequences? What’s next for this superstar.
  8. Think about delivery, have your delivery be shaped by what you’re talking about
    Use intensity levels in telling the story of a match — you have high spots too! Tone and inflection are more important than volume. Lower your voice and use hushed tones when talking about something serious. Use more breathing room with transitions, particularly when something is emotional. Don’t scream. Be conversational. Slow down.
  9. Prepare.
    Read lots. Know the characters. Know how this story fits in their stories. Be totally familiar with each segment and what the bottom line message is to “get over” in each segment that we work. Dig for more information to enhance storytelling. The use of topical info as analogies and examples is effective if not forced. Be aware of major international events and be sensitive to those people in those areas. Don’t inadvertently insult them and others by using language that could be hurtful.
  10. Use words that build the story.
    The words you choose are important. They can build or bury someone. Think about your vocab. Have a list of synonyms that can be used for all the major categories we address for a specific talent. Such as good guy terms like courage, character, etc. Bad guy terms like evil, dangerous… there are many words that will fill the bill without using the same ones time and time again on a weekly basis. The goal is to make each superstar elicit an emotional reaction and investment from the viewer so that the viewer is compelled to tune in next week. Use descriptive adjectives. Enhance characters — describe their physical, emotional, and mental state. Avoid insider words, meaningless words and cliches. Maybe have a list of words to avoid. Keep comments and observations believable and plausible.
  11. Never read copy.
    Always internalise it. Tell the story in your own words. Be yourself. You should not use verbiage written by a Producer. Our audience can always tell when an Announcer is reading and it is a total disconnect. Take the suggested verbiage and make it your own words. Try this. Read the copy, turn the page over, and tell me what you’re supposed to be conveying.

This is still, I think, one of the better things David Foster Wallace said or wrote, from the much lauded speech This Is Water

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I’m working on trying to write something about how we’ve collapsed what it means to be human into whatever we make it mean for us in our own mind. Maybe one day this thing will see the light of day. Maybe it won’t. But this is powerful stuff.

 

Woody Guthrie inscribed “This machine kills fascists” on his guitar.

Pete Seeger wrote “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” on his banjo.

Powerful though they may be, Guitars, banjos, and protest songs are only going to get people so far in the face of the broken world we live in. Guthrie and Seeger may have been prophetic voices in their time…

But the Cross of Jesus is a better hate absorber. A better story. And a better protest against the brokenness of this world. And here it is, wielded by the victims of an atrocity, to the one accused of carrying out that atrocity.

It’s incredibly emotional stuff. You can read the transcripts of these statements all over the web. But the rawness of the emotion from these followers of Jesus is powerful.

This is what following Jesus looks like.

This is what it takes to kill hate.

This is what it takes to bring life, and love, and hope for the world, in the midst of atrocities.

This sort of forgiveness is crazy in the eyes of the world (just read the comments on YouTube)… but it’s a special, beautiful, sort of crazy. I’m praying for these courageous wielders of the Cross, and their church. This is amazing.

“Hate won’t win”

The committee I’m on with the Presbyterian Church of Queensland has been asked to put together a sample letter that people in our churches might use as something of a template for contacting their local MP about the proposed changes to the Marriage Act.

Here ’tis.


Dear LOCAL MP,
Re: The proposed amendment of the Marriage Act

We’re praying for you as you navigate this complex issue of trying to redefine marriage in a way that balances the rights, beliefs, and identity of people in our community. Thanks for all you do in your tough job as an elected member of our parliament.

As Christians we’re called to honour you, and to pray for you. We promise to keep doing that even if you use your vote in parliament to enshrine something in our nation that we personally believe is a mistake.

We’ll keep praying for you, and honouring you, believing that God has appointed you to govern our nation.
When we follow Jesus we believe we’re called to love our neighbours – so we’d also love to know if you have any ideas for how we might help love people who are in need in our community.

We also believe marriage is the life long union between one man and one woman, and that this relationship reflects the nature of God. It reflects the loving relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it reflects the truth at the heart of the Gospel, that Jesus laid down his life to claim his beloved people, the church, as his bride. This might all sound weird to you. We understand that. For Christians, the reality of marriage, that it links two different types of humanity, male and female, as one flesh, is an important part of what we believe about the world because it reflects what we believe about God.

We also believe that marriage being defined this way is good for all people, because it’s the institution the God who made the earth created for us, and for the raising of children. But, we appreciate that there are many in our nation who do not share our beliefs, in God, in marriage, or in this picture of human flourishing.

We know, too, that the world isn’t what it was made to be, that marriage is hard, that many end in divorce, and that kids are often raised without both parents. We believe this is because we humans collectively took God’s good design and trashed it. We want to own our part in that.

We’d love to find out how we could be helpful in supporting families trying to navigate through life in this messy world in our community. We pray that you’ll continue to provide the church space to encourage people to try out God’s design for humanity and human relationships in their own family, especially by giving all people freedom to act according to conscience when it comes to participating in same sex marriage ceremonies.

We believe participation in a democracy should allow people to act according to conscience wherever possible.

Thanks for reading. We’ll keep praying for you as you represent us, and our neighbours in your constituency, in our government. We’re so thankful for your willingness to serve us and take the views of your constituents on board.

Best regards,

YOUR NAME

Youth ministry in an iWorld

I had the privilege of talking to a bunch of youth leaders from the Pressy church in Queensland at YNet yesterday about how to navigate the new connected landscape of the internet.

I promised I’d make my slides easy to find. So here they are (along with the earlier version of this presentation I did for a more general audience. Sadly, Slideshare seems to kill my font choices.

The key is to find the happy medium between being Shirley and being Abed.

Addressing #thedress

thedress

I see blue and black/grey/goldy-brown. How about you?

Anyway. What you saw isn’t really as important, in my mind, as why you saw it.

Kottke points to this pretty incredible look at how Buzzfeed managed to dominate #thedress as it moved from trend to meme to whatever it eventually became. 27 million page views. More people visited Buzzfeed’s #thedress post than live in Australia.

“This is not said as an endorsement of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is utterly deserving of insanely paranoid criticism just like anyone who makes money from your attention, including me. But it’s worth pointing out that their recipe for traffic seems to be: Hire tons of people; let them experiment, figure out how social media works, and repeat endlessly; with lots of snacks. Robots didn’t make this happen. It was a hint of magic, and some science.”

Anyway. En route to that thing Kottke points to, he shared a couple of nice little anecdotes that are worth capturing and filing away in the ‘stuff to use one day in a talk’ or ‘interesting life lessons’… one of Australia’s best marketing minds (in my opinion), Sean Cummins, once said at a thing I was at “genius comes through the prolific” (he said Einstein said this, but I can’t find any thing to back that up). These are nice demonstrations of that principle.

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

 

 

cicero

Eloquence, after all, has its own place among the supreme virtues. Of course, all the virtues are equal and equivalent, but still, one is more beautiful and splendid in appearance than another. This is the case with the power that I am talking about: having acquired all-embracing knowledge, it unfolds the thoughts and counsels of the mind in words in such a way that it can drive the audience in whatever direction it has applied its weight. And the greater this power is, the more necessary it is to join it to integrity and the highest measure of good sense. For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen

This term at Creek Road we’re looking at the life of Jesus as recorded in Mark’s Gospel. Mark brings the story of Jesus to life through the eyes of different people who meet him on his journey to the Cross. The people in the stories are a way in to seeing and hearing Jesus.

The word Gospel is a media term — Roman emperors used Gospels to proclaim their own greatness or to establish new titles so that the citizens of Rome could honour/worship them appropriately. The people who wrote about Jesus and called their writing Gospels didn’t do so in a vacuum — it was a very deliberate subversion of the Roman Empire (whose emperors called themselves the “Son of God”), leading up to the very deliberate subversion of the meaning of crucifixion and the symbol of the Cross.

So how should we recapture this approach to media in our day and age? That’s one of the things that thanks to our clever Media Team at Creek Road, we’re aiming to do in this series, called Jesus: Watch, Listen, Follow — and we’d love the online part of what’s going on to be something fun for people all over Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and the world. We’ve brought a bunch of the characters from Mark to life, on Twitter and Instagram and there’s a central website watchlistenfollow.org which introduces the characters and collates the posts. They’re posting as though the events of the Gospel are happening and they’re reacting, they’re interacting with people who tweet or comment on these posts, and then they’re appearing on Sundays as part of our kids talks at church.

Anyway. This is a big preamble to tell you that you totally have to, at least, follow the Roman Centurion (@r0mancent — Twitter, Instagram), especially if you need some motivation to soldier on, exercise, or read Roman philosophy.

Here are some samples.

Obviously some tweets are going to be closer to the Gospel narrative than others (which are character building). But if you’re keen to take part why not follow along, watch the story unfold, interact with the characters and share the good bits with your friends. That’s kind of how Gospels work.

What is clarity: a visualisation

I often think about what my job is, as a communicator. How I can best pass on my thoughts, or whatever data it is I’m looking to transmit to my audience in the way that is most helpful.

I think the absolutely holy grail of communication is clarity. Clarity is loving. Clarity, I think, is vital for persuasion. And I think all beneficial communication is persuasion — whether it simply seeks to educate, whether it seeks to reaffirm and encourage an already held position, or whether it seeks to shift and transform somebody via the act.

Good communication is about, as much as possible, getting everything else out of the way of the thing you are trying to communicate, but it’s also about making the thing you’re communicating about as full and real as possible.

Sometimes people think clarity is a synonym for simplicity. But it’s not.

Sometimes people think nuance is a synonym for ambiguity and an enemy of clarity. But it’s not.

Let me demonstrate in pictures.

This is a diamond.

Actually.

These are all diamonds.

Imagine someone asked you to show them a diamond. Perhaps, for context, you’re a jeweller and the someone is a young man wanting to buy a ring.

The first two examples are absolute communication failures. Uncut and ambiguous. Then there’s a simple diamond. A complex diamond. A nuanced diamond. And a compelling diamond.

uncut diamond

diamondambiguous

simple diamond

diamondlinecomplex

diamond

diamond in use

Which of these options are actually helpful to the person who wants to see a diamond, the sort of diamond they might take to their beloved?

It’s tempting to think that the best communication takes the easiest path for the audience to take to understand that this thing is a diamond — so the simple one that uses the least lines (let’s take for granted that communication is an act of making yourself understood and that it’s not good enough to just take the option that’s easiest for the communicator, serving up unedited, ambiguous, dross). That simple diamond doesn’t really help anyone except card players, magicians, or people playing Pictionary.

The last diamond is what we, as communicators, are attempting to communicate to our audience; the rest, though they’re sometimes held up as archetypes of clarity, are less than the best. Potentially there’s a context for a diamond like any of these other diamonds to be the thing that you are producing. Some of the others may be of value in a technical manual. But when I communicate I want people to appreciate the full significance — the intricacies of a thing and where it fits in the bigger picture, and how it might become part of the hearer’s life. I think that’s real clarity.

It’s true that you could stare at the last diamond for hours, and still appreciate it, but our guy in the jewellery shop who is very busy should get the picture that it’s a pretty incredible, and potentially life-changing diamond pretty quickly, because he’s not going to spend a lifetime in the shop. And I think that’s where the real challenge for clarity (and excellent communication) lies.

I think I’ve mentioned my DFW fanboyism once or twice before… I love the way he writes, and the way he thinks about writing, and the way he talks about thinking about writing. So. This book — Quack This Way —  a transcript of an hour long chat between David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner, the author of the dictionary of usage that he reviewed, quite famously, is fantastic. In it DFW shares a bunch of his thinking about writing, distilled here for your edification.

I love this description of his own view of his deficiencies as a writer. I think, because I can relate to it…

“My main deficit, at least in terms of nonfiction prose, is I have difficulty of being as clear as I want to be. I have various tricks for working around that and making it kind of charming to watch somebody trying to be clear, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t be clear and compressed in the way that, say, parts of the preface of your dictionary that I liked very much are clear and compressed.”

And I have a strange phobia that there’s a crucial point and I haven’t transmitted it satisfactorily, so I have to say it again a different way and then later on again a different way. And I think I lean . . . There’s a Poe thing, right? “One out of one hundred things is discussed at great length because it really is obscure. Ninety-nine out of one hundred things are obscure because they’re discussed at more length than they need to be.”

I also really enjoyed reading this account of his famous essay Tense Present — the aforementioned review of Garner’s dictionary. It was commissioned by The New Republic, but DFW was so excited by his review that it blew out the assigned word limit and deadline. I can totally relate to that. Then. Harper’s magazine ran half of what DFW wrote, finally, DFW published the whole, unabridged, 62-page behemoth in his Consider the Lobster (a great collection of essays). Here’s his reflections on this little series of events. Those of you who know how I feel about word limits will know why I love DFW and his writing (and why this post is so long).

BAG: “Were you happier with the full-length version that appeared in Consider the Lobster than you were with the one that appeared as “Tense Present” in Harper’s?

DFW:  Well, sure. Harper’s cuts real well. This is part of the problem with what I do: I end up giving them five times as much as they can use sometimes. With the Harper’s piece, it was maybe twice as much. Which means I need magazines that cut real well, or editors who cut real well. Harper’s, they cut it okay, but they cut out most of the things that for them were dry or academic, which was actually the meat. They left in, like, pants analogies that were funny and zingy, but the actual essay is meant to advance a certain kind of argument through both fairly meticulous—not scholarly because it’s more pop than that—and fairly sedulous argumentation, and zingy, pop, informal things, and they cut out a lot of the sedulous stuff. The Harper’s article is probably more fun to read. The version that’s in the book, I think, is a heck of a lot better, pace the terrible capitalization and ital versus [rolling eyes] tone-quote question.”

Anyway. Here are some selected gems about writing from Quack This Way.

1. Writing is about communicating to somebody who can’t read your mind… with a goal to making reading as close to effortless as possible

“In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader—even though it’s mediated by a kind of text—there’s an electricity about it.”

 

“In my experience with students—talented students of writing—the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this.”

Part of this involves punctuating to control how fast or slow a reader digests what you’ve written. Not just for meaning (though they’re related).

Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.   One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating.

The goal is a frictionless experience for the reader…

One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favourable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader. That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it—the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

Because writing is about a relationship —  a communion — a communication — between writer and reader. Except when it’s used for something more sinister.

Well, you get down to certain axioms about what the language is and what it ought to be used for. And you and I, I think, are essentially gooey-hearted humanists, and we want it to vivify and facilitate . . . we want it to help inter-human relationships of various sorts. But language is also a tool of persuasion. Propaganda, right? We have a president who apparently doesn’t need to use the language well because as he’s speaking, behind us are little banners—talk about Orwellian—“Fighting the War on Terrorism.” Right? Have you seen this? These press conferences? No longer do we need a president who’s an example of an articulate, thoughtful person because we’ve got behind him this sort of almost hypnotic set of messages that someone has discovered that, with some base, those actually work better at creating a favorable impression than having a well-spoken, apparently thoughtful president.

2. …and your reader doesn’t care what you have to say. So, write to communicate, not to simply express yourself

“In the real writing world, one of the axioms is that the reader doesn’t care about you. You know, the fact that this is you means absolutely nothing to them. The fact is, what can they get from this document that is going to require time, and perhaps money, for them to read? It’s a very different paradigm to come at writing from.

This means if you want to do the relationship stuff you have to be the one who cares about the other person, giving them a reason to read or listen —  DFW suggests this is the difference between ‘communicative’ and ‘expressive’ writing…

“… there’s a real difference between writing where you’re communicating to somebody, the same way I’m trying to communicate with you, versus writing that’s almost a well-structured diary entry where the point is [singing] “This is me, this is me!” and it’s going out into the world.

What I talk about is that one of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. Right? “I am the center of my own world, my thoughts and feelings are more immediate, therefore . . . ” I mean we all know the drill, right? When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer—when they start wanting to get better—they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”

Thinking this way about writing — and trying to improve as a writer — could also make you a better person all round…

“It’s true, I think, that a lot of the muscles you use, skills you use, in trying to get better as a writer, are skills and muscles that pay off in ways that don’t immediately seem to have to do with writing simply because language and interpersonal communication is to a large extent . . . it’s our world, right?”

This also changes the way you open a piece of writing (and structure it from there through to the end).

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

3. Read lots, but read with an eye on the mechanics, or anatomy, not just the style of what you like.

DFW trots out a bit of advice that I’ve seen elsewhere —  don’t just read stuff you like, sit down and write it out. It’s a bit like dissecting a specimen in a laboratory.

“Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.”

 

It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good . . . ,” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them. And so that was just a random exercise that I could think of. I didn’t know other people . . . I know James Jones had a writing teacher who made them retype great books, but I think the book was right there and they were just retyping. They were supposed to learn through their hands, or something kind of flaky.

Hunter Thompson did it with The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, Cicero did it for speeches and poetry he admired, Nicholson Baker, one of my other favourite essayists/authors does it… apparently Robert Louis Stevenson also suggested it.

Here’s Cicero.

“For my part, in the daily exercises of youth, I used chiefly to set myself that task which I knew Gaius Carbo, my old enemy, was wont to practise : this was to set myself some poetry, the most impressive to be found, or to read as much of some speech as I could keep in my memory, and then to declaim upon the actual subject-matter of my reading, choosing as far as possible different words. But later I noticed this defect in my method, that those words which best befitted each subject, and were the most elegant and in fact the best, had been already seized upon by Ennius, if it was on his poetry that I was practising, or by Gracchus,” if I chanced to have set myself a speech of his. Thus I saw that to employ the same expressions profited me nothing, while to employ others was a positive hindrance, in that I was forming the habit of using the less appropriate. Afterwards I resolved, — and this practice I followed when somewhat older, — to translate freely Greek speeches of the most eminent orators. The result of reading these was that, in rendering into Latin what I had read in Greek, I not only found myself using the best words — and yet quite familiar ones — but also coining by analogy certain words such as would be new to our people, provided only they were appropriate.” —  Cicero

Both Desiderius Erasmus, in the 16th century, and more recently, Nicholson Baker, suggest when you find stuff you like you should copy them down into a book of memorable writing, a Commonplace book, which you can read more about in Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall. I like the idea that this blog functions as something like a commonplace book, as well as a filing cabinet. And I’m thinking about typing quotes out rather than just copying and pasting. But I think there’s also, potentially a link between writing stuff out by hand, rather than typing, and getting a better sense of the way the words flow together. I’ll chuck some more stuff about Erasmus, and from Nicholson Baker, in the comments.

4. There are infinite possibilities to create something with words. You can always get better. So practice. 

“The fact of the matter is that good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

“Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader—the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing—maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

it becomes very tempting to go, “Oh, what’s good? Okay, look at that guy over there: that’s good.” Just be aware that that guy is looking at other people and going, “No, no, that’s good.” And like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

So probably the smart thing to say is, if you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern . . . I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”

5. Write slow so you think carefully

I don’t do this (or the next tip), I don’t draft much at all. I write too much and then I chip away until I’ve got something approaching something that I’m happy with. I hit publish, and I move on.

But getting an insight into how great writers write is always interesting.

BAG: So you don’t put much stock in that, the mechanical typing of it, as opposed to really mentally trying to recreate something?

DFW:  Here though, I mean I’m 43, and we get into the weird age thing because for my students, many of whom compose on a typewriter, that might actually be a useful exercise. The writing writing that I do is longhand.

BAG:   You write everything in longhand?

DFW:  Well, the first two or three drafts are always longhand, yeah. Only because I went through this school where they made me write a lot and it was right before computers became ubiquitous. And I just find that it makes me . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention. Like, is the clause that I just . . . does this make sense, what I just said? Which is very difficult, at least for me, to keep in mind when I’m actually writing the thing, unless something slows me down.

Apparently CS Lewis also wrote using pen and ink, not a type writer. Here’s a quote from Alister McGrath’s biography, and another from the preface to a published collection of his letters.

“Lewis actively chose not to type. This mechanical mode of writing, he believed, interfered with the creative process in that the incessant clacking of the typewriter keys dulled the writer’s appreciation of the rhythms and cadences of the English language.”

 

“Lewis learned to write with a nib pen, dipped into an inkwell every four or five words. When he was an undergraduate at Oxford he began using fountain pens, but he gave them up after several years and resumed writing with a nib pen, a practice he carried on for the rest of his life.

When Lewis dictated letters to me, he always had me read them aloud afterwards. He told me that in writing letters, as well as books, he always “whispered the words aloud.” Pausing to dip the pen in an inkwell provided exactly the rhythm needed.”

Both of these quotes feature in this post by Tony Reinke.

I think DFW and CS Lewis occupy similar positions in the literary stratosphere, both are particularly, in my mind, attuned to thinking about the human condition, Lewis as a Christian, and DFW as someone faced with the crushing and overwhelming nature of life without God. His stuff on humanity is always particularly rich. Which is part of why I love his writing. DFW listed The Screwtape Letters as his favourite book in this list. Here’s a stunningly poignant obituary from DFW’s friend Jonathan Franzen that discusses, in a way, the relationship between Screwtape and DFW’s suicide. And I think shows a little of how despite similarities, Lewis and Wallace took such divergent paths in life (this little piece that looked at what happened to Lewis’s self-reflection upon his conversion to Christianity —  it faded as he found his identity elsewhere —  in contrast to Wallace’s self-insight that may or may not have contributed to his death is pretty interesting reading alongside the Franzen piece). But I digress. Into some pretty dark territory. Lewis — via his discovery of value through the love of God poured out at the cross —  offers a better way out of darkness than Wallace found (at least, according to Franzen).

6. Figure out how your writing process gives your writing structure (and how it varies based on what you are writing).

BAG:   When you’re writing nonfiction, how do you go about research and then organizing your thoughts when you’re writing a long essay?

DFW:  I find it very difficult. The truth is that most of the nonfiction pieces I do are at least partly experiential. They involve going to a place, talking to people, taking notes. My fondest wish is that no one would have the kind of process I have with it. I end up taking a hundred times more notes than I need.   My first draft usually approximates somebody in the midst of an epileptic seizure. It’s usually about the second or the third draft where I begin having any idea of actually what this thing is about. So my own way of doing it, it’s not very economical in terms of time. It is just doing it over and over and over again and throwing stuff away and, you know, whining and crying to friends and stuff and then going back and trying it over again. I think there are very few professional writers—and certainly very few people who are doing things like having to supply good briefs or opinions in the law—who would want to or could afford to go through a process like that.   My process appears to be getting precipitate out of an enormous amount of solution. I wish it weren’t. I heartily advise people not to develop a process like that. I can get away with it because I don’t do many nonfiction pieces. I couldn’t make a living doing them because just one takes me six months

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.   If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know—and people are always interested and want to know what you do—most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential. The closest I’ve come to actual argumentative pieces are book reviews, and I mean straight-out, you-got-300-words book reviews. And at a certain draft, at a certain point in those drafts, I always make an outline. But that’s because I’ve got 300 words, which for me is very tight. How am I going to make it tight?

7. Don’t confuse complexity with intelligence. Pick good words that give clarity and humanity to your writing.

“…a lot of people with PhDs are stupid, and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be. I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency, and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning.”

He spends a bit of time exploring why so many people who are qualified as ‘writers’ — writing in all sorts of professional capacities — are so bad at writing (even if they’re very good at reading). It’s touched on a little in the quote above, and expanded below.

Now, this is presuming that you’ve got a reader who is bright, literate, well-educated, and paying attention. Given the amount of verbosity—particularly in bureaucratic, institutional, legal, and scientific writing, including the stuff that gets published—indicates to me that there are certain audiences that aren’t especially bothered by this. Why that is I don’t know except that a lot of them tend to be audiences composed of professionals who went through a long apprenticeship that meant reading huge amounts of this kind of stuff, and they sort of got brainwashed or maybe inured to it in some way. From the point of view, like you, of somebody who just loves the language and thinks it’s hard enough to be clear anyway, in the default case the fewest words, each of which is the smallest and plainest possible, is usually the best policy.

I love some of the stuff he says about jargon – political, advertising, and legalese style communication where new, non-plain, dialects are used. Based on agendas other than communication-for-human-relationships.

One answer is the fact that people, unless they’re paying attention, tend to confuse fanciness with intelligence or authority. For me, I’ve noodled about this a fair amount because a lot of this sort of language afflicts me. My guess is this: officialese, as spoken by officials, is meant to empty the communication of a certain level of humanity. On purpose.

My guess is one of the reasons why we as a people tolerate, or even expect, this officialese is that we associate it with a different form of communication than interpersonal—Dave and Bryan talking together. That the people who are speaking are in many senses speaking not as human beings but as the larynx and tongue of a larger set of people, responsibilities, laws, regulations, whatever. And that is probably why, even though it’s dreadfully ugly to the ear and why if you think hard about it, “Keep your personal belongings in visual contact at all times” is actually likely to be understood by a smaller percentage of people than, “Please keep an eye on your stuff at all times.” Nevertheless, there are imperatives behind using the language that way. And some of it is to be antihuman.

And, lastly, I love that he points out that clarity, achieved largely via plain language, also comes through elegance and craftsmanship, where the interest of the reader is paramount.

BAG:   Let me ask you this. If plain language is a good thing, why is it also a good thing to have an ample vocabulary?

DFW:  Well, for a couple of reasons.   One, plain language doesn’t mean all little, monosyllabic words. The general rule of thumb is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation. Sometimes the situation you’re describing is specific and technical, and a small word won’t do.   Probably the other big thing is that there’s this thing called “elegant variation.” You have to be able . . . In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.

 

 

 

 

A few months ago I was asked to talk to some final year students at Queensland Theological College about ‘Ministry in an iWorld.’

You can see my (mostly) self-explanatory set of slides from my presentation here.

This weekend I’m repurposing what I said at this presentation for a group of young adults, so-called ‘digital natives,’ from church at South Bank. I’m hoping they’ll teach me some stuff about social media beyond the walls of Facebook.

This post will hopefully be something like a bridge from that college presentation to this next one… and hopefully also work as something of a one-stop-shop for where I’m up to with thinking on this stuff. One of the things I love about blogging is the way you can see your own thinking evolve over the passage of time, and hopefully this is equally helpful for people reading along at home.

Anyway.

Here’s the basic idea…

The internet presents fantastic opportunities for Christians to visibly be people who are made in the image of God, broken by sin, while being transformed into the image of Jesus, so long as we understand the medium.

That mix of being being broken by sin while being transformed into the image of Jesus is pretty important if the cardinal virtue of the new media is authenticity. And I think it is.

It’s important for us to understand the mediums we’re using to communicate because whether you think it’s a gross oversimplification – or a meaningless cliche – the medium really is the message. Or, at least, it dictates how the message is received. So we do actually need to be thoughtful about how (and if) we should use different tools at our disposal to proclaim Jesus.

Here’s a clip from Community where a baby boomer gets excited about the opportunities on YouTube. The same opportunities exist on all sorts of platforms, but we’ll work better online if what we do is less baby boomer and more native. That means thinking about the platforms and why and how people use them.

I thought it might be worth distilling that presentation down into these principles, and explaining what you see in the slides a little bit. Some of these points are abstract and theological (rather than practical), so I’ve tried to give the implications of each point as I understand them. So here goes.

1. God is the ideal communicator/media user. And Jesus is the ultimate example of his communication style.

The Christian God speaks. He created the world (by speaking). Somehow the world, as a creation, reflects the creator. Somehow our relating and communicating is a reflection of the relating and communicating within the Trinity. It’d be almost impossible to make any logical jumps from how God operates to how we should operate without believing that God reveals himself accurately as he communicates. God communicates through revelation – in the media of the Bible (including both the content and communication methodology), but ultimately he communicated in Jesus. His word made flesh. And God’s communication in Jesus shapes his communication through his people…

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” – Hebrews 1:1-3

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14

“Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” – John 20:21

Implications: 

  • God made the world, how the world works reflects him.
  • God provides the definition of ‘good’ in all areas of life, including in how we go about communicating to other creatures (other people).
  • We see the best example of his communication, and the easiest to imitate, in the person of Jesus – his life, his manner, his words, his method, and his audience shape our life, manner, words, method and audience.
  • John’s Gospel starts with Jesus, the word, being sent into the world in the flesh, and ends with Jesus sending his people into the world.

2. We were made to communicate like God does, as his representatives.

In Genesis 1 we learn that God creates, speaks, rules, and relates. In Genesis 2 we see God’s image bearers doing the same thing. Bearing God’s image is an active thing. A job. And this job is performed by speaking (in Genesis 2 man names the animals, as God named the things he made in chapter 1). God’s use of living image bearers is one of the big differences between the God of the Bible and the dead idols he triumphs over throughout the Old Testament. Dead gods are represented by dead wood in shapes made by people, the living God is represented by speaking images that he made.

Compare Genesis 1:26 with Exodus 20:4.

“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”

The  ‘image’ in these two passages are different Hebrew words, but the word used in one for sky and the other for heavens above, and the words for earth and water are the same, as is the word ‘make.’ I think there’s a strong link. God’s people are meant to represent God in a similar way to how idols were thought to represent dead gods. Israel weren’t meant to make images because they were meant to be images. Speaking images.

The communication power of images was pretty massive in the Ancient Near East, and in Rome, and whenever the word image appears in the Bible it is riffing off what people understand images to do in those contexts. When we follow Jesus we are transformed by the Spirit to bear his image in the world, as he perfectly bore the image of God.

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” – Colossians 1:15

“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” – Romans 8:29

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18

Implications:

  • Our whole lives communicate about who it is we worship.
  • Social media is all about projecting an ‘image’ to the world (often using images).
  • We can choose to project an image of ourselves, our idols, or the idol of self, or we can choose to represent Jesus, bearing his image, like we were made to.
  • When we speak as Christians we should speak about Jesus and the world God made, as people shaped by Jesus.

3. God communicates by bridging the gap to his audience – especially in Jesus – so we should too.

There are some fancy theological buzz words for this – God makes himself understandable (accommodates) us when he speaks, especially through the process of coming to us, becoming like us and speaking our language (incarnation) – this is what we should be imitating. God is infinite. We are finite. Add up every human thought ever produced, published, and uploaded to the interwebs, and you’re not even getting towards a drop in the ocean when it comes to knowing about God, or the universe he made. Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt famously claimed (perhaps incorrectly) that:

“There were 5 Exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days.”

This means there’s a lot of information out there about the world (and the suggestion is that Schmidt underestimated how much). If you add up the lifespans, and knowledge, of every human who has existed, and will exist, you still get a finite number. And God’s knowledge is infinite… God knows lots about everything that we don’t (and can’t). He especially knows things about infinity – and his infinite self – that we cannot possibly comprehend. In order for us to know anything about God, truly, he needs to tell us in ways we can understand. This is where the concept of revelation fits in. God bridges this gap and reveals himself in his world, by his word, by the Word made flesh (Jesus), and by the Spirit. This is called ‘accommodation.’ God accommodates himself to us most clearly in Jesus, in the climactic act of the story he is orchestrating on the world stage, the ‘incarnation’ – where he becomes human, and knowable, in the ultimate act of revelation – the act that the rest of revelation (the Bible) points towards (and points out from).

If God has revealed himself to us by his Spirit we’re a little closer to the infinite than we were before this happens. We know stuff about God that other people don’t yet. When we speak in this world we need to remember this gap, and do our best to bridge it.

While these words from Paul in 1 Corinthians could sound like a bit of a dodge, moving away from scrutiny, they’re also consistent with the gap between God’s nature and ours, and what is needed to communicate across that gap, as outlined above.

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” – 1 Corinthians 2:13-14

Paul doesn’t say we should leave that person in the dark and wait for the Spirit to do its work, he seems to think the Spirit works through us as we speak, and particularly as we accommodate the people we’re speaking to. It’s interesting to read this chapter in parallel with Philippians 2. Paul seems to be modelling his accommodating approach on the incarnating accommodation of Jesus.

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

He goes into this ‘accommodating’ thing more in his second letter to the Corinthians.

“… we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 4:2-6

Implications:

  • Jesus used the medium people in his day used (he spoke – but he also demonstrated his message through action, and symbols (like the Lord’s Supper), using the language of the people he spoke to (Aramaic), the genres they were familiar with (parables and sermons), and adapted his message according to who he was speaking to.
  • Jesus words were backed up by his life. He lived a persuasive life. Our conduct backs up our message – our conduct, thanks to social media, is more visible than ever before.
  • We should aim to communicate with people where they are at, and try, as much as possible given the gap between how we see and understand the world and how those we are communicating understand the world, to “go native.”
  • Accommodation will include understanding the mediums we use to communicate with these people, how people use them, and what these mediums do to shape the messages (and messengers) they carry, and communicating accordingly in ways that commend and fit our message.
  • We need to present the unchanging Gospel in ways that are consistent with how the people we are speaking to use the mediums we adopt.
  • Our communication should be us generously offering what God has given to us to others. We are giving something to the people we speak to.

4. God communicates by subverting the mediums he adopts. So we should too.

If the ‘incarnation’ – the word becoming flesh – is God’s ultimate piece of communication, the ultimate part of this ultimate piece of communication is the cross (and the resurrection). The Cross reveals God’s ethos – God is a God whose character is defined by costly other-centred love. The Cross was a communication medium – it was used to declare the weakness of the crucified, to humiliate them while celebrating the might of the Roman empire. Jesus turns the Cross upside down. Paul arguably does the same with first century oratorical conventions. The Christian message is subversive. When we ‘accommodate’ and ‘incarnate’ we are also ‘subverting’ – this is consistent with what the genres adopted in the Bible do to other texts in their categories, from Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament to Gospels in the New. It’s this subversion, shaped by (and including) the content of our message, that will make it hard for people to accept the Gospel. For Paul, this meant living out the message of the Cross, being beaten, bloodied, humiliated and scarred – and owning that as part of his testimony about the ‘foolishness’ of Christ in the face of first century oratory that celebrated the perfectly sculpted orator’s body and the fusion of the schools of philosophy and rhetoric. Paul is the anti-orator. But in being the anti-orator, he is also being an orator. It’s a paradox. One we also have to wrestle with.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong… And so it was with me, brothers and sisters… When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. – 1 Corinthians 1:18, 27, 2:1-5

Implications:

  • Jesus becoming human is a model of drawing near to the people we want to reach, Jesus being executed on the cross shows that this drawing near should cost us something and provide a benefit to the other.
  • Our participation in any communication mediums – including social media – should be shaped by the Cross.
  • It should be loving, costly to ourselves, for the sake of the people we are trying to reach.

5. Media platforms are not neutral tools, they bring message shaping ‘myths’ to our communication, which in turn shape their users.

These ‘myths’ are what we should be subverting.

You can read more about this stuff in this massive series on what social media use does to our brains. Communication mediums are like any tool – they shape the people who wield them as we use them to do stuff. Consider the arms of a builder using a sledge hammer vs the arms of a builder using a jackhammer. Tools shape us. It’d be naive to think that we (individually and collectively) aren’t changed when we make the switch from using largely oral communication to written communication, or changing from written communication with a high cost of production that is difficult to distribute to the almost frictionless publishing of the online world.

A ‘myth’ in this sense is the stories surrounding the platform, which provide implicit ‘values’ for the messages the medium carries – so, for example, with Facebook the myths are about friendship and connection. Facebook also uses an algorithm to control what people see or don’t see – this algorithm is a pattern based on these ‘myths’ and it completely shapes our experience of Facebook without most of us being aware.

These myths shape our communication – so they shape our thinking directly (inasmuch as our thinking is shaped directly by communication), and indirectly (inasmuch as we are shaped by the tools we use).

I think the Bible has some good stuff to say about worldly myths when it comes to communication – given, especially, that the New Testament was written into a time where arguably the greatest propaganda machine that has ever existed – the Roman Empire – was defining the way media happened (and Christian media words like “Gospel” and “preaching” had meanings for first century audiences that were being subverted).

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – Romans 12:2

Some of the values and ‘myths’ our communication platforms contain will be expressions of the function as image bearers of the living God that all humans still have so we don’t necessarily have to turn every communication platform upside down in order to use them, but we do have to be aware of how and why a medium/platform works to use it well.

Implications:

  • If we are trying to decide whether to use or subvert a medium we should ask questions about the ‘myths’ or embedded values mediums/platforms contain, and the patterns these values create.
  • We need to know how mediums work so that our messages will be seen by the people we’d like to see them.
  • The Gospel of Jesus, with its ’embedded values’ that renew our minds, is the story that shapes us as communicators into living communication mediums. This trumps all other mediums/myths.
  • What these mediums do to us as we use them is part of the cost of communication that we should be prepared to wear in order to reach people.

6. Social media platforms are ‘social’ and they are ‘media’

Most people who get social media wrong (in my opinion – and by most objective measures of effective use of a medium) fail to take the dual nature of new media into account. It’s there in the name. Social Media is both ‘social’ – built around person-to-person relationships in networks, and ‘media’ – a public and permanent form of communication. If you’re not a stickler on your privacy settings (and even then – thanks to the way people can copy, record, screenshot, and share the stuff you post beyond your intended audience), when you post stuff online it’s a form of broadcasting/publishing. While you might post stuff to your friends on a platform like Facebook, every friend who joins in a discussion on one of your posts is potentially broadcasting the conversation to all of your mutual friends and most of their friends. That’s essentially how the Facebook algorithm works (though it is tweaked constantly).

If you’re talking to your friends online it’s worth remembering that it’s possible that you’re talking to your friends through a megaphone in a public park. Most people might not be interested in listening, but they don’t always have a choice. This is truer still on platforms like Twitter where the privacy settings are almost non-existent. And on blogs. The implications of this are that while the stuff you post may have an intended context when it comes to people you know, what you say can very quickly be shared beyond that context. An example – probably far removed from the experience of anyone reading this, is how much the mainstream media is now relying on tweets for their coverage of major events and human interest stories. Twitter is the new vox-pop. It’s handy for journalists because they can pick people based on their level of expertise, number of followers/retweets, or proximity to events.

Broadcast media from a central authoritative voice is dying. Authority is being determined by the market – the stuff that is shared and ‘viral’ rather than by expertise. This is good for those who want to publish stuff who didn’t originally have the platform, but it is bad for expertise (and expertise is important). Experts need to publish for themselves, and figure out how to get their content distributed through networks.

Media distribution used to look like this:

broadcast

 

 

 

Now it looks like this.

social

 

Those graphics are flogged from Tom Standage’s TEDx talk promoting the excellent Writing On The Wall which explores how this shift in media is a return to how the media worked prior to the mass media – suggesting that it’s mass media with distribution power in the hands of the few that is a relative anomaly once societies become literate.

Implications:

  • Don’t post stuff on social media that you don’t want broadcast to the world.
  • Because it’s media and you have a message you have to think a bit like someone being interviewed by a journalist (or all the people seeing your stuff). So stay on message – or at least avoid doing or saying things that undermine your key message. Which is the Gospel.
  • When you do post stuff, be aware that the whole world could be watching on have the audience beyond you initial audience in mind (and so, provide context for people who don’t know you, where possible).
  • When you want stuff to spread, don’t act as a ‘broadcaster’ – social media is two-way, it celebrates user generated content not stuff that feels corporate. Post stuff as a real person, to real people, with a view to ongoing relationship and conversation – not as some sort of robot.
  • Credibility is hard to achieve and easy to lose.

7. Social media platforms are ‘democratised’ media – they make everybody a potential reporter, an editor, or a curator.

Broadcast media as we know it is dying. Most of the obituaries point to the Internet, and the changing patterns of media consumption, as the killer. I think it’s also partly that our broadcast media is really terrible. Generally. And one of the ways it’s terrible is that it’s a completely one way street – and they’ve invited their demise by turning to social media to suddenly make media consumption two-way (think hashtags during Q&A, or tweets during reality TV). This trend is known as ‘democratisation.’

The word ‘democratised’ is a buzzword that describes a few concepts that distinguish social media from broadcast media. It captures these ideas.

  1. Everyone is free to publish online – publishing is free, or cheap (in the case of a blog).
  2. What people see (and where people are going to see things) has now been taken out of the hands of the publisher and put in the hands of algorithms like Google’s search tool and Facebook’s news feed. Google will doubtless be working harder and harder to include social ‘juice’ in their algorithm to deliver more intuitive results.
  3. User generated content has somehow gained traction at the expense of expert generated content and content generated by large corporations. Authenticity is the cardinal virtue of the social media world.
  4. Authority comes from the crowd – via recommendations directly sourced, and through user-generated platforms where content is created and reviewed by the masses (eg wikipedia, airbnb, Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon, Yelp, Beanhunter, etc).
  5. We participate in this new media world whether we know it or not – everything we share, like, interact with, and view, is monitored and used to shape the internet we, and our friends, see. We all have an audience.

Here are some handy facts about how this works. This is largely about Facebook and comes from a video called ‘A World Without Facebook.’

content

audience

The algorithms Facebook use influence our ability to effectively report, edit, and curate. They’re stuff to be aware of when it comes to the content you share. The algorithm changes all the time – but it basically measures how connected people in your network are to you (how often they interact with you), and how popular a particular post is. The algorithm is getting smarter all the time and Facebook is focused on serving up ‘high quality’ items. Posting lots of stuff nobody cares about is a way to guarantee Facebook will stop serving up your stuff to your friends. Maybe think about how often you interact with different sorts of posts and avoid the ones you tend to avoid.

Implications

  • The average person posts three things a day in their newsfeed, the average user with an average number of friends has up to 390 pieces of content they could be seeing any time they log in. It’s a noisy world. If you want people to meet the authentic, Gospel shaped, you and hear what you have to say you have to figure out how to grab attention amidst all this noise. Probably it will involve paying attention to others, and responding like a person who loves them (and actually loving them).
  • Genuine generosity or ‘providing value for free’ is at the heart of most advice about social media success.
  • There are fun studies out there on what happens to your newsfeed when you like everything, or like nothing, that suggest the more genuine you are in your interactions online the better the experience.
  • Be generous and genuinely other person centred on Facebook and you’re simultaneously winning and subverting the Facebook game.

8. Social media platforms are limited

Social media is ‘cheap’,  disembodied and pixelated, and word/verbal heavy (in the old way of talking about communication – it’s logos driven).

It doesn’t take long for a horrible use of a new tool to follow the invention of a tool. Historically horrible uses of tools have driven innovation – the porn industry is responsible for massive technological change, as is military research. Trolling. Cyber-bullying (really, just bullying). Horror stories about adults grooming kids. Phishing scams. Vigilante name and shame campaigns exposing people who are actually innocent as criminals. Doxing. It’s easy to see the very obvious failures of new media (old media isn’t much better – just google “phone hacking scandal” to see a prime example of pretty horrible stuff being done in the name of ‘media’). But social media has some pitfalls for the rest of us too.

Even when we accept the premise that our communication in person is ‘mediated’ – as in, we choose how we present ourselves and communicate our thinking to another party – a significant portion of our communication (and our ability to receive communication via our senses) is non-verbal. This means communication online is mostly words (we can do videos and pictures as well), it’s disembodied. Our communication is mediated by pixels. It’s disincarnate – by nature. Moving away from costly relationships and into the frictionless online environment is a move in the opposite direction to the example Jesus gives in becoming flesh. This said, God obviously values communication via text (and other mediums), that’s why we have the Bible – his written word (and why it calls us to live in ways that communicate things about who he is through our ethics, structures, and sacraments).

Part of the myth of social media is that it’s free – or cheap. Which gives messages carried on the medium an implicit value – lower than the value of a plane ticket that brings people together, lower than the value of a posted letter, or a phone call. But these communication forms are still valuable because all communication says something about the communicator valuing their audience. Communication takes time, creativity, effort. It costs. Online communication is also costly in terms of what the use of a medium is doing to the person using it, following the thinking outlined above. This cost is also caught up in the old saying that if you’re not paying for something you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Being on Facebook, or other mediums, comes at a cost to your privacy, to your brain, to your schedule…

It’s worth reading this mega-essay from Michael Jensen on the ABC’s Religion page to get a slightly different view on this question. He cites a whole heap of examples that back up the value of communication via writing, suggesting it is a valuable form of co-creating and image bearing. Which is absolutely true. If participating in social media wasn’t of value then I’ve wasted the 4,800 words I’ve spent on this post so far…

Here’s a snippet from this essay.

“Even when we say that the physical presence of a person doesn’t remove the need for interpretation, it is still the case that we use written texts to substitute for the relative immediacy of physical presence. People have of course been using social media for centuries. What is a letter but the use of a written text to mediate the presence of one person to another? And ancient writers had noticed the power of a written text to convey presence-in-absence. Psalm 119 is an extraordinary encomium to the torah, verging perhaps on blasphemy, since the words and commands and precepts and statutes are themselves praised to the highest. But since the divine word conveys – or even substitutes for – the divine presence, this logolatry is perfectly in keeping with Hebrew monotheism.

The epistolary form that so dominates the New Testament canon brings this issue of presence-in-absence to the fore. Paul repeatedly pours himself into his words, keenly feeling the pain of physical absence because of distance and because of the chains of his imprisonment. In 1 Corinthians 5:3, he writes, “though absent in body, I am present in spirit”…

For Paul, the point of being present in body is not as if somehow to remove the need for hermeneutics – it is, rather, ethical. This conveys a hermeneutical advantage, but does not remove the need for hermeneutics. What I mean by that is the fact that Paul reminds the churches of his physical presence, and yearns to be present with them again, is a testimony to his integrity and affirms his love for them. It was not only his words, but his observed manner of life in connection to those words – in imitation of Christ – that establishes his apostleship, and proves his sincerity of motive. He reminds his listeners of his costly service of them and of the way in which he supported himself financially when he was with them.

What Paul reminds us of here is that bodily creatures delight in their proximity to other bodily creatures. The physical presence of another person comforts and stimulates and enlivens us in a unique way. If it were not so, then death would not worry us: we would just read what the dead person wrote. Paul’s chains, and his fear of his impending death, do concern him because he will not be able to be present alongside his words so as to confirm and entrench them. It is he who will write, “now we see through a glass darkly; then we will see face to face.” Nevertheless, his words can – effectively if not completely – mediate his presence to his first readers, and beyond them, even to contemporary readers. Logos can, by the powers of recollection or imagination, supply the missing pathos and ethos.

Ultimately, in fact, Paul’s ministry was about the temporary absence of Christ, and about the way in which his presence could be mediated – by the Spirit, received by those who believed the preached Word of God.”

This is great stuff. I’ve edited out a few of the Biblical references because that quote is already too long… But while I agree that text is a “substitute for the relative immediacy of physical presence” that can “mediate the presence of one person to another” – it’s not a two way mediation. It only works that way for the person receiving the text. And the best ‘social’ media (indeed the best of any ‘communication’ – if it is an act of communion between two parties) is two-way. I think that’s what John captures when he writes this (and he writes something that is essentially identical in 3 John).

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. – 2 John 1:12

Implications

  • Social media is disembodied ‘logos’ driven communication, which makes ethos (and other context people use for interpretation) largely invisible – when we use these platforms we need to provide this context in our words.
  • A good rule of thumb given the limitations of written communication is to write with clarity, while reading with charity. Give people what they need to understand you, read people in the most generous possible way and ask for help understanding what they’ve said.
  • While we interact with other pixelated avatars online, there’s a person on the other side of the screen.
  • The best communication – modelled on the incarnation of Jesus – is costly, and moves sacrificially from disembodiment to embodiment. Communication via pixels is easier than communication via blood, sweat, and tears.
  • Presence in ’embodied’ communication means the relationship is simultaneously costly/valuable for both parties. In text the cost is paid by the writer in the absent presence of the reader, and the value experienced by the reader in the absent presence of the writer.
  • Text is a great and important way to communicate, especially when we have to be absent. It lasts longer, and, thanks to the Internet, is much less costly to transmit than for any previous generation. Once upon a time text had to be engraved into stone. Printing this post on a printing press would have required plates to be created letter by letter.
  • A good rule of thumb in ‘costly’ communication is to up the cost a step when you’re responding. If someone texts you, ring them, if someone calls you, catch up over coffee, etc. The medium is the message – how we choose to communicate to someone shows how we value them.

9. Social Media has incredible potential for Christians to be the people we are called to be for the sake of the people around us.

This is more conclusion than final point, and this conclusion is the basic position I think we arrive at given the first eight points. Every communication medium has limits. That’s part of our finitude. But the massive opportunities presented by the incredibly low barriers to participating in the new media landscape mean Christians who want to live out our calling faithfully should be seeking to do this online (and offline). Where opportunities present themselves.

Implications:

  • Christians are called to pursue generous, costly, engagement with others, seeing the value of any available medium, but always seeking to become more ‘incarnate,’ in order to both present and live out the message of the Gospel so that our medium and message are aligned.

Here’s where things end up for Abed and Shirley, if you can remember back that far…

I really want to be vulnerable and authentic on social media. To air the dirty laundry, to be human. To be broken. To subvert the paradigm of the curated life. To not live my life through a series of filtered photos of filtered coffee from cafes that I have carefully filtered through the lens of my snobbery.

I truly believe the lack of this sort of vulnerability – there’s plenty of vulnerability that is simply attention seeking – is one of the pitfalls of social media. Everyone looks like they have it more together than me. Incidentally, I crave the same authenticity in real world relationships. For us to be broken and vulnerable – without the fear that such honesty will be weaponised and turned against us. Wouldn’t our churches be more welcoming if people bringing brokenness into the gathering didn’t feel like everybody else had everything completely under control. Bare relational functionality is a foreign concept to so many of those around us who have grown up in broken homes.

So why am I unable to be vulnerable, broken, and authentic online?

Here’s my thesis: authentic brokenness that rises above the virtual clutter will be authenticity that expresses genuine gratitude – anything else is the same self-image promotion we’re trying to steer clear of, just in a different package.

I want authenticity. But I’ve found it almost impossible to be authentically broken in what I post – in fact, I think at times it would be wrong, and self seeking, for me to share my brokenness.

At my very best I sometimes manage to not post quite so much of the ‘my life is awesome’ dross as I feel inclined to do, to moderate what I post mindful of the way it might alienate those who do not have what I’ve been given, who crave it.

I stuffed up recently. I was a bad father, and a worse husband. I was pig-headed, proud, so very broken. I thought “this is a chance for me to publicly flagellate myself for my failings. To be honest. To let it all hang out.” And yet, I didn’t pull the trigger, and I’m confident this was the right decision.

Why?

Because like my brokenness, so much of our brokenness – the really messy stuff – happens in the context of relationships, and some of this story is not mine to tell. It’s ours. In my case this week – it’s hurt shared by my family, and brokenness inflicted on them. It doesn’t serve them to share it. The hurt is not mine to exploit for the sake of my own authenticity.

I’ve been thinking more about Augustine and Luther’s notion of humanity curved in on itself – the idea that every human act, regardless of its apparent external trajectory, is ultimately self-seeking.

Though it might seem like it if you read the Internet, wading through the comments on Richard Dawkin’s website, or the ABC religion pages, it’s not all that complicated to understand what the book of Genesis is all about, its function in the story of the Bible, it accounts for the good but broken world that we live in, it diagnoses my heart, and yours, arriving at the same point as Augustine and Luther… It provides the setting for the rest of the story of the Bible, and of human history, the story that climaxes at the Cross.

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” – Genesis 6:5

This is true for the times we want to attempt such vulnerable authenticity. This ‘curve’ affects even those times that we’re acknowledging that our hearts are curved in on themselves. I’m no more righteous because I acknowledge that I’m broken, I’m just broken in different ways (and maybe slightly more self-aware of that brokenness). Perversely, I might even start to feel pride that I’m much better at being broken than those around me, that I’m much more self-aware. That I am more authentic.

What are we truly expecting when we post stuff about what is wrong with the world? It’s not a humble-brag, it’s the anti-brag. Even in moments of genuine contrition what am I going to do when the supportive comments come streaming in – without all the background on the situation?

How will I respond – how will the person I’ve wronged respond – when comments like these start popping up?

“You’re not so bad…”

“I think you’re great…”

“You’ll do better next time.”

Who does this serve?

Me.

I’ve decided a far better way when it comes to authenticity online is not genuine brokenness – but genuine gratitude.

It’s gratitude that marks out a genuine, not self-serving, response to our own brokenness.

Gratitude towards those around me who stick with me even when I don’t deserve it, and ultimately gratitude towards God. Gratitude to God – who not only made an amazing world with plenty to be thankful for as we enjoy it, but he sticks with us though our natural inclination is to push him out of the picture, to live for my own image and name’s sake, not for his, to join the angry mob shouting ‘crucify him’… He gave his life in exchange for ours. I’m not sure there are any more profound words in the Bible than those from Jesus on the Cross – speaking about the people who put him there. His enemies.

“Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing…”

He’s not just talking about the people standing under his feet as he expires. He’s talking about the finite number of people who will ever exist. He’s talking about me. And you. Everyone. Even though our hearts are curved away from him and towards ourselves.

Do you reckon John Newton would have released Amazing Grace if he knew how his brokenness would be put up in lights (literally, in the days of overhead and data projectors) paraded for so many people in so many places, across such a long period of time, to see? I think he would have. Absolutely. But do you think the song would have anything like it’s power if it was simply a confession of his wretchedness, and not genuine thankfulness in the face of what God did for him at the cross?

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

That’s pretty much the note to be hitting, I think, when it comes to how we live our authentically broken lives – which is, I think, incredibly important for Christians in the social media space, on platforms that are geared towards cultivating and curating one’s preferred self in front of one’s preferred friends.

Richard Schiff, who played Toby in the West Wing, reveals, in this massively comprehensive group interview about the show, just how particular Aaron Sorkin is about actors in his shows sticking exactly to the script. And why.

“I had been used to improvising and even in the audition I was feeling free to rearrange Aaron’s words a little bit, as lovely as they were. I didn’t find out until after I got the part how furious Aaron was at me for doing that. They said, “He was livid. He did everything in his power not to jump down your throat!” I came to realise that Aaron was writing in meter and the rhythm of the language is very important.”

I like that what Toby was for Bartlett in the show was what Sorkin was to Schiff, who plays Toby, in real life.

Like in this walk and talk (broken down comprehensively in this article).

This revelation about Sorkin’s obsession with meter makes one of my favourite little scenes in the West Wing pretty meta. Turns out it’s possibly based in fact too. From the script of Season 4, Episode 13.

“Toby is reading a piece of paper and laughs to himself.

BARTLET
[to Toby] What’s going on?

TOBY
The Chief Justice– wrote a dissenting opinion in Sea Northern v. Arizona,
saying that an association between asbestos and a higher risk of cancer in later
life was insufficient to merit relief.

BARTLET
So what?

TOBY
He… [chuckles] I don’t know how to say this. He wrote it in meter.

BARTLET
A meter?

TOBY
He wrote a dissenting opinion in what I am almost certain is trochiac tetrometer.
Will?

WILL
It is.

BARTLET
What are you talking about?

TOBY
He starts in the fourth graph.

Toby walks up to the podium and hands the paper to Bartlet.

BARTLET
“Fear of cancer from asbestos, fuzzy science manifestos.”

TOBY
A guy just faxed this to Will.

BARTLET
Which one’s Will?

Toby points to Will standing in the back of the room.

TOBY
He is.

Will raises his hand.

TOBY
It’s a loud syllable followed by a soft syllable, which is a trochaic foot,
then there’s four per comma, which is tetrameter.”

Writing/speaking in meter is kind of a running gag in the West Wing. It was there in Season 2, episode 5, as well…

Ainsley Hayes: Mr. Tribbey? I’d like to do well on this, my first assignment. Any advice you could give me that might point me the way of success would be, by me, appreciated.
Lionel Tribbey: Well, not speaking in iambic pentameter might be a step in the right direction.

Sorkin is apparently as fascinated with the rhythm of language as his characters.

He’s big on what words can do together.

“TOBY
You want the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper.

SACHS
Yes.

TOBY
Food is cheaper, clothes are cheaper, steel is cheaper, cars are cheaper, phone service
is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That’s ‘cause I’m a speechwriter and I
know how to make a point.

SACHS
Toby…

TOBY
It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with ‘lowers’ and ‘raises’ there?

SACHS
Yes.

TOBY
It’s called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites
and now you end with the one that’s not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars. And
that’s it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest! One world, one
peace. I’m sure I’ve seen that on a sign somewhere.

SACHS
God, Toby… Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone around here with communication skills
who could go in there and tell them that?”

And then there’s this bit in season 4, episode 1…

MALLORY
Nice job on the speech.

SAM
What makes you think I wrote it?

MALLORY
“We did not seek nor did we provoke…” “We did not expect nor did we invite…”

SAM
A little thing called cadence.

It’s the little things.