In the last hour, I’ve receive multiple text messages about General Assembly, commented on a friend’s Facebook wall, and watched many people – most of whom I don’t know – weigh-in on General Assembly by way of Twitter. And so I asked the world in a Twitter message: “What are your impressions of social media at General Assembly?” Within minutes, I had some responses.
-“I’ve found twitter to be excellent at helping the folks back home follow the business and feel a part of GA” notes Mark Smith, a deacon at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, NJ.
-Leon Bloder, pastor of First Church in Eustis Florida scrunched, “It was amazing 2 have the perspective in real time of ppl who r actually thr in cmtee meetings. it widened the debate.” (and he should be commended for some fantastically creative spelling to come under Twitter’s 140 character limit.)
-Dana Ridgway Slavin tweets, “Although I’m six hours away in a small town in Missouri, I feel as if I’m involved in [real time] in GA because of [Facebook] and Twitter.”
Indeed, both commissioners working in committees and observers in the galleries have been using Twitter and social media in significant ways. Those will only broaden as the assembly meets as in plenary session as the week continues.
On June 11th, a guide entitled, “Using Social Media at the General Assembly” was posted on the general assembly website. The same guide appears in the printed official Program Book of the assembly. In my humble opinion, the guide is beautifully written as it carefully notes how some of the basic values we hold as Presbyterians connect (or not) with social media. It emphasizes the importance of being together in embodied ways without just saying, “NO” or “shall not” about the use of social media by commissioners and delegates. In fact, I believe, social media is becoming integral to the assembly and should be approached as a gift from God.
So, what do the guidelines on social media suggest? (By the way, by “social media” I’m referring to email, texting, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) The statement which appears here [http://ga219.pcusa.org/news/2010/6/11/using-social-media-general-assembly/] begins by claiming that social media “has become a normal and integral part of our lives as a society.” If anyone has big issues with that opening foray, they can send a Facebook message to several of the older members of my congregation who use the platform – if they don’t respond immediately, you might try texting them. Indeed, social media has and is a normal function in our corporate life today.
So if it’s so normal, why did we need a statement in the program book? Well, to put it theologically: because we’re sinners. Or, to put it another way: we can get carried away.
As the statement says, “the guiding principle for using social media at a General Assembly is to be attentive and present to the community gathered immediately around us and to the mysterious and wondrous movement of the Spirit of Christ in this place.” Social media should not take commissioners and advisory delegates away from their calling to be present, to be attentive to the Spirit in their physical location and not just online.
On the other hand, the guidelines also notes the gift and fact that the proceedings of the assembly are being streamed to the world – through GA-hosted video feeds, Twitter, and Facebook. (Think of it as our normal paper reporting structure of 15 years ago, just 100 times faster.) The guidelines don’t say “don’t tweet” but rather point to our polity principles noting one should not be a voting proxy for someone outside the assembly. It also calls for social media users to identify themselves accurately in their profiles, and reminds us all that anything one posts online can be copied and distributed – indeed, all Twitter posts are archived in the Library of Congress.
As I read the guidelines, they aren’t about saying “don’t you ever tweet in a meeting” but rather more like “remember that your tweets aren’t the goal and you should always be present with your colleagues in the flesh, and present to the Spirit in this place.”
All that said, I find it curious that there is no open Internet access in the assembly hall or most committee meeting rooms. Commissioners can access the web-based GA sites and materials, but not the broader Internet, Facebook, or Twitter. I don’t know the full reasons for this decision, but its quite frustrating for this blogger, and surely for some committee members as well. Of course, I also realize Facebook can be an enormous time-suck and attention-grabber rivaling even Robert’s Rules of Order so maybe it’s best commissioners aren’t tempted.
It’s difficult to reflect upon all the effects of social media use at General Assembly in the moment, but it’s safe to say that this and future assemblies are enormously impacted. As social media becomes even more integral to the lives of many of us, the church will need to continue wrestling with how our values connect with those of social media. The social media statement for this assembly is a helpful beginning of the conversation, one which I look forward to continuing (in person or online).
As Michael Gyura, a Princeton Seminary student tweets, “[social media] it’s necessary for the Church to survive. The way our world is communicating has drastically changed. We can fight or embrace it.”
What are your impressions of social media at this general assembly? What are your fears, concerns, joys, or thanksgivings?
-Adam Copeland, Outlook Blogger