What is a social network, and why should I care?
"Twitter is what you're doing, Foursquare is where you are, Facebook is who you're with, and Yelp is where you've been." - Dan Messer
Wikipedia, itself an example of the power of crowd-sourced information, defines a social network service as "an online service, platform, or site that focuses on building and reflecting of social networks or social relations among people, e.g., who share interests and/or activities." It goes on to describe similar features of most of these sites: "Most often, individual users are encouraged to create profiles containing various information about themselves.... upload pictures of themselves, ... post blog entries, ... search for other users with similar interests, and compile and share lists of contacts. In addition, user profiles often have a section dedicated to comments from friends and other users."
Ok, I'm intrigued. Where do I start?
Although social sites are numerous and constantly changing, there are some big names you should know. These are among the most commonly used social platforms in academic life and the places where you are most likely to find your students, colleagues, and peers.
Twitter is a microblogging platform, a space to share with your followers (subscribers) "what's happening" in 140 characters or less. In your profile, you can include a picture, your name, your location, a link to your website or blog, and a short (160 characters or less) biographical sketch. There are numerous Christian Twitter accounts where you can follow musicians, pastors, and churches to see what's going on. Some accounts you might enjoy include "Rev Run Wisdom," "Rick Warren," and my friend the "Undercover Nun." Even long-dead pastor Charles Spurgeon has a Twitter account where his thoughts and quotes are shared!
Most academics have heard of Facebook, and many of them have profiles there. It is probably the most used avenue for social networking, having long since surpassed MySpace in popularity. Your students hang out there a lot, making it a good place to interact with them outside of the classroom. Some profs set up course pages to encourage communication, and you can find out what is happening around campus. Keep up with popular culture references and find the people YOU went to high school and college with, too!
Blogs, or "web logs," are best described as online journals. You're reading one right now. Blogs are easy to set up and can be useful for promoting both your personal and professional interests. Share your Christian walk through your posts, then link the address in your Twitter and Facebook profiles. Link to blogs you find inspiring, and comment on them. Blogger, WordPress, TypePad, and other free platforms are easy to set up and maintain. You can use them for free or pay for advanced features and personal hosting.
There are also sites with more specific focuses. For instance, Flickr is designed for sharing photos, LinkedIn highlights professional networking, Ravelry is home to knitters and crocheters, and Goodreads encourages you to recommend and discuss books.
What on earth does this have to do with my faith?
I asked some of my friends this question, and I want to share their insights. Some minister buddies responded with how they use Facebook to promote church goings-on with their members and others in their communities. They use Twitter to share inspirational thoughts and keep in touch with friends, and they use blogs for more in-depth posts. Sometimes they share sermon texts, and other times they ask for input on ideas they're trying to work out.
The inimitable Undercover Nun blew me away with her reply, which I have edited for sharing while trying to leave her excellent points intact.
- Christianity is about relationship, more than anything else. Same with online social media. Social media is about conversation, connection, relationship. If you start out on Twitter/Facebook/whatever, then you need to spend at least as much time reading, commenting, and conversing as you do on writing your own content.
- Personally, I get extremely turned off when all someone does is quote scripture in their feed, especially if they don't interact. [In my opinion,] preaching does far less to win souls than conversation does. There's a reason St. Dominic is more known for his meet-ups and conversations in pubs and marketplaces than for his preaching in great cathedrals.
- When you're keeping relationship or conversation central to your frame of mind, you're closer to the right path.
- Your content needs to not just echo what can be found elsewhere. Add value somehow. That value may be your personal interpretation on churchified stuff, or it might be taking a news story and saying "The Christian POV on this should be..." or "What a Lutheran might say would be..." or it might be progressive or conservative or via-media or something entirely other. But if all you do is parrot other stuff without any part of you, then why should I follow you? I can just go to the sources!
- Developing your own voice is important. It can help to take on a persona, like Real Live Preacher or (God help me) Undercover Nun. Being able to use common caricatures or stereotypes can be helpful. ... This will come with time, and it can change over time, too.
- This is not a once-a-day, low-commitment ministry. It takes time to build relationships, to enter into conversations, to find (and/or create!) sacred space among all the secular stuff online. I believe It's totally worth it, but you have to be regular in posting and reading and conversing.
That's it in a nutshell. Be yourself, be open, be honest, and communicate. Don't just speak, but listen, and respond. Converse. Reach out to your students, your colleagues, and people you've never met. Let them reply to you, and continue the conversation. Provide feedback to others on their blogs and Facebook pages, too. Provoke thought. Share.
"I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ." - Philemon 1:6, NIV