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At the USCCB meeting in Baltimore a month ago, Bishop Ron Herzog of Alexandria, LA, summoned his fellow hierarchs to join the Social Media World. (I’ve posted his talk after the jump, courtesy of Rocco.) There’s plenty of tasty food for thought, though I have to say I’m a little puzzled by the implication that in order to reach all those marginally churched young people, the Church has to get down with Facebook, Twitter, etc. The whole idea of social media is to enable you to connect with the people, places, and things that you want to connect with. How’s a bishop supposed to get the uninterested to check out his Facebook page?
Then there’s that pesky problem that once you do the social media thing, folks tend to think of you as kind of one of them. As Bishop Ron put it:
One of the greatest challenges of this culture to the Catholic Church
is its egalitarianism. Anyone can create a blog; everyone’s opinion is
valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives
expect a response and something resembling a conversation. We can
choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great
peril to the Church’s credibility and approachability in the minds of
the natives, those who are growing up in this new culture. This is a new
form of pastoral ministry. It may not be the platform we were seeking,
but it is an opportunity of such magnitude that we should consider
carefully the consequences of disregarding it.
Looking around diocesan websites, I’d say that at the moment disregarding is pretty much the rule. Take, for example, the Facebook page of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, which the new USCCB prexy himself posts on pretty regularly.
Last week, someone took him mildly to task for departing from Vatican norms by encouraging applause during Mass, and someone else helpful cited the norm in question. I figured it was pretty cool of His Excellency to let the comments stand–evidently not in violation of the posted notice that “Personal attacks and inappropriate comments will be flagged for removal.” But after lingering unanswered for 24 hours or so, suddenly they were gone. Poof! What stays are only the verbal equivalent of kissing the archiepiscopal ring. (“Thank you , your Excellency , The homily was terrific.”) Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Bishop Ron had in mind.
Monday, November 15, 2010
* * *
media: Friend or Foe, Google or Hornswoggle?
Thank you for this time today.
I often hear people, both in my work and in my circle of friends, who dismiss
social media as frivolous and shallow. Who can blame them?
The very words used by the practitioners seem to beg for ridicule. Their
light-hearted twisting of the language suggests that these are the latest fad
in a culture that picks up and drops fads quicker than the time it takes me to
figure out my cell phone bill.
I am here today to suggest that you should not allow yourselves to be fooled by
its appearance. Social media is proving itself to be a force with which to be
reckoned. If not, the church may be facing as great a challenge as that of the
That sounds like more hyperbole, doesn’t it? But the numbers are compelling.
There are more than 500 million active users on Facebook. If it were a nation,
only India and China would have more citizens. The American Red Cross reported
that it raised more than $5 million dollars, $10 at a time, through a text
messaging service. One out of eight MARRIED couples in the United States say
they met through social media. It took 13 years for television to reach 50
million users. After the iPod was introduced, it took only nine months for 1
billion applications to be downloaded.
Pope Benedict XVI calls the world of social media a Digital Continent, with
natives, immigrants, and even missionaries. He encourages Catholics, especially
our priests, to approach this culture of 140 characters and virtual friendships
as a great opportunity for evangelization. We are asked to respect the culture
of these Twitterers and Facebookers, and to engage on their terms to bring
Christ into their “brave new world.”
The opportunities can be incredible. As I stated previously, the participation
in this new form of media is staggering. Media ecologists and other
communication experts cite several reasons for the phenomenal growth:
- a low threshold of investment, both in user knowledge
and finances, especially given its reach
- the opportunity for immediate dialogue and conversation
that transcends geographical and other physical barriers
- and the speed in universal adaption.
me give you one example. The USCCB started a community on Facebook last August.
There are now 25,000 ‘fans’ associated with that community. Every day, USCCB
staff provides at least four items of information to those 25,000 people: the
daily Scripture readings, news releases, links to information on our marriage
and vocation websites, and other information. Furthermore, if those 25,000 are
like the average profile of a Facebook user, they have 130 friends, or
contacts, on Facebook. With one click they can share the information they
receive from USCCB. If only 10 percent of the USCCB fans share what they
receive from USCCB, we are reaching 325,000 people. Multiple times a day. All
it costs us is staff time.
And these are not just young people. Almost half of Americans classified as the
baby boomers – born between 1947 and 1964 – have a Facebook account. Social
media may have started with the younger generation, but it is now a very useful
tool to reach Catholics of all ages.
Although social media has been around for less than 10 years, it doesn’t have
the makings of a fad. We’re being told that it is causing as fundamental a
shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500
years ago. And I don’t think I have to remind you of what happened when the
Catholic Church was slow to adapt to that new technology. By the time we
decided to seriously promote that common folk should read the Bible, the
Protestant Reformation was well underway.
Because it is so different from mass media and mass communication, social media
is creating a new culture on this Digital Continent. Young people use it as
their first point of reference. In other words, they’re not even going to their
email to get information. The news, entertainment, their friends – are all
coming to them through their mobile devices and through their social networks.
The implications of that for a church which is struggling to get those same
young people to enter our churches on Sunday are staggering. If the church is
not on their mobile device, it doesn’t exist. The Church does not have to
change its teachings to reach young people, but we must deliver it to them in a
When the Church does attempt to evangelize the Digital Continent, it has some
serious challenges to overcome. Most of us don’t understand the culture.
One of the greatest challenges of this culture to the Catholic Church is its
egalitarianism. Anyone can create a blog; everyone’s opinion is valid. And if a
question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and
something resembling a conversation. We can choose not to enter into that
cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church’s credibility and
approachability in the minds of the natives, those who are growing up in this
new culture. This is a new form of pastoral ministry. It may not be the
platform we were seeking, but it is an opportunity of such magnitude that we
should consider carefully the consequences of disregarding it.
Secondly, the Church cannot abandon legacy communication outlets while it
invests in the new media. Although the baby boomers may be going to Facebook to
stay in contact with their grandchildren, they still use newspapers, radio,
television and books. Those media have attributes and strengths that social
media does not. Not to mention the fact that most financial donors to the
Church still rely on these legacy media. So the Church needs to continue
investing in those efforts, while also investing in social media.
Finally, if as bishops you acknowledge that social media is not the latest fad,
but a paradigm shift, please accept the fact that your staffs – and perhaps you
as well – will need training and direction. In the past, the church would often
build new parish structures, knowing that people would recognize the church
architecture and start showing up. On the Digital Continent, “if you build it,
they will come” does not hold true. It takes careful strategizing and planning
to make social media an effective and efficient communication tool, not only
for your communications department, but for all of the church’s ministries. We
digital immigrants need lessons on the digital culture, just as we expect
missionaries to learn the cultures of the people they are evangelizing. We have
to be enculturated. It’s more than just learning how to create a Facebook
account. It’s learning how to think, live and embrace life on the Digital
This past month the USCCB Communications Department, at the direction of the
Communication Committee, conducted a survey of diocesan communication directors
which focused on their use of social media and their needs.
An executive summary is available to you on the table outside, and it is posted
on the password-protected website for the bishops. The survey showed that your
staffs have a strong desire to engage new media – only two percent of the
responders say that they personally avoid using social media. But it came
across loud and clear that they want help in engaging. They want to be
enculturated in this missionary world.
I hope you are relieved to learn that, when asked what they needed to use
social media more effectively, they didn’t say more money. They are looking for
staff who are trained – or can be trained – in the use of social media, however.
You may also be happy to hear that they don’t need you to learn how to use
Twitter or Facebook. They do need a vision and leadership from you. Is this
something that is important to you? Is it a tool that they should be using to
reach young people and others who are unchurched? Do you want them to be
developing ways to integrate social media into the diocese’s communication and
evangelization planning? What about fundraising? How much attention should they
be giving social media and how do you want to use it?
Depending upon the skills and experience of your staff, they are also seeking
support from you as they work in social media. This could be translated as any
or all of the following: your affirmation of their efforts, including allowing
discussion/dissension/dialogue on your diocese’s social media; financial
resources for training; and the permission or direction to devote a specific
number of hours of their work week to social media. That final item could mean
a discussion with them about what do they not do to make room for that time in
When the Communication Committee decided to ask for this time on the agenda, we
made it clear to the USCCB Communications Department staff that the
presentation should include not only why it was important for bishops to take
social media seriously, but also what USCCB would provide to help them and
their staffs. The survey provided some direction for us in that regard, but not
as much as I had hoped. When asked to identify the single most important issue
facing them in the area of social media, no clear answer emerged. The two most
common answers were the need for more staffing and resources and the need to
identify how to most effectively use social media.
When they were given a list of seven possible resources and asked to rate them
as being most useful to their diocesan efforts, nearly six out of ten chose all
seven resources as useful or very useful.
What we have been able to discern from these responses is that there is a
realization that, even though many dioceses may be beginning to use social
media, the church’s communication professionals are not devoting the time or
expertise that it deserves.
By committing to ongoing analysis and research, continued compilation of best
practices and guidelines, and education and training opportunities, the USCCB
Communications Department intends to assist their colleagues and to support
your ministry as bishops on the Digital Continent. They welcome the challenge
and hope that we can one day have all of you as our friends on the USCCB
posted by Rocco Palmo at 19:53