Reaching the Unconnected

There’s an interesting report in a local newspaper today here in Glasgow which suggests that half of the households in the city do not have access to the internet. The local library service is trying to give people computing skills and access via community hubs in local libraries.

I’ve long had a concern about a developing digital underclass in society and yet I also lead a congregation which is very much online and which couldn’t really function now without the expectation that nearly everyone involved has access to the internet. That means a wee bit of careful thinking. After all, if we claim to be an inclusive congregation then what does that mean if half the people in the city don’t have access to the primary means of communication that the congregation uses?

Some of my answers to this have changed a little since I first started using the internet in order to be able to reach people.

Here’s a few things I think people in churches need to remember.

  • Friends are the best evangelists for new technology (and most other things too). Getting people to buddy up to learn new skills is one of the most effective ways of getting people online.
  • Tablets and phones are much easier for some people to get their heads around than sitting at a computer. Some people may not even think they have internet access when it may in fact be sitting in their pocket. For a long time, optimising web-pages for mobile access and visibility on smaller screens didn’t really matter in terms of the reach that a website would have. Now it matters hugely. I think  it is more likely that many people will get themselves connected through such devices than by going to sign up for a course at a local library which demands going and sitting at a frightening machine worrying about not being able to type.
  • Churches do need to think about the unconnected. Do they need a champion? Do they need a missionary? Will some congregations specialise in reaching the diminishing group of people who remain unconnected?
  • There are different types of unconnected people. The church should worry far more about those who are unconnected due to issues of poverty or lack of education than those for whom opting out of the internet age is a preference. There is a huge difference between a late middle aged man who runs a company who has simply relied upon his secretary to do all of this in his working life to someone who simply can’t afford a decent phone contract. Some people genuinely need help in order to get online. Others are choosing to be people who will increasingly matter less in society and who will have particular disadvantages. There is little that we can do but to respect that choice but we should not pander to that choice by devising our communication systems around it. For example, we’ve just started an online magazine and there will be those who want to say to me that we shouldn’t do it that way because of those who are not online. My reply to that is to ask them to show me a church where everyone reads a printed out magazine and then I’ll take what they have to say seriously. Print was never a magic bullet and isn’t now. Some people choose not to read what you have to say no matter how you say it.
  • So, it remains my view that the existence of people who can’t access the internet should not prevent churches from using the internet in order to communicate with those who are online. The reality is that vast numbers of people in Scotland don’t read newspapers and have no knowledge of what lies therein.  It just means we need to have some consciousness of those who don’t. I’ve come across a number of people who are very willing to buddy up with those who are not online and who are happy to print out snippets for their friends from time to time.
  • Remember that digital access is a justice issue that should from time to time be addressed by our Church in Society people. But remember – the primary task is to work for greater access, not to limit the use of the internet because of those who have none.  The progressive thing to do is work for digital inclusion not dumb-down or limit effective online ways communicating.
  • Think about where the internet is going. Text is still important online but the truth is, video is snapping at its heels. Remember too the ways in which the web is sneaking into the living room. Many of those who are currently unconnected are going to get their first taste of the web through their tv. That means ever increasing use of video and if people want to reach others in the years that are to come then now is the time to brush up on video skills.

Reclaiming the web

How did it happen?

How is it that when I open up my web browser I automatically open up Facebook?

And how come there’s so little there any more written by the people I know?

How come there is so little there I care about?

Once upon a time the first place I would go on opening up a web browser was my feed reader which aggregated all the blogs I read. I stopped reading it daily a while ago – I can’t even remember quite when. And I stopped reading it because it was no longer filled with things written by people I either know or people whose opinion I cared about.

Today I open Facebook and find one post actually written by someone I know cowering amongst, ten, twenty or thirty links that others have shared. Facebook is well on the way to becoming simply an aggretator of links people other than me are interested in. Although I sometimes read things there that I’m interested in and am far from ready to stop reading it yet, it is holding my attention far less than it used to.

It all feels a lot more corporate than it did. And there’s that cynicism of the internet age – corporate masquerading as your amateur friend.

How are we to reclaim the web? The interconnection between social networks and blogging is incredibly complicated. The truth is, most of my readers come from people retweeting and sharing links pointing to the blog. Do I not want those? More to the point, do I have to put up with everyone else’s links as a price for getting the internet traffic that everyone who creates online craves?

I have to admit to some sadness that quite so many people who once kept blogs have ceased to do so. Blogs are like gardens – they need constant attention or they go to seed. It is probably not that surprising that many people don’t have the patience or the staying power to keep at it. I suspect that the social networks now fulfil the need to share something. The trouble is, the somethings that keep getting shared are more often than not someone else’s somethings.

The internet is still the greatest global experiment in self-expression. Every day we should be asking what we are going to do with it – and not just for our own good but for everyone’s good.

Here’s some cranky ideas that no-one is going to take much notice of that would help in reclaiming the web.

  • Start a blog
  • Keep going on a blog
  • Go back to your blog.
  • Make one post. Then maybe another. Etc.
  • Make it a discipline to answer posts online at source. If you see a blog post then answer on that blog post. Build the conversation then and there. Don’t throw your bread upon the waters of social media.
  • Write without expecting reward. Write without expecting payment. Write without expecting followers. Write for the joy of writing.
  • Be thankful for social media pointing you to where the action actually is rather than thinking your social media stream is the action itself. It isn’t you know, really it isn’t.
  • Stop posting things that you were doing exactly a year ago today. Or two years ago. Or three.  Just stop it.
  • Whenever you post a link – say why it matters to you. Don’t just post it, improve it by a recommendation, a comment or dissent. Say something. Say anything.

I know in my heart this is useless. It feels as though I’m hankering for something that is long past. I might as well suggest we all return to writing with a quill. I am shouting into the whirlwind.

We probably need to see new networks arise where we can effect greater quality control. At the moment, the linkfest on the major networks is starting to feel really depressing. After all, if I wanted to watch random pseudo-corporate stuff streaming past my eyes I’d turn on the television.

The internet promised something more. How sad if it just becomes another dreary stream of what we can’t quite be bothered to concentrate on.