By Paul Chaffee
High technology’s new digital tools are a blessing for faith communities and the interfaith movement everywhere. At the local level, e-mail, websites, databases, and social media are quickly displacing the time and expense of poster production, paper newsletters, fliers, and snail-mail. At the national and international levels, new powers have been vested for those who have been voiceless in the public square, a clear opportunity for NGOs and communities of faith and practice. They have been scrambling to respond: surveys suggest that approximately 250,000 of the 335,000 religious congregations in the U.S. have websites today.
These extraordinary new capabilities are a decidedly mixed blessing, of course. Virtual community is different than living in community with people day-to-day. How we communicate and relate changes when filtered digitally. Our attention span has gone down. Images rather than words tend to get the most attention. In a publication like this, the one-time luxury of text flowing page after page has been curtailed.
Unless you have a highly compelling story and write very well, keep it short if you want to be read. Sound-bites are not limited any longer to television news – Twitter has made it the coolest, quickest way to get attention, all on the strength of content limited to 144 characters. (Yes, TIO has a Twitter account, and we’re still trying to figure out how to take make it useful! It takes time.)
Probably the best advice for religious communicators over 30 years old is to find talented young people in your communities who will help you with the new tools that empower today’s communication and relationship-building. More than providing new skill-sets, they can begin to educate us about the dynamics, all the possibilities, challenges, and limitations, of virtual community. This issue’s “Mobilizing TIO – The Next Generation Takes on Outreach & Social Networking” is the story of how we at TIO are taking this communications/communitarian transformation seriously.
TIO’s theme this month is communications and media. The stories have been written by interfaith digital pioneers, remarkable contributors who recognized the unique opportunities that were opening up and started to take advantage of them for what today we can call interfaith culture. They are courageous, imaginative people with fascinating tales to tell.