Supporting Digital Communities
Are LinkedIn Groups What We Need Today?
by Robyn Lebron
As a member of the “older generation,” I often wonder if we’ve lost the art of true connection. My own accomplishments have all been based on people skills. I believe that developing skills that engender deep relationships is essential in interfaith work. In the age of tweets, hashtags, and texting, these skills may seem obsolete. The ability to spell and string words together, creating a coherent line of thought is also a lost art, it seems, in today’s digital, fast-paced world.
Does that matter? Indeed it does when it comes to interfaith relationships. When we can cross the world in seconds with a simple text, email, social media post, or phone call, it would seem our communication today is better than ever before. In fact, the accessibility to instant, global communication actually brings new issues into play, issues I have explored digitally in a LinkedIn group called Interfaith Professionals (IP).
Sensing the Person behind the Screen
LinkedIn is primarily a site for employers and prospective employees to get to know each other professionally. In 2012 I set up a LinkedIn profile as a networking tool for my books on world religions. The company promotes groups to form and interact within the LinkedIn community, and I joined a group called Interfaith Professionals (IP) in late 2012. It was created by a gentleman who came to realize that he did not have the time required to maintain it and asked me to become the group moderator and manager. At that time there were about 800 members.
I’ve had that role for five years now, and the experience has been eye opening. Ninety percent of the people in IP want some form of “interfaith understanding.” How they see that playing out – their end goal – is part of what they bring to the table. The learning experience for me was embracing the variables involved in moderating a group of this size and diversity.
Participants bring personal experiences they’ve had, good and bad, with religious communities and particular faith practices, which then influences their attitudes and opinions in the digital conversation, the postings we share. The icing on the cake is all the “misinformation” people have been taught, quite innocently, by religious leaders, friends, family, and the media.
Consider, for example, a kind-hearted person, looking for peace and understanding, carrying an invisible “backpack” which holds everything that affects her world view. Of course, on this digital platform, you can’t see her facial expressions or her body language. You cannot hear the emotions in her voice, and you have no idea what is in her backpack. And to make it even more fun, she may not recognize her own backpack!
Sound challenging so far?
We’re not done yet … add the complexity of the English language and the written word and the fact that you can change the meaning of a sentence with a comma or two! Rachael finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” ’The sentence means something very different when you add commas after “cooking” and “family.”
So we have different people with different cultures, language skills, and baggage, coming to an internet site where they know no one, and where they are trying to converse about deep, personal and cultural matters in the 15 minutes they have between work and picking up the kids. We can only hope they will write coherent sentences and use appropriate punctuation. Not to mention not accidentally leaving the caps lock on! (Why are they yelling?!)
YIKES! Could be a recipe for disaster.
Despite these challenges, IP thrived and grew. Many people posted articles or stories, usually to promote the truth sustaining their religion or faith practice; often desperate to teach the world the side of the story not shared by the media because it doesn’t generate ratings.
Others search for answers to the eternal questions about meaning and purpose. One of the beautiful things about online communication is the feeling of anonymity. You can feel “safe” to express things you might not feel comfortable saying to friends or family. You can be a “closet” interfaith champion, even though your family strictly prohibits interaction or exploration of other religions. Or you can openly admit you’re a Pagan, Scientologist, or atheist without the silence or gasps you might get in public. These are the wonderful things about online communication, as long as we remember our “people skills.”
We need to diligently strive to put our hearts and minds into the other person’s shoes. Since we cannot sense their mood or motive in a text message, we need to read the comments with care. Read them more than once if they give pause.
We can’t see them, so we must use our other senses. Tune in to your “highest self.” Remember that every action and comment is made from a deep place. What seems like a hateful comment may come from a place of shame or fear. Ask for clarification, if you’re uncertain. Seek understanding for careless words, knowing we’ve all been there.
I am not suggesting that you agree about everything and become a “Pollyanna.” Disagreement is inevitable. But our tagline on IP is “It’s OK to disagree, as long as you disagree in an agreeable fashion.” In general, the group handles these matters well. Almost everyone tries to be thoughtful and kind, unlike some blog sites. If something is said that comes across wrong, it is my job to go in and request “clarification” and smooth ruffled feathers. Forgiveness and acceptance flow quickly and freely.
In the early days the discussions were lively and the participation was outstanding! Yes, we had a few “trolls” who were trying to convert everyone, but they were quickly reminded of IP’s Guidelines, and if they continued to be disagreeable, they were removed. Thankfully that has only happened a few times in six years. Any time a conflict has to be addressed, it is crucial not to take sides and to remind everyone that we are free to express ourselves … but in an amicable or agreeable fashion.
We also had to come to a consensus within the group over whether to allow “marketing” of a personal nature. Many members have books and or services to offer, so this was a topic worth discussing. I took a poll of members to see if they wanted it to be allowed or not. Not everyone responded, but those who did were unanimous. They wanted to talk and learn and not feel like they were being “sold something.”
So we set up a marketing boundary. You can mention your book or service in a matter of passing conversation, but not in a “sales” type fashion: “When researching for my books, I learned….” versus “My books and seminars are available at this website…”
In the first four years the interaction was consistent and enlightening! People openly shared their thoughts and feelings, and we very quickly became friends. It wasn’t unusual to read someone calling a member “dear” or “my brother” or “sister.” In those early days, it felt like getting together in someone’s home. It was enticing and even addicting, leaving you anxious for the next response.
As with all groups, there have been a few “strong willed” individuals who seem to set each other off and who go on for days. Eventually, I or some other peacemaker would politely ask them to stop beating a dead horse or to continue their conversation privately.
Microsoft Changed Everything Two Years Ago
When Microsoft purchased LinkedIn in 2016, everything changed! Discussions became difficult to follow. Notification of new discussions or comments stop coming to my email. Even new requests to join IP no longer came to me. The format changes have turned LinkedIn into a “professional Facebook” site.
I now have to go in twice a day, every day, making sure people who want to join are accepted and receive the “Welcome” message. I also have to manually go to the main group page to look over any new discussions or topics, since I no longer get notified of new posts. The system is clumsy and not at all conducive to lively discussions.
There are 4,729 members as of September 1, and IP is still growing. I see people from every walk of life and many faith practices joining. It’s hopeful to see so many individuals interested in peaceful coexistence, but disheartening to see that even with increased membership there is reduced participation in discussions. I can only hope that interaction between members is continuing privately.
I have tried several different ways to re-enliven the discussions:
Reposting really good older discussions
Posting instructions on how to find the discussion page
Explaining the difference of an “Article/Post” on the Main LI page and a “Discussion” on Interfaith Professionals’ page
I comment on every new discussion, hoping it will generate responses
I ask members how we could generate more comments.
Unfortunately, nothing has worked, and I can only assume it is directly caused by the changes Microsoft made.
I’m not sure where to go from here. I get new members joining all the time, so I will keep posting and making myself available. For now I have to assume people are joining more for networking and not as much for conversation.
I have come to realize, surprisingly, that not all interfaith individuals know about NAIN (North American Interfaith Network), very few know about URI (United Religions Initiative) and TIO (The Interfaith Observer), not to mention other fabulous groups like Spiritual Playdate, Harmony Interfaith Institute and many more. So now I see my job as one of connecting people to different organizations that will fill their needs or assist them with their personal goals. It’s challenging but important work. Not work for the faint of heart, or for the impatient type. I know from personal experience that with the right, user-friendly format, amazing things happened and can happen again
For someone with old-school training, the move to cyber conversations was a challenge, but very rewarding. When the dust settles, the good old-fashioned rules of kindness, courtesy and awareness of others’ feelings, is as important online as it is in person. We are all in this together, and therefore we must connect and work together in whatever ways we have available to us.
Header Photo: Wikimedia