Tag Archives: internet

Book review: Posting Peace, Douglas S. Bursch

Posting Peace: Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It by Douglas S. Bursch (InterVarsity Press, 2021) is a timely book with some extremely useful ideas and some disappointingly weak argumentation. The main aim of the book, which is to explore ways in which we can be more peaceful on social media, is an important one and by the end it has some useful, spiritually grounded and sensible suggestions. (By the way, I was sent a free copy of the book in return for this review by Speakeasy – what follows is my honest opinion.) 

If this book was a cake, it would have some delicious icing in top, a boring but adequate Victoria sponge middle layer, and the bottom would be an unpleasant soggy mess of cold porridge or boiled cabbage. When you eat a cake, you can pick the icing off the top and leave the rest, and that’s what I would like to suggest readers should do with this book. However, the soggy bottom layer is strongly present throughout the first half of the book. It has twelve chapters, and it improves rapidly after chapter 5, with the best bits starting at chapter 8. Let me take you through the three layers so you can see for yourself why I describe it this way.

Assumptions, generalisations, and lack of evidence

A charitable reading of what happened to the first part of this book might say that it must have been written in a hurry and without access to good library resources. The textual evidence suggests it was completed after the beginning of the pandemic and before the election of Joe Biden, so this is a fairly likely scenario. However, the unfortunate fact is that the author is very prone to making claims which might be true, and seem like ‘common sense’ from some perspectives, but which are not necessarily true and for which no evidence is provided. They appear throughout the background narrative which sets up this book: a story of change, a story of how technology made everything worse, and in particular how people’s cognitive and social skills are affected by the use of technology. There are lots of examples but I’ll run through three to give you the idea.

Page 25: “Television limited our attention spans, weakened our reading capacities, and shifted our focuses to visual stimulation over an auditory focus.” 

No citation or other evidence is provided for this claim. It might even be true, but how would we know for sure? I like to watch TV but I also have the reading capacity to, err, read and review this book, so it obviously didn’t completely change what’s possible. Did the whole population really have an auditory focus before? Maybe they did to the extent that they were used to listening to the radio, but films and photography also existed, and visual art, forms of drama, and storytelling all go back as far as we can trace human history. I won’t even touch the thing about attention span, which depends a lot on the individual, the task, and the situation, and I’m not convinced is shaped much at all by the medium involved. 

Page 28: “Although not everyone uses social media, the societal consequences of social media affect every person. What becomes normalized in our social media practices becomes standardized in our marriages, families, and friendships.”

This seems plausible at one level, but no evidence is given, and it’s easy to construct the opposite case. Context matters to human learning and communication – as people find out when they realise they know a word in their target language when using Duolingo, but can’t remember it when they try to use it in a sentence. Normal social behaviour in one context is not normal in another – if the way I act on social media is going to become normal in my marriage, why doesn’t it go the other way? But I’m pretty sure that I, and all the other married people I know, behave differently when alone with our partners to the way we behave online. Every day, most people also manage to behave differently and appropriately in lots of other settings, even on different kinds of social media. I don’t put the same things on my work Slack and my Twitter feed, and I don’t answer an email from my grandparents the same way I answer an email from a professional contact. That being so, it seems like this sentence and others like it were added to the text to build up the stakes and make the topic of this book seem important – but I think the people it’s for already knew that it mattered. If anything, a description of the positives of social media, explaining why it’s useful and interesting and fun and why people (especially Christians, given the wider focus of the book) should engage with it rather than distain it, might make this case in a more convincing way. And it might be easier to provide evidence for that.

Page 38: “Before humans had tremendous transportation mobility and almost unlimited access to numerous social networks, we were more likely to learn how to abide in functional ways with our families, neighbors, churches, and local communities. … If we got into a conflict with our neighbors, we had to learn how to reconcile. Otherwise, we would find ourselves alone.”

I’ve skipped a few sentences from this paragraph of fantasy about the past, but I think this is enough to give you the picture. I have two major questions about this whole idea. One is: when, exactly, is this? Fifty years ago before the internet? A hundred and fifty years ago before cars? Writing is about five or six thousand years old, and the oldest known boat is about eight thousand years old, so about nine thousand years ago before those technologies helped people travel and communicate more widely? The other is: at any point in all that history, were people actually good at this? Could it be that over history, a lot of people have lived in dysfunctional communities, been treated badly by their families and alleged friends, wanted to leave home and start a new life, been left alone or killed, and found ways to connect with people who shared their interests rather than their geography? Of course, both of these things can be true. Some people in the past have done amazing reconciliation work – and some are doing that work now. Others have been alone, or worse – executed, imprisoned, transported, tortured – because they were in conflict with others around them. Relevant to another aspect of this book, about two thousand years ago a preacher is said to have been tortured to death by a colonial government.

Vague mainline Protestant theology

The aforementioned preacher, usually in his more theologically laden guise as the Risen Christ, is mentioned a lot and gets a small amount of explicit discussion in this book. I think this divides potential readers in three groups. If you are a theologian looking for a robust discussion of the theology of social media, this book makes a start but it’s likely to leave you hungry for more, because the reconciling work of Christ is the context for reconciliation work between human beings rather than the main event. If you are not a Christian but interested in how to improve social conditions on social media, the background assumption of Christianity might confuse or annoy you. That leaves the target audience at people who are happy to assume a shared Christian background and want to consider social media use in that context – probably a large section of the American book-buying public, so a reasonable decision in that context.

To my mind, the discussion of theological issues is largely uncontroversial within a Protestant Christian context. The most interesting part is the account of Bursch’s own spiritual experience as a chronically ill teenager, where he does a good job of expressing his connection to the God and misses another opportunity to talk about the benefits of internet use. (See page 83, where he lists texts, Snapchat, and Zoom among other technologies now available – I was a teenager with a chronic illness in 2000-2005, and getting online was one of the best things that happened to me.) He also talks about Paul’s conversion and themes of reconciliation in the Gospels, with a few standard comments about the cross and some more interesting reflections in the final chapter on how Jesus handled crowds. This material is the boring but adequate sponge cake part. Unlike the unsupported claims I discussed in the previous section, the theology does do what Bursch needs it to do to hold up the rest of his argument.

Bringing reconciliation to the internet

I think there are four helpful contributions which readers might take away from this book – the icing on the cake. Those contributions are:

1. Trolling as a verb, not a noun

Bursch doesn’t deny the existence of various forms of trolling behaviour, and he’s happy to accept that there are times when the right thing to do is to block or mute people. His reasoning goes beyond avoiding hurt, though, to say that by blocking someone who is hurting us we also do them a favour, preventing them from continuing to sin by hurting us. He argues that we should avoid labelling individuals as trolls because this is dehumanising and suggests that they can’t change; identifying specific trolling behaviours is more productive – so “don’t enable trolling” rather than “don’t feed the trolls”. Of course, some people self-identify as trolls when they choose to embrace trolling as a practice, but in general I think this is a fair point. It doesn’t make trolling okay but it may change how we respond or how we feel about the situation, especially if we can see our own potential to hurt others reflected in the hurtful behaviour we see around us. “When we view them [people who troll] as humans, made in the image of God, making terrible decisions, we can see how their behavior is also expressed in and through us.” (page 135)

2. Contextual awareness and the refusal of simplistic rules

A lot of advice – about anything, but especially about newish things like the internet – is framed a lists of apparently simple rules. Never this, always that. This has its place but isn’t always productive, often depending whether you agree with it or not – only the Sith deal in absolutes, as Obi-Wan Kenobi reminds us. Bursch is at pains to avoid giving “a set of laws” but instead offers “five questions I try to keep in mind during every online interaction” (page 118). These deal with motivations, priorities, and grace – number 5 is “What is the Spirit Saying?” To me as a Quaker reader, his emphasis on asking God and listening for answers is intensely familiar and seems practical. “Asking God a yes or no question [‘God, do you want me to post this?’] might seem odd to some,” he writes, “but I find a clear resolve rises up in my heart when I intentionally stop to inquire of God’s will.” (page 125) That allows for a wide range of responses to different situations, and takes into account your needs and as much as you can know (maybe more, depending on your understanding of prayer) about the needs of others. It doesn’t prejudge what the Spirit will say. Nor does it make claims about correctness: God can want you to refrain from arguing even when you’re right, and want you to articulate your perspective even when you’re wrong. 

3. Emphasis on giving humanising responses (even though it sometimes provokes further attack)

Bursch’s approach is not conflict-avoidant – it sets out to create opportunities for reconciliation by trying to remember the human. He gives some nice examples of this, including some where the person he is trying to reconcile with responds by doubling down on an attack. I think peacemakers will recognise this from other situations (not everyone is ready for peace or justice; not everyone is in a position to respond humanely), but it’s useful to be reminded that this is a part of trying to do the right thing, not a route to sweetness and loveliness all round, and it will be difficult and painful at time. His focus is on responding in a way which is caring, even when he disagrees: “when we participate in the most meaningful discussions, we demonstrate that we genuinely care about the individuals having those discussions.” (page 155) This is another place where he does begin to articulate what is good about social media – it’s an opportunity to join in and to show what you care about. For Bursch, that includes social justice and peacemaking.

4. Practical suggestions and a hashtag for community building around this theme

Throughout the book, Bursch suggests exercises, often including using the #PostingPeace hashtag, which might help readers build a more peaceful online community. He doesn’t suggest that this will be easy or even that we will succeed. “It’s hopeless. We’re doomed. The internet is too powerful and social media is too corrupting for any of us to make a difference. Social media forms us into really divisive, dehumanising, cantankerous people.” (page 164) But this position will be familiar to anyone who takes a stance in favour of an ideal – pacifists, campaigners for equality, etc. – and I don’t stop thinking that war is bad just because I don’t succeed in stopping them all (or probably any!). Instead, as Bursch puts it, “we seek first the kingdom of God, wait upon the Lord, and allow God to set the agenda of our online communication.” (page 171) 

I agree with Bursch that we as individuals, or even all the readers of this book or this blog, are unlikely to be able to change the tone of general internet conversations, but we can do our best to exist peacefully and justly online as in the rest of life. And some things might even catch on.

Overall, I found this book thought-provoking. I would recommend giving it a careful reading, alert to what is supported with evidence and what is assumed to be obvious, and looking for how it can be useful.

An Online Year

At about this time, it’s traditional to post round-ups of the year, top ten thises and best of thats. Thinking back over 2020, however, my top tens would mostly be of bad or boring things (top three moments when I wondered whether a loved one would die… top ten times I said “maybe we can do that after the pandemic”… top fifty films I have seen before and we watched again…). Instead, I’d like to share some reflections on something which has been comforting and familiar this year: the internet.

2020 is the second time in my life that I have put almost all previous activity aside and turned to the internet instead. This time it was different because everyone was doing it, but in many ways there were strong similarities to the previous time, when I was a teenager with a chronic illness who couldn’t cope with attending school physically. (I’m not going to discuss the details of the diagnosis, because my considered opinion is that it was a medical term for ‘dunno’.) At first I was too ill to do much of anything, but as I recovered internet access became one of my key learning tools. I also had home tutors and used paper-based distance learning, and later attended some lessons in person, but of course once I was online I didn’t restrict myself to the lessons which arrived by email. I read webpages and joined php forums about my special interests at the time (for which, besides my diagnosis, you can mainly read fandoms: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, M*A*S*H…). For an awkward and frequently lonely teenager who was much more comfortable with writing than in-person interaction, those opportunities were a real gift.

Looking back at 2020, I can see some of the ways in which my earlier experiences, of which that period of illness was an important one, prepared me to cope with what happened. Pivoting everything to online felt more like going home than entering new territory. I agree that working on Zoom isn’t the same – and video conferencing was not dreamt of in my dial-up teenage days when a video could take hours to download! – but the increased ease of connection more than makes up for the loss of some body language in many circumstances (especially because I often miss or misread body language anyway, so I find it helpful that everyone knows it’s missing and can choose to provide the information verbally if they want to). And the wider increase in online activity, especially the rise in interactions on social media, has generally been good for me. As an author, I’m working on building a online audience, and although book sales haven’t been huge this year the number of people reading my blog has been steadily climbing. (Hi! Welcome!) For me, one of the challenges in 2021 may be to maintain that. 

As well as my teenage illness, years of studying primarily from home set me up well for working from home. For my taught MA, and even more for my PhD, I had some in-person meetings, but spent the majority of my time self-directed, reading, writing, thinking. The kind of work I do now for Woodbrooke – teaching, supervising research students, planning conferences, and so on – mostly fits well into that model. For most of this year, I’ve been working three days a week, or in fact spreading that time over five or six days (we try and teach when people are likely to be available, so there’s always some evening and weekend work). For the other two days, or in fact for a couple of hours every morning, I write. In 2020 I finished a book – Hearing the Light will be out in September 2021 – and started work on three others. 2020 was not a great year for research, although I did manage to get back to using libraries by the autumn, but it may have been a good year for developing ideas. I reserve final judgement on that until I see which seeds actually grow! There’s plenty of work to do next year.

Familiarity isn’t always good, of course. I think I’ve been worse this year at contacting friends directly. I’ve enjoyed spending time online but I’ve missed travel (especially reading on trains). I’m lucky to be well set up with somewhere nice to live, that I’m happy to spend time, but it can be stifling. I’ve enjoyed spending a lot of time with my partner, but have missed seeing some others (especially family and friends who live at a distance). And a bunch of bad as well as good stuff has happened in my offline life.

And for the record, here are the top ten most read posts on my blog in 2020 (not all, but most, published this year):

Is a bit of quiet Quaker worship?

Five Reasons Quakers Can Celebrate Christmas

Asexuality, Aromanticism and Quakers

Liberal Quakers and Life After Death

The Internet Is Real

Being a World Quaker

Ethics and Other People’s Words

Quaker Marriage: Couple, God and Community

Quakers Do What! Why?

Quaker Values as a Unifying Force

I look forward to seeing you all online in 2021 – and perhaps a few people in person. And I’m making some notes about possible blog topics for the year so let me know if there’s something you’d like me to write about!

A shrinking and expanding world

At the moment it seems that my world is paradoxical: both shrinking and expanding, both suddenly moving freely where I was pushing and grinding to a halt where it previously moved easily. Here are some observations.

Shrinking. In lockdown, I have shrunk my world to the places I can walk to. I don’t drive, and although I would use public transport if my journey was essential, it hasn’t seemed necessary. I have been sleeping in the same bed for three months – highly unusual for me, because usually I travel or stay away from home for work perhaps once a month on average, and travel for pleasure as well. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why and I’m not in a hurry to change back again, but that doesn’t make it any less strange. 

I’m glad I can walk to leafy green places. It’s good Druid practice to focus on a small area and get to know it well, watching the seasons pass the same few trees and the flowers come and go in the same patch of grass, and spiritually, I’m enjoying that opportunity. But practically that shrinking has other effects. I’m much more aware than I was before of the extent to which I live in an area which is short of local shops. We do have some options, but using the closest places often comes with costs I think of as part of the ‘poverty tax’: being charged to get cash from a machine, paying extra over supermarket prices, not being able to get much fresh food. One of the key options is delivery – but getting an organic fruit and veg box every week has a very different class tone.

Out for a walk in the park with these local geese and their goslings.

Expanding. Everyone knows that online activity is dramatically increased overall. We can all see why – and we know that those who aren’t able to access the internet are very differently affected by the pandemic. For me, the general increase in online activity has resulted in some strange interactions; I’ve been getting friend requests and other contacts on social media sites I haven’t actively used for years. And on Facebook in particular, I’ve been getting a drastic increase in traffic, much of it from other parts of the world. 

Very little of it seems to be malicious or machine-produced; these are contacts from real people, often from countries where I have a small number of existing contacts, who are reaching out. It’s not necessarily a deep contact – you don’t actually need to message me to find out the weather in England, although I can tell you about that – but it is generally authentic. I enjoy talking to new people, especially when I can do it in controlled ways; I have had to review my limits on this, and now accept a maximum of 50 new friends a day, and only answer Facebook messages for half an hour in the morning. Otherwise this expansion could shut everything else out of my life!

Slowing down. I don’t know if this is true, actually, but it feels like I’m writing more slowly. Most of my projects are at stages where they need time – either to wait for someone else to do something (like copy edit the manuscript of my third Quaker Quicks book, or decide whether or not they want to publish my next novel), or because I need thinking and reading time for projects which are in development (like a fiction project which needs plot ideas, or an academic book project which needs background reading). I’m trying not to be impatient with others or myself, but I’m… not very good at that.

For a change of pace I took control of some of my own process and have been publishing poems on Instagram – a bit of expansion to balance the slow feeling!

Speeding up. Some things which have seemed like a good idea for a long time are suddenly mainstream. They might not stay there, of course, but for the time being this seems to me to be something worth noting and encouraging. I have a few examples in mind. The first one is the way in which the Black Lives Matter movement is succeeding in some ways and places. There is masses of work to do, and some of it is starting. I’m seeing more discussion, more sensible involvement and action from white people, and changing attitudes – people who wouldn’t seriously have considered, a year ago, changing a name or removing a statue, are now thinking about exactly that. We will go for the symbolic and the easy first, of course, and some people will try to act as if that’s enough, but even those steps acknowledge the importance of the topic and demonstrate a willingness to change which hasn’t always been there. 

In a very different sphere, people who a year ago would have insisted on meeting in person are now happily meeting online, and seeing the advantages of it. There are some things which need to be done while physically present, and I look forward to a time when it’s safe to meet that way again; but even then, I hope we’ll keep the advantages and meet online or have hybrid approaches when that will work. The increased opportunities for international cooperation, for access for people with some disabilities, and for reducing the carbon footprints of our travel, all seem important to me.

What about you? How is your world changing at the moment?

The Internet is Real

The internet is real. Things which happen online really happen.

Depending on your experience of the internet, this might seem anywhere from completely obvious to blatantly untrue. In this post, I want to explore why after some consideration I’ve decided that it is true, and why it matters.

Recently I hear someone describing a meeting from a while ago in which some of the people were physically gathered and some were present via an internet connection. In her description, she contrasted those who were ‘really’ there with those who were there ‘virtually’. I understand why and this is a common way of thinking about such situations – but I also think it opens up the path for a really problematic mistake.

There’s also a lot of discussion around at the moment about how a remote meeting, for example via video conferencing software, is different to one taking place in person. I agree that it’s useful to get at that difference and notice what does and doesn’t happen – but that difference only makes it a different thing, not an unreal thing.

A meeting held online is still a meeting. A person you talk to online is still a person. A relationship which happens through an internet connection is still a relationship and it involves a connection between two people.

Why is it a problem to say that the ‘virtual’ is different from the ‘real’? When I was young, I was taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I spent a long time trying to pretend that was true – but it isn’t. Words and the lack of words, the way you are treated and the way people behave, has a very real effect. This is not to diminish the problems of physical violence: sticks, stones, fists, and bombs are all damaging and at the same time that lockdown is putting some of us in much more contact with the internet, it is also leaving some people in more physical danger from abusive relationships and other problems. It is to place a value on mental and emotional health which isn’t always present in the society in which I live. If it were true that words could never hurt, they could also never help or otherwise affect us. If it were true that the social world to which words belong had no effect on us, it might also be the case that stuff which happens online wasn’t real.

Words can hurt – and encourage and support. Someone in a video conference (as those who have been trolled or Zoom bombed know) can hurt – or help. At the moment, I’m talking to a lot of people, mainly in the Quaker community, who were previously aware of the internet as an option, perhaps for a limited range of activities or in a rather abstract way. They are now suddenly using the internet for almost everything, and finding steep learning curves with new software and being surprised by just how many things are already happening online. A lot of us are very grateful to have this option – and aware of those who don’t. Some are also puzzled or inclined to keep regarding it as unreal or second-rate. Saying that the internet is real doesn’t mean you have to like it, either: I don’t like mangoes, but they’re real.

There are things for which a purely online meeting is obviously not adequate: getting a massage or going to the dentist, for example. But a meeting held by video conferencing is still a meeting – it can make you feel better or worse, decide your action points and your attitude – even as you might struggle with the dissonance of the presence of faces and voices in the absence of bodies. And the chat you have on Facebook is real, and the connection you feel when someone posts is real, and the affection – and the annoyance and the ambivalence – we build up as we meet the same people again over time are all real. It’s virtual too, of course, but that’s the medium, not the message: a hologram of a dinosaur is a real hologram of a dinosaur.

Implying that things which happen online aren’t real, while perhaps useful for expressing frustration at what the internet can’t do or enabling you to dismiss things about it you dislike, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the situation. For those who have made real connections through the internet – often an important source of social contact for disabled people, for those who are isolated, for most of us who are in lockdown or social distancing, and for those who anyway chose to connect online through social media, email, dating sites, and so on – hearing that online friendships aren’t real, online dating is disordered, or connections through the internet will never measure up to the standards set by those who can choose to focus on in-person connections, can be deeply hurtful. Please don’t even start down that road. Online stuff is real stuff.

Quaker Generations?

Is the concept of ‘generations’ useful to revising our book of discipline?

This was a question which came up in discussion at a recent weekend event about the book of discipline and what it’s for. I think the idea of generations probably is useful in some ways in thinking about the revision and how revision processes work – but it needs a bit of nuance and some care in how we apply it, so in this blog post I want to explore different approaches to ‘generations’.

In the current book of discipline of Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker faith & practice, it says that we revise it about once a generation. This is only sort of true. For one thing, it’s an attempt to tidy up and explain briefly what has actually been a complex series of processes in which a text has developed, been added to by hand and by supplementary publications, been edited and revised, been split into multiple volumes (repeatedly, several different ways) and recombined into a single volume, until there are very few parts of the text which have remained the same throughout. (Perhaps none; if you’d done a detailed textual analysis of this, currently difficult because the texts are mainly not digitised, please let me know!)

However, I think there’s a sense in which this a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if it’s not so much that each generation of Quakers creates a book, as that the process of revising the book creates a new generation? This means letting go of a numerical definition of a generation. In some contexts, it might be useful to reckon, for example, that a prehistoric society probably had generations of 25 years, so a century is about four generations – but long-lived individuals might meet someone from two generations before or after them, so there can be a direct word-of-mouth memory of an event over that period of time. That isn’t the kind of generation we’re dealing with here. Nor it is the pop-history version of a generation, in which generations in a society (let’s face it, we usually mean Western or even American society) are defined by social events, whether that’s people who were aged between 5 and 18 at the turn of the millennium (Millennials) or people born in a period of rapid population increase (Baby Boomers). Instead, what I want to propose is perhaps related to that concept, but unique to Quakers.

It’s also related to the alternative generational scheme which Gretchen McCulloch describes in her book Because Internet. Very roughly – please do go and read it for yourself – she lays out a scheme in which your relationship to the internet does put you into an ‘internet generation’, but one defined not by when you were born but by what the internet was like and how you used it when you first encountered it. By birth I’m a (relatively old) Millennial, but by McCulloch’s system I’m somewhere between Old Internet and Full Internet. For me the internet is a vitally important way of connecting with people who have similar interests, which I originally did through mailing lists and bulletin boards. That’s characteristic of the Old Internet, an internet in which a few people who had access connected around common interests, usually using pseudonyms. The Full Internet generation comes with its own technology, but also with a particular set of assumptions – especially that the internet is real, that a friend online is a much a friend as a friend in person, and that there is no necessary  limitation to the success of communication online versus communication by other routes. Other generations, especially the Semi Internet generation who regard it as supplementary to in-person connections, may not share these beliefs about the possibilities of online communication.

What if we combined that idea with what we know about the development of the books of discipline? If a book of discipline creates a generation within a Yearly Meeting, we could talk about a Church Government/Christian Faith and Practice generation, whose first encounter with the book of discipline was with a two volume system. Before that, the older generation knew a three-book system. People who have become Quakers since 1995 have only known Quaker faith & practice, a one-book system. Of course, people who knew CG/CF&P have had plenty of time to also encounter Qf&p – but just as my assumptions about the purpose the internet are shaped by the technology and common uses of the internet when I first encountered it, the assumptions Quakers have about the form and uses of the book of discipline might be shaped by the way that it was when they first encountered it. How things are when you first notice them can easily, sometimes accidentally, become your idea of ‘normal’ – an issue ecologists have pointed out in other areas of life.

Of course, this will never be the only factor in someone’s approach to the revision, and there won’t always been a straightforward correlation between ‘generation’ and opinion. People who first knew two books might have a deep appreciation of the good reasons for making it one book, even more than people who have only ever known one book but find it vaguely unsatisfactory and wonder whether it would be better as two. Growing up in the age of the internet doesn’t make you like it – and growing up without the internet, as I did, doesn’t make you dislike it. When I discovered the internet as a teenager it was literally life-changing, and my life wouldn’t be as good as it is today without it. By contrast, the change when I was about ten from one book of discipline to another had, as far as I can remember, no impact at all on my life at the time, probably because I was already embedded in a Quaker family and community which knew about the changes as they came and rolled with them rather than making any sudden adjustments.

What this idea might help us to do is to put the revision into a wider context and to detect patterns in the responses to suggestions for change. People don’t usually fit exactly into a generational pattern – but recognising that world events, like the arrival of a new technology or a major economic shift, do shape people’s lives enables us to make connections, to feel less alone when we are lost or failing to explain something (for example: trying to explain why it’s now much harder to get a job than it was for my grandfather). In the same way, playing with the idea of ‘Quaker generations’, without taking it too seriously, might help us to talk about the ways our Quaker experiences differ and engage more fully with the complexity of our whole community. It’s going to be at least as useful as talking about the ordinary concept of generations in a Quaker context – where, while it’s true that something like your age when you first accessed the internet may be relevant to your willingness to embrace the internet as a Quaker tool, it’s also the case that your age on becoming a Quaker, and experiences you did or didn’t have prior to that, are relevant to your interaction with the Quaker way.

I is for… Internet

I think it comes as no surprise that most religious communities, like most communities, have now embraced the internet to some extent. Obviously, Pagans – often isolated but interested in each other – have one very distinctive pattern of internet use, but it is also the case that Quakers are developing patterns. For example, Quaker uses of Facebook and Twitter are growing: mostly, we never knew how Meeting for Worship went in other places, unless we happened to be visiting, before we started sharing about it on Facebook.

Recently, this has been on my mind because I’ve been trying to envision how a Quaker committee can do its work by email. Using email as a supplement to in-person meetings is obvious: circulate agendas, papers, and minutes quickly and easily. Moving enough for the Meeting for Worship for Business into cyberspace that you can actually make decisions there, though, is much more difficult. At the moment, I’m working with some ground rules, and trying to spot what else might need to be said.

My first ground rule for Quaker business by email is that in order to mark the difference between seated silence (used for assent in ordinary business meetings) and absence, muttered responses like ‘I hope so’ or even ‘that Friend speaks my mind’ should be much more acceptable.

My second thought is that giving people guidelines on reasonable times for responses is useful – the email equivalent of telling people when the clerk will be looking up from the minute-book. For example, if everyone knows that from the date of email A, in which a proposal is set out, they have five days to respond before the clerk will try a minute, they can both take time to think about it and answer in a timely way – and the clerk, especially if there are few responses, won’t have to sit around after those days wondering whether to wait and see if anyone else replies!

The capacity for shared documents – at the moment I use Google Drive – also gives a chance for the meeting to collectively maintain records. With some groups, I would even consider trying this for minutes: write and share a draft, and then allow group members to edit the document directly (perhaps with some encouragement to track their changes and  comment on their reasons).

There’s much to be learnt, though, about how to conduct email meetings in right ordering. Have you tried it? How did you get on?