Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Social Notworking

During the past month I have had some serious Internet trouble. It's not been so much a question of "outages" as "innages" - on some days I've only been able to connect to the Internet for half an hour a day - or less. A few years ago this would have been annoying - now it's downright disastrous. All those jobs that pile up on my computer - emails that are hard to write on a mobile phone - files that need sending - web pages that need adjusting - and so on...
I've been able to keep up with Facebook and the occasional email - through my phone - which has been good - but the inability to connect with the world wide web properly has felt like a kind of amputation - weird!
What have I learnt from this digital fast?
I suppose a big lesson has been the fact that we are so dependent on our technology - and take it for granted. This is fine for those who have, but not so good for those who can easily become the "information poor".
At the school open day, a parent raised the issue of children who don't have access to a computer at home - given so much was done through the "online learning portal". The teacher's response had a sympathetic tone but included a long list of further material that would only be available to those with Internet access.
At the Watling Valley web site meeting we discussed the advantages of social networking for community building - acknowledging as we did so that those who may need it most would not even think of using it...
On the other hand, it seems to me that our online social networks are only one of the many networks we belong to - and human social action seems to depend on the interplay and mutual indwelling of the various networks of which we're a part.
For example A knows B - through the Internet. A knows X as a friend. B knows Y though a club. X is connected to Y (through the Internet) even though neither of them may use it.
In other words, an attempt to avoid Internet use through a commitment to social justice would only impoverish the social network of those who don't obviously use it.
Whatever we may think of the inclusion issue the inevitable truth is that social tools are here to stay. Whether we use email, twitter, facebook, google wave - or any other tool that may not have been invented yet - online social networking will be a feature of our lives for some years to come.
I've been reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky - I'll post my notes when I've finished it. This is a fascinating book which explores the way social tools are transforming the way we think and act. His work contains some intriguing counter-intuitive observations. For example, he observes that the activity of people on social tools follows a "power curve" rather than a normal distribution curve.

In this example, one or two contributors posted the vast majority of the images on flikr for a particular event. Shirky suggests that all social networking may follow a similar pattern - as evidenced by other online activity - for example Wikipedia. In all his examples, Shirky suggests that there is no problem with this apparent inequality. Although a few may do a lot and the many may do a little, the overall benefit is far greater than it would be if each person contributed an equal amount - and in most online activity this is considered quite normal and no-one complains...
Shirky says, "The spontaneous division of labor driving Wikipedia wouldn't be possible if there were concern for reducing inequality. On the contrary, most large social experiments are engines for harnessing inequality rather than limiting it..." (!)
Which is interesting when it comes to reflecting on the way our churches and voluntary organisations function. We tend to worry endlessly about the 80:20 law - that twenty percent of the people tend to do eighty percent of the work. If Shirky is right, this is completely normal for a voluntary human social network - in fact, a more even distribution of effort would actually be harmful for the life and work of that network - intriguing...
This has relevance for the observation that we need a gift-orientated rather than a task-orientated approach to ministry. What are people called to do? What are they equipped to do? What do they want to do? There may be inequality in the amount of time and effort that each person will put in to any one venture - but Shirky's observation would suggest that an uneven distribution of effort will produce maximum gain...
Which is OK until you add in factors of compulsion, income and duty. Those who are paid to work - or are under a burden of responsibility to work - cannot obey the rules of social networking (or notworking). They must contribute a quantity and quality of work which is proportionate to the rewards or restrictions placed upon them.
This suggests a dual economy with the exciting activity taken on by the volunteer community - supported by a steady, reliable and equitably managed workforce.
Welcome to the twenty-first century church!
As I've said before, there are many things that the volunteer church community can do that employed or stipendiary ministers simply can't. Only a volunteer community can truly harness the creative power of its members - and be something greater than the sum of its parts. Paid staff are self-limiting - constrained by the limits of fairness and equality - although they do tend to be more reliable. Paid staff provide the infrastructure which enables creativity to flourish - or should do.
Networking or notworking, we live in an interesting age in which old assumptions may not be helpful any more. We need to keep thinking about how we function in an environment which is rapidly changing as we change the way we connect and communicate. Interesting times are ahead.

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