Social Media and the 2012 General Conference

I’m watching the 2012 General Conference from the extreme nosebleed seats: From the comforts of my office in Mackville, Ky., nearly 850 away. The blessings of a high-speed Internet connection and a capable laptop provides instant access through live streaming feeds of the plenary and worship sessions.

If that doesn’t provide enough access for someone interested in the decisions to be made at General Conference there is always social media. Facebook and Twitter were both active yesterday during the opening day of the conference. Perhaps anticipating this the church included an active feed of what was being said via #gc2012.

As with any conversation, social media has its benefits and distractions. This is especially noticeable during important  discussions and debates whether it is in the halls of Congress or in a convention center in Tampa.

The benefits to social media during General Conference should be obvious. It allows everyone to have a voice. With the “old media” forms, which I grew up with as a former journalist, only the “respected” voices would be heard on a television report or read in a newspaper’s account of an event. Social media’s involvement at General Conference allows for the voice of the marginalized and forgotten to be heard. Our leaders in Tampa need to hear from the entire movement of the United Methodist Church and not just those with political influence.

Social media also provides information on different issues. Recently I was informed through social media of an issue that will be discussed at General Conference. It is not one of the three major issues that will receive the most attention both inside and outside the church (reorganization, guaranteed appointment, and lifestyle discussions). Social media brings to light petitions “old media” would not have discussed. The large amount of petitions up for a consideration means not every issue will receive attention. Unfortunately, it also means important issues can get forgotten.

However, social media also has its drawbacks. This is true in regards to deep discussions about the future of the United Methodist Church.

The most obvious of these drawbacks is everyone has a voice. While we applaud that social media gives everyone a voice at the table we can also recognize its potential distraction to the process. The fact everyone has a voice does not guarantee that a person’s voice will be used in appropriate ways.

During the worship and plenary sessions, Twitter was filled with comments that were critical of whatever the given poster felt was inappropriate. During the opening worship, it ranged from the songs being used to the appropriateness of the style of worship. It was especially on display during the plenary session’s lengthy rules debate. Twitter was used to express frustrations with certain delegates and attempts to change the rules. Many of the frustrations came about if a rules change, especially regarding protests, would impact a person’s desires.

We would all be wise to be cautious about how we use social media to engage any process. Social media, and our 24-hour news cycle, does not offer time to provide appropriate reflection on important issues. We want to express things now. Often in the heat of the moment we are not taking the time to properly think through different perspectives. As well, the limit of 140 characters does not allow for appropriate discussions, so we must be wise on how we use this important forum.

As we go forward in General Conference, social media will be an important part of the story and will allow many to be a part of the process. It’s use can provide information and appropriate reflections, but let us hope that it does not become a stumbling block to hearing and doing the Father’s will.

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