Max Boyce, high priest of Welsh rugby fans, once waxed lyrical about yet another glorious victory by the men in red, declaring: “I know ‘cos I was there!”
Since the brilliant Christian New Media Conference #cnmac11 it’s struck me more forcibly that for people who spend as much time online as communicating in physical space, the new mantra is actually “I know ‘cos I wasn’t there”.
In the main seminars and the breakout sessions I attended, as many questions were asked from tweets by people not at the event as there were from people present in the room.
It was quite funny watching even hardened online devotees looking around for their Twitter buddies only to realise that they were joining in cyberspace.
More and more, you don’t have to be in the room to be recognised as playing a real part in the conversation. Interestingly, sometimes those chairing the sessions appeared to give priority to tweets from people “calling in” instead of going to those who were sitting in front of them, especially when time for questions was tight.
But one of the themes that ran through the day was the sense of connectedness – and a kind of Tardis flavour: #cnmac11 was bigger than it appeared at first sight.
It was a similar lesson to one we learned at last year’s Methodist Conference.
There was a massive spike in the number of people following the streaming of event and debates and engaging through Twitter. The feedback was really encouraging with people saying they felt connected to Conference for the first time. They knew ‘cos they weren’t there.
True, a few of us were taken to task for being online when we “should have been paying attention” – blogging and tweeting still being a difficult concept for people whose experience of formal meetings is a written agenda and a closed room.
But that small issue was outweighed by a surge of people at Conference and outside who found their voice through online engagement.
- It meant that the issues were debated on a bigger map than just the Conference hall.
- It meant that people who had wanted to be at Conference but couldn’t were able to voice their opinion – or hear it spoken by someone else and feel represented. They knew ‘cos they weren’t there.
- It meant that our Twitter feed became a genuine conversation for the Methodist people. They knew ‘cos they weren’t there.
- It meant that when decisions were made, substantially more than the 300 delegates had been a part of the listening; including Methodist in other countries and Christians from other churches. They knew ‘cos they weren’t there.
What it means for us is interesting. Are we tempted to give greater preference to those who tweet over those who are physically present, simply because they are using technology and we like fancy gizmos?
How do we strip away the excitement of the latest new thing and find truth and Gospel – without losing the potential all of the communications tools offer us? How do we avoid losing the power of the conversation in the race to find the next thing that makes our communication more efficient?
Those are real questions, but the positive experience is of being present when not being physically in the room – like being able to join in worship at St John’s College, Durham, curated by CODEC, while sitting in my study hundreds of miles away. I know ‘cos I wasn’t there.