When it began, the worldwide web was like a newspaper or a book: there were pages other people had published that you could read if you wanted. You could even publish your own pages, with a bit of effort, but essentially someone wrote stuff for other people to read.

To change the analogy slightly, the original web was like a traditional sermon or a speech: content flowed one way only.

Blogging changed that, particularly with “comment” boxes. We got the question-and-answer session after the speech.

People could leave their own thoughts or queries and could get a reply. But the model was still fairly formal – a presenter who took, and perhaps responded to, questions and comments, but who remained the host of the conversation and the dominant voice within it.

With the advent of social media, the web, or a significant chunk of it, has become a conversation.

On Twitter there is no “host,” no dominant voice; everyone can speak equally, and conversation flows naturally. The web is no longer a sermon; it is after-church coffee.

This shift, from book to conversation, has been described as a move from web 1.0 to web 2.0, borrowing the numbers used to indicate versions of software.

At the heart of web 2.0 is interactivity: the web is now a place to go to meet people and to engage with them, not just a place to go to find information. It is a community, not a library. The web is now all about social media.

I hope that your church has caught up with web 1.0, that you have a website, which is well designed, kept up to date and includes helpful information for potential visitors.

Social media is a new game entirely, however. Your web 1.0 presence – your website – offers you great dangers, and some opportunities. In web 2.0, there are some dangers for the local church, but they come with enormous opportunities.

To spell this out: most people today are going to find your church by its website. (Really; they are.)

As someone has said “a church without a website is like a church without a front door.”

A well-designed and up-to-date website will give potential visitors both a sense of what your church is like and enough information (maps, times and so on) to connect with you should they want to.

Get this wrong, and you’ve slammed the door in the face of most potential visitors and newcomers; get it right, and you’ve at least created the possibility for people to connect with you should they like what they see.

At the moment, by contrast, getting social media wrong is not going to hurt you that much (unless you say something crashingly stupid in public); getting it right could help you significantly.

What does “getting it right” look like? A sustained and valued participation in relevant conversations. You can quickly become known on Twitter, particularly as someone who is helpful, insightful, witty or all three, and therefore as someone who people want to know and to listen to. How about that as a reputation for your church to have?

So what is social media, concretely?

To begin with, there are two platforms that matter: Facebook and Twitter. There are lots of others, but these are the big ones, and so the places to start.

They are different. Facebook is built on reciprocal relationships, has a degree of presumed privacy, and retains a sense of owned spaces.

By contrast, no one owns any space on Twitter. It is almost entirely public, and relationships can be asymmetric.

On Facebook, you connect with people by becoming “friends.” Generally, only your friends see what you put up, and you only see what your friends put up. (In reality, it is a little more complicated than that, and you can sometimes see what “friends of friends” have posted.)

Every Facebook member has a space of her own, a “wall” which she and others can post on. All her friends can see the posts on her wall and can add comments. Facebook friendship implies some level of mutual connection and appreciation, and must be agreed to by both sides before it happens.

On Twitter, by contrast, there is only one space, which is completely public. In theory, the whole world can see anything you tweet.

In practice, of course, no one is listening. (Imagine trying to keep track of every conversation in after-church coffee with 100 million people.)

Twitter gets around that in two ways: followers and hashtags.

One Twitter user can “follow” another. When she does, she will see everything the other user tweets in her “timeline.”

Unlike Facebook befriending, Twitter following is not reciprocal. I follow many people on Twitter who don’t follow me, and I don’t follow everyone who does follow me. (This week, a number of Swedish theological students have started following me; I’m honored that they’re interested, of course, but following them back would fill my screen with stuff in Swedish.)

Hashtags are words or phrases with a “hash” (#) in front – #BaptistTimes – that are added to tweets to provide an easy way to search for tweets from people you might not follow about a particular subject.

An event will often publicize a hashtag; I’m just back from the Evangelical Alliance Council meeting, where we used #EACouncil; searching for that on Twitter gives you everything that is being tweeted about the meeting.

When a group of us reviewed the council meeting, one person, who could not attend, commented that she had been following the Twitter response and was able to give us insight into which sessions had provoked the most reaction and so on.

For a local church, Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with your own people – particularly younger people (who are probably used to organizing at least some parts of their lives via Facebook interactions); Twitter is a great way to interact with the wider community.

As a Twitter user, you can engage with a broader Christian community and with others in your own local area (and with other interest groups if your church is involved; there are significant Twitter communities sharing news around human trafficking or debt counseling or student mission, for instance). You can eavesdrop on these conversations and be informed, or you can contribute.

By contributing, you have a chance to become a valued and respected voice in conversations around local matters.

Others in the community could come to know your name, and that you are friendly, supportive and sometimes funny, and that you generally talk sense.

You also have a chance to connect more widely with other Baptists or others in an interest group.

You will make friends who will pray for you and ask your prayers, who will be interested in the events of your life, and free – sometimes too free – with advice when you ask for it, about anything from the best Thai restaurant in Edinburgh to who you should work for.

Social media is a community. It is a place to share and to relate. It is a chance for real-time feedback on events and issues – whether accounts of what God is saying during a Baptist Union of Great Britain day of prayer or humorous comments over a Paralympic opening ceremony. (Seriously, it’s the only way to get through the athletes’ parade.)

It is, really, a community. (There is an odd social media moment when you meet someone in person who you have laughed with, prayed for, shared hopes and dreams with, and generally become close to, all over the net.)

The other thing to say about social media is that – at present – it is a great leveler.

All but the biggest names do their own tweeting, and (at least occasionally) read their own tweets.

Earlier this week, I saw an exchange involving jokes about a trainee minister I know (online, that is; we’ve never met) being invited to preach in the church of the other tweeter, one Rick Warren.

Because people read tweets, there is the possibility of rapid-fire campaigns on Twitter.

Recently, Gareth Davies of Care was told about a T-shirt being sold in Next featuring a pornographic image and a Bible verse; he tweeted about it and others followed.

That same afternoon Next apologized and withdrew the garment from sale nationally. (Gareth wrote about this experience here.) Micro-campaigning like this has been a big part of my Twitter experience this summer, as it happens, and for a while at least it is going to be powerful.

If this sounds good, join us in the social media world. You can sign up for Facebook here: Facebook.com and Twitter here: Twitter.com.

Both are completely free. If you join, be sure to link up with me – Steve Holmes on Facebook; @SteveRHolmes on Twitter – and I’ll try to put you in touch with a few others and point you in some interesting directions.

Steve Holmes is a Baptist minister who teaches theology at the University of St Andrews. He blogs at SteveRHolmes.org.uk/blog. This column first appeared on The Baptist Times website.

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