In search of an online discussion format

This Monday, I’ll be eating supper with Bob & Naomi Wyble to share ideas about blogs and other ways to discuss ideas online.  Thinking back to the original mission statement of my blog, this topic feels like a good fit:

This is a blog to explore the connections between new media, authority, and community.

My original idea started with the thought that the reformation was enabled by new media (the printing press); and that electronic media may be having a similarly transformative effect on the church and other institutions.


Researched Issues:

I first spoke to Bob about the idea a week ago; and I’ve done some research since then.  Here are a few of the issues I’ve identified:

  • Private vs public – is the discussion available to all (or is it “secret”)?
  • Is there one  common site verses individual sites – are all ideas presented on a common site?
  • The discussion list could be only a part of a broader listserve system, such as at East Chestnut Street, where it is just as likely that you might read about a prayer request, a request for a refrigerator, or a post about gardening

Medium Options

  1. email – this is the easiest to get started, but the drawbacks are poor filtering, exclusivity, lack of history, and list management issues
  2. listserve – this option adds listmanagement and history fieatures, but still suffers from potential filtering problems
  3. blog – by keeping individual posts separate, an individual author is able to control the presentation of their ideas, and link them together, but work must be done to notify interested parties of updates.  This can be done through email subscription or RSS
  4. facebook – good for quick announcements, but not longer discussions.

Discussion Dynamics

Online discussions can suffer from a lack of deliberation and the contextual cues necessary for a real “back and forth” conversion.  I recently spoke with Edgar Stoesz about how correspondence was done at MCC pre-internet.  He said that the fact the the person receiving the message might not get it for a week slowed down the conversation and made it more deliberative.

A similiar process, although not common, could be done with blogs.  In the March 2012 newsletter, Pastor Jim notes:

Trust your feelings enough to test them. Sometimes it is wise to write down what you are feeling and sleep on it  before expressing it. If you still lack clarity, share it with a trusted friend. Once you say it or send it, it’s out there, so take time to let it ripen

Blogs like wordpress actually have an “editor” feature which would allow writers to appoint their own editor, should they wish to have someone review their ideas before they are published.

Current Vision for AMC

East Chestnut Street’s listserve model is an attractive one to me.  The process is like an email list, but the subscription and unsubscription process is automated using a paid version of Google Apps.

They also have 4 lists, rather than 1.  For example, Akron might set up 4 lists:

  1. Discusssion – I envision the “heavy lifting” for these would be done by individuall blogs
  2. General – prayer requests, requests to borrow, or purchase, etc
  3. Gardening
  4. Knitting


Second session with Ruth

Tonight I showed Ruth how to author a blog post.  Among the topics we covered were the difference between:

  • a post – a single “article”
  • a blog – a collection of posts
  • a tag – a way of classifying posts so that they can be later found by topic

Next time, we plan to create Ruth’s blog.  In the meantime, Ruth will think about what her blog will be about so that she can write her “About this blog” page.  Themes to consider:

  • Describing “who I am”
  • The focus of the blog
  • Why I am interested in this topic
  • Who has influence my thinking
  • Where I expect this to lead

It would also be helpful if Ruth could identify a quote and/or story that summarizes her blog’s namesake.

Next session: Februrary 8 @7pm (tentative)

What would Martin Luther post today?

I recently read an article in the Economist magazine titled “How Luther went viral– Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation.”

Why this interests me

This is a subject I’ve been spending a lot of time on over the past 2 months because it brings together two of my interests:

  • I was a history major in college, and studied the Reformation (at Conrad Grebel)
  • I’ve also spent a lot of time studying computers, and thinking about new media
Last fall, I created this “Staying Connected” blog with the mission of exploring the connections between new media, author-ity, and community.  It is from that seed that this article springs.

Re-imagining History

It’s sometimes fun to compare the present day to the past and imagine what would happen if we took a page out of the history book when making choices.

In October, I was talking with a women named Faith about her support of Occupy Wall Street and commenting that the Occupy Wall Street crowd needed to get more focus when I had an “ah-ha” moment:

It’s almost as if someone ought to post 95 theses on the door of the stock exchange.

I went home that night and did a little bit of research.  As I did, I saw some interesting parallels between the 16th century and our current time.  Of course there’s a danger in reading too much of our own experience into the past, but it can create new perspectives as well.


In setting up the premise, I imagined what Martin Luther would write if he were alive today.

  • what would be the message?
  • what would be the format?
  • what does that say about us and our world?

The History of 16th century Europe

It’s been a while since I studied history in college, but as I revisited it, some interesting material emerged.  What I found is that the 16th century was a time of transition, in which social and economic forces were changing Europe.

Europe was divided by class and several of the class groups were feeling the squeeze:

  • The princes were finding their administrative and military costs rising and passed the increased costs on to the peasants through higher taxes and the selling of indulgences. They also found it economically advantageous to break from Rome and become independent.
  • For the lesser nobility, evolving military technology was reducing the value of knights and castles. Inflation and urbanization also contributed to the Knights Revolt of 1522.
  • The clergy were losing their priveleged postion, and divided between the aristocratic clergy that were well-positioned within the church and those poorer and more rural clergy.
  • the peasants were coming under increasing financial pressure, through increasing taxes, and the privatization of common fields, forests and waters. If they wished to marry, they had to had their Lord’s permission, and pay a marriage tax.

It was within this context that Martin Luther’s 95 theses were published.  Five years later, there was a revolt by the Knights; followed by the Peasant’s war.

Occupy Wall Street -20

Occupy Wall Street Protesters

Tea Party

Tea Part Protesters

Would Martin Luther have supported Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party?

I reached the conclusion that Luther did not support the Peasants and would not support Occupy Wall Street.   (Luther thought Romans 13:1-7 supported the Divine rule of Kings)

A Reformer, but not a Radical

Martin Luther’s original message did not propose a new economic system like Marxism.  He did not argue for a new political system like democracy.

Luther simply said that the Catholic church was not an accurate representation of true religion, and appealed to scripture as the standard of reference.

Rather than drafting an Occupy Wall Street articles comparable to the Peasant’s 12 articles, I thought it would be interesting to imagine what it would look like if Luther were to create a “conservative” or “foundational” critique of “Wall Street”, similar to his 95 theses, but updated for the times.

The Comparison:

Just as:

  • Luther said, the Catholic church‘s teaching on ingulgences are not true religion,
  • One could say: the crony relationship between the large global megabanks and government do not truly represent Capitalism or Democracy

The format

As I developed the concept, it became clear to me that if Martin Luther were alive today, the format of his theses would have to be different, mainly because today we’re drowning in printed material, and we have such diminished attention spans.

I went back and read translations of Luther’s 95 theses (which were originally written in latin), and it struck me that each thesis could almost be thought of as a tweet.  They’re a little bit longer than twitter’s 140-character limit, but not by that much.  They certainly can’t be though of as articles or chapters in a book.  Still, ninety-five is too many for all but the most dedicated readers to digest today.

The other thing that I decided is that a modern-day 95 theses would not be written by one person, but be an aggregation of the the most popular ideas from many authors.  Part of the reason for this is that one person doesn’t have the knowledge to address all issues in enough depth; and the other reason is we don’t trust one person to set the terms of debate and speak for the group.

The slideshow prototype

The second draft that I created was a prototype of a slide show, because as I browse a lot of websites, I see an increasing use of lists and slide shows.  If you’ve read much online at this year’s end, I’m sure you’ve come a cross a number of slide shows listing the best and worse of the year.

So here’s my sample slide show critiquing the unholy alliance between the largest financial institutions and the government.

I think of the format as a footnoted and illustrated tweet.

I was able to find a number of videos to use a supporting material (notice if you click for more information, you’ll see an excerpt and a link to additional material), but I found that a video clip should be less than a minute or people will lose interest.

Here’s a video clip that I think captures what a credible insider, like Luther was, might look like today if he had a forum to debate the existance of global “megabanks”.

(In this video, Simon Johnson is arguing that the large global “mega banks” will be bailed out again because they are too big and interconnected to fail.)

I can imagine that the complexity of Johnson’s argument over “counter-cyclical buffers” turns many readers off, just as Luther’s use of theological terms would have gone over the heads of many peasants, but the language also signifies his authority to speak as an expert on the subject.

This also brought me to another principle for my list — the list would not be an individual’s own writing, but a collection of references to sources that others are likely to trust to have some authority.  Many slides include video, but even a 10 minute clip is too long for the modern “reader”.

One question I had was over the tone of the document.  Simon’s Johnson’s argument is quite forceful, or as he calls it, “less polite”.  If we look at Luther’s original theses, they did include some rather biting questions.  Take for example #86:

Again: since the pope’s income to-day is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of indigent believers? (more)

As I researched the early Reformation, I found that Luther frequently demonized the Catholic church.  While today it is common for debates to decline in civility, to the point where inevitably one person compares the other to Hitler, in Luther’s day the comparison was to the anti-Christ.

Multiple themes / topics

Even though I created the list on the theme of Wall Street and Washington, my idea is that a contemporary list would be written on multiple topics and “tagged” (or categorized).

Someone could write a list on the topic of the environment, or energy.  The topics would span national borders.

Here is a video that a church did on the subject of the institutional confession:

What’s the common theme?

Martin Luther’s original 95 theses were called:

A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

If you were to read all the slides I’ve written on the “Wall Street / Washington” theme, is there a unifying theme?

I read an article today titled: “In 2011, the revolution was tweeted” which says:

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, the motivations of protesters in each country were unique. But there was a common thread to the uprisings and a common reason why the elites were taken by surprise.

The unifying complaint is crony capitalism. That’s a broad term, to be sure, and its bloody Libyan manifestation bears little resemblance to complaints about the Troubled Asset Relief Program in the United States or allegations of corrupt auctions for telecommunications licenses in India. But the notion that the rules of the economic game are rigged to benefit the elites at the expense of the middle class has had remarkable resonance this year around the world and across the political spectrum.


Unsaid in these critiques are the many difficult structural issues that stand in the way, beyond cronyism.  It would be just as interesting, and likely more useful to list the complex problems preventing reform on issues like heath care or education.

Perhaps a common critique would be:

A Disputation on the limits of Greed and narrow self-interest to achieve the greater good.

That may sound like a caricature of Capitalism, but if you read Tyler Cowen or Raghuram Rajan, incentives are not as easily aligned as someone like Alan Greenspan assumed.

Economics professor  Tyler Cowen admits the insoluability of the problem, saying: ”The root cause of income inequality, viewed in the most general terms, is extreme human ingenuity, albeit of a perverse kind.”

The fact that a few of our largest financial institutions do not experience the disciplining possiblity of failure makes the problem especially unmanageable.

What was Luther thinking?

Martin Luther was a priest who was upset that his parishoners were purchasing “certificates of forgiveness” from traveling salesmen.  Some of his parishoners would then tell him that they had no need of confession, because they had already purchased an indulgence.

When Luther published his 95 theses, he was trying to engage in a debate.  He did not intend to start a split in the Catholic church.  I’ve even heard that he may have hoped that the pope would intervene and stop the practice.  But it makes me wonder whether there was any way that the church could be engaged in an honest debate.  Indulgences were a major funding mechanism that they would have had to give up.  Under what conditions would the church do that voluntarily?  Did Luther really think that the pope would stop the corruption when it was brought to his attention?

Where does that leave us today?

I’ve spent a lot of time researching my “Wall Street / Washington” reasons and I’ve shared them with quite a few people. One thing I’ve concluded is that on a complex issue like financial reform, it is unlikely that there could be a person today like Luther, absent another crisis.

For an issue to spread, it has to be transmittable in video form, but as  Oliver Stone recently concluded – complex financial corruption doesn’t play well on the movie screen.

Another factor is that the “airwaves” were a lot less cluttered then. Even though many people were illiterate, those people who could read, would read Luther’s tracts to their neighbors around them. Many of clergy in the surrounding area were sympathetic to Luther as well; and they would preach on Luther’s message within their parishes. In this sense, by using both the printed and the oral form, Luther’s social media was superior to what we have today, because we “consume content” in isolation, rather than in person.

If there were someone who could take a message of reform viral today, my guess is that person might be an accidental spokesperson, like a comedian who with a license to say things other people normally can’t – someone like Stephen Colbert or a fake newspaper. Thought it wouldn’t contain the systematic thought of a theologian or intellectual, reform could also be sparked by a child.

Then again, Luther did not start with a grand strategy and a goal. He did not try to start a reformation; and likewise we can not engineer change. Luther merely planted a few seeds, and change emerged unexpectedly.

Related Material:

  • Part 1: Published Oct 31, 2011
  • Part 2: Slideshow of 19 reasons to “Occupy” Wall Street and Washington
  • Beginnings of a “sensationalistic” blog format: 95 reasons


Congregational Author-ity

Tonight at the congregational membership committee we were discussing some items related to the membership bylaws and we decided to “wordsmith” the changes over email.

Since I was the secretary for the meeting, I offered to send out the minutes by email and also share them by google docs for those who wished to edit the document directly.

I offered to experiment with Jean Miller on editing the google docs from her home computer.  I quickly put together a draft of the minutes and shared them with her.  I then gave her a call and we had fun making changes to the document interactively.

A few things of note:

  • The default document text of Arial 11pt was way too small for Jean to read, so I increased the font to 18pt.
  • Jean was interested in seeing the revisions to the document so that she could tell who wrote what.  I did a quick search and I found that you can view revision history:

File > Revision History

Not everyone on the committee has gmail, but when I shared the document, I noticed that pastor Michelle Dula’s account was added with full edit permissions, leading me to suspect that her church email is using Google Docs.  If it is, collaborating between staff and gmail users would be very easy!

Intertextuality is biblical

In my last post, I wrote about the need to make my clickable hypertext links more visible to the reader; yet there is another type of link that is invisible — the type made mentally in the reader’s mind.

I’ve spent the past few days reading about intertextuality:

On its most basic level, intertextuality is the concept of texts’ borrowing of each others’ words and concepts. This could mean as much as an entire ideological concept and as little as a word or phrase. As authors borrow pro-actively from previous texts, their work gains layers of meaning. Also, another feature of intertextuality reveals itself when a text is read in light of another text, in which case all of the assumptions and implications surrounding the other text shed light on and shape the way a text is interpreted.

Intertextuality is not new. Though it is common in postmodern television, it’s also present in poetry, literary classics, and the bible.

Intertextuality in Philippians 2:5-11 :

Paul’s letter to the Philippians urges the Philippians to stay faithful by reminding them how Jesus emptied himself.  Though not explicitly quoting Genesis, Paul’s listeners would have heard  Paul comparing Jesus with Adam (Philippians 2:5-11 vs Genesis 3):

  • Adam seized equality with God; Jesus already possessed equality with God, but did not exploit it
  • Adam was the form/image of God; Jesus is the form/image of God
  • Adam filled himself on the forbidden fruit; Jesus emptied himself
  • Adam was disobedient unto death; Jesus was obedient unto to the point of death — even death on a cross ..

Intertextuality: The Fulfillment

This invoking of Genesis is one example of how Paul re-con-textualizes much of the old testament.  What is so striking about this is that Paul had formerly been a a Pharasee, zealously devoted to a faith that was expecting a different kind of Messiah.

After Damascus, Paul’s understanding of the Word undergoes a radical transformation; and he dedicates himself to preaching that Jesus is the unexpected fulfillment of familiar scriptures.

Second session with Nels and Esther

I returned to Nels and Esther’s house today to change a folder display setting on their computer back to the way it was before I came.

While I was there we talked about several things:

  • RIght now it takes Nels about 3 months to assemble the yearly report.
  • He feels comfortable with his system and does not want to change; partly because he does not want to take on any extra work at this point.
  • I exported one of his files to Excel format and suggested that I experiment with it to see what is possible.
  • I noted that very few people use the Microsoft Works program that Nels is using; and that he will have to convert his files to Excel format if he wants to share them with anybody.
  • I also made a backup of all Nels’s files to a USB drive in case something ever happens to their computer.  I suggested that if Nels doesn’t want to copy his yearly totals into a new column, he at least archive his files annually so that he doesn’t completely loose the ability to view past data.

First session with Nels and Esther

Last night I met with Nels and Esther for the first time.

Nels has spent the last 20 years collecting statistics about anabaptist church membership.  He gathers his data through church publications and contacts with the church leadership.

Nels has data on over 6,000 congregations, broken down to the congregational level!

The system that he uses is done in Microsoft Works and is very similar to the methodology one would use via paper and pencil — all numbers are entered individually and all tallies are totaled manually.  I want to avoid suggesting any drastic changes, at least at the beginning, but there are a few areas where I see opportunities:

  • Right now this information is communicated through yearly mailings, which requires quite a bit of work for the Hostetters.  It may be possible to email the results to some of the church leaders.
    • The email addresses for the Mennonite Church USA churches may be obtainable through the online directory.  If so, Nels and Esther could save themselves the time and expense of sending physical reports to all these churches.
  • The Mennonite Church USA website also contains additional information, such as the date each church was established.  It may be interesting to compare membership trends for churches of different ages.
  • Right now Nels’s spreadsheets do no retain the yearly membership totals.  That feature could likely be added quite easily by copying the data for each year into a new column.

Making the links obvious

Today I showed my Dad the front page of the blog and he barely noticed the links.

At one point he even asked me why some of the text was blue.

I guess this just shows that Jakob Nielsen is right — fewer people notice links if the links are not blue and underlined.

So since one of the major points of this blog is to explore the use of links, tonight I changed the wordpress theme to make my links underlined, though it may detract a bit from the minimalism of the theme.

First session with Ruth

Tonight I met with Ruth Detweiller to talk about the idea of a blog focused on the subject of mental health.

We talked about the topics Ruth wishes to cover in her blog, and how she sees them being organized.

One of the ideas I introduced Ruth to was the concept of the permalink — a blog article’s permanent address.

I also showed her how sites like the New York Times use tags to organize content by topic, using, for example, the “mental illness” tag.

Many of Ruth’s most formative sources of information are books and articles.  She has made copies of these articles and lends them out.  Being able to link to online copies of these resources would “enhance” her ability to share.

As an example, we searched for an article written by Urbane Peachey titled, “A ministry of recognition.”  Sure enough it was online!

I taught Ruth:

I then showed her the editing section of my blog and showed her how similar it was to writing an email.

Next Steps

We did not identify a date for our next session, but the next steps are:

  • Tim will write up a summary of the first session.  Done.
  • Ruth will think about what material she would first like to publish
  • Tim and Ruth will think about a name for the blog