On a foggy night in the eighteenth century, Peterborough’s then MP Matthew Wyldbore was lost on the edge of the fens. Driving back from Flag Fen last year in the dark I can see how the topography could be confusing without landmarks and dangerous with ditches to the left and the right. He was saved by hearing the bells of StJohn’s Church ringing out and by following the sound was led safely back to his home in the Mansion House (near the Bull Hotel). In thanksgiving for this he left money for a peal to be rung and a sermon preached on the anniversary of his death (15th March). The ringers would receive a payment together with ‘entertainment’ for their labours and the preacher £1, 1s. I wondered if writing a blog would enable me to claim my £1.05? I would offset it against lunch near his former home. He also left 10s for bread for the poor. Sadly I understand the money has long since been used up. The bells are still rung though in his memory on 15th March. We collect for the food bank, so bread for the poor is still being honoured too.
How we communicate has changed enormously over the centuries. Bells are still rung, delighting us from the tower on the North side of the cathedral (and from St John’s as well where I am also vicar), and sermons preached, though the style of both has developed. Eighteenth century preaching styles would not be to taste today and wouldn’t get past the Dean’s ten-minute rule. We have though branched out through printing and now the internet to find new ways of telling our story and sharing our news.
One of my responsibilities in the cathedral is to oversee how we use social media: Facebook and Twitter. These are relatively new, but in the fast-moving world of the internet ‘new’ and ‘long term’ have much shorter timescales than a 900-year-old cathedral might be used to. The World Wide Web is twenty-five years old this year and it has changed enormously over that time. Most of us can now take advantage of more computing power in our phones than was used to send the first men to the moon. Accessing the internet has changed from large desk based computers, to mobile devices that can be held in the palm of our hands. Strangely, the fashion at the moment seems to be to use tablets to take photographs outside the cathedral and it looks a little odd to look out of the window and see people holding up these large slabs to take pictures. Many of these photos are then shared instantly on the internet, particularly through Facebook and Twitter. Some will tag that they have been here and so we are brought into the conversation and experience with them.
We started the cathedral Facebook page last year and have had the Twitter account for a little longer. Along with everyone else we have been discovering the best way to use these tools and our following has grown. We have been praised for how we use them. There are three of us in the driving seat; the bulk of the work being undertaken by Liz Hurst, our new communications officer who took over from Sarah McGhie in the autumn, and Daniel Mason who works with her. I chip in from time to time, especially providing out of hours cover. It is very easy to make assumptions about why people have chosen to follow or like our pages, but the reasons are as varied as people are. Just like we can’t make assumptions about people’s faith – what they do believe and what they don’t, and that goes for those who claim not to be religious as much as those who do – we can’t be at all clear what ‘liking’ or ‘following’ actually means. What we can be sure is that whatever we post on these social media sites will pop into their inboxes and some kind of response will follow, even if it is just to move on to the next item of interest as they scroll past. We are in their world and they have invited us in and we are delighted to be there.
We can’t, of course, control what we sit alongside. The latest news item from the cathedral about changes to the times of Evensong because of a concert or who is giving a special talk this evening or just a nice picture of spring daffodils in the sunshine, these could sit next to anything from the latest political big story to a friend’s child pulling faces into the camera. We are taken back to St Paul walking through the marketplace of Athens and finding a vast array of competing stories and claims, artifacts and pass-times. This is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (17:16-34). The cathedral is vying for attention alongside a myriad of other calls and attractions, to be noticed amidst many distractions and other interests. It is a small vignette of the social reality we find ourselves set in today. Love it or loath it, social media gives us a sneak into the way many of us approach the cathedral and all that it does.
The most popular posts, those that elicit the biggest response, seem to be images of the cathedral’s stunning vista and architecture, stories about the choir and musical life. A picture of the cathedral and daffodils in the spring sunshine I mentioned a moment ago was one I posted back in March and it proved to be one of the most popular posts we have made. After the gloom of a very wet winter the sign of hope and fresh beginnings that it displayed was understandably welcomed. It was good to be the purveyor of good news and hope. That is after all our overarching aim and purpose!
There are great debates about the effects of the internet on how we think, particularly the reducing of complex issues to 140 characters on Twitter. Attention spans have reduced dramatically and the average time spent on a given internet page is just a few seconds. If it doesn’t catch the attention in that time, the person moves on to something else and it is left behind. We can’t change this; it is part of the given of modern life and reveals where most are coming from when they encounter us. A conversation with a website developer recently revealed that there is software that can record where on a page people have clicked with their mouse. There is a tendency for visitors to a page to be attracted to faces, particularly the eyes. There is encouragement here that social interaction is still a draw and holds an attraction to us. So if you want more people to visit a page, put a smiling face on it and we will be drawn to it.
We also know that Twitter and Facebook attract people for different things. Some find Facebook more interactive and so discussions and comments tend to flow on our Facebook posts. Twitter seems to be more information based and people will share the story or ‘favourite’ it to show their appreciation, but we don’t get many comments back on Twitter. Twitter is good for links to longer stories on the website, and there are many people who use this as a way of sifting information for a longer read, though that may depend on whether they are reading on a phone, tablet or larger device. Twitter is good for now, and the posts tend to have a relatively short shelf-life (and in the internet ‘short’ means very short).
Making use of social media sites enables us to keep in touch with people who may be some distance away from us as well as those who feel they are more frequently involved with the life of the cathedral. It makes connections with those otherwise not in touch with us and begins a relationship which can develop over time. A recent report on cathedrals by the Christian think tank Theos called Spiritual Capital referred to this as ‘bridging and bonding’. We bridge an otherwise distance and through the connectedness which ensues allow bonds to develop. Social media sites enable us to strengthen these bonds among close supporters and those more distant. All of us operate with different levels of community. One form involves the networks that we select. Social media are a large-scale version of this. We choose who to follow, who to allow to follow us and if we don’t like what is being said we don’t have to see it. This is very different to older models of what it means to be community (and not without negative costs). It is how it is for many people and the cathedral needs to be in the mix.
Anything involving the internet is a developing media. We are having to learn new ways of being and also remind ourselves and others of some older courtesies. Many organisations have developed guidelines and protocols for the use of social media, reminding their staff and volunteers that they are ambassadors of the organization. We have done this too. This is a concept that we find in St Paul’s writings, when he refers to followers of Jesus Christ being ambassadors of Christ and so how we behave reflects on the faith that is to inspire and shape us (2 Corinthians 5:20). So how we are on the internet is no different. Respect and honesty are just as important when the other person is not in the same room as you as they are when they are. In fact I like to ask ‘who else is in the room’ when thinking about the internet. Who else could see this? There is no private in the internet so whatever we write can be seen by thousands of people – it is not just a private conversation between two people or just the group we think we are talking to. Social media is more like broadcasting than a private chat. If anyone posts anything of an inappropriate nature on our pages we will and do remove them – thankfully this is very rare.
In the main people behave with good nature on our social media pages. This is encouraging because the normal social triggers of face-to-face contact are not present through the internet. For all that calling it ‘social media’ might imply it is actually quite an impersonal way of communicating. The mask is that we try to make it feel personal by imagining the real people behind it. There is though no substitute for face-to-face contact, for the handshake or embrace, for conversation over coffee in the south transept (or at Coffee and Cookies of course!).
We have come a long way since Matthew Wyldbore’s time, let alone since the first Abbot Seaxwulf. We still penetrate the fog to announce services with bells and still preach sermons. But we have many more tools of communication at our disposal, ones which can span continents. As our predecessors have done over the centuries we are making sure that we use today’s modes of communication to connect with today’s people. If Christ was to return today, I still think he would come in person and not just send a Tweet, but he’d probably make use of all the means available to call out and keep in touch with his followers (and those who clicked ‘like’ too).
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Article for The Friends of Peterborough Cathedral Journal 2014