In 1971, men in the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) invented a way to plug information transfer cables into personal computers. This connected machines like a spider’s web or a fisherman’s net, decentralizing conversation, sharing information back and forth via digital ports. They named the dialog “email” and the inter-connected network of cables “the Internet, ” but the Internet was built on concepts like word of mouth, sharing your toys, and writing letters. The Internet is sharing.
We moved from email to the first user board USENET_ and people dialoged about the arts and finer points in life like how George Hendrick had only managed twenty-five homeruns. Eleven years later, CERN’s employee Tim Berners-Lee embed links in text that lead to other text. The result was the World Wide Web. The year was ’91.
Four years later, America witnessed the birth of the first personal blog and then, in ’95, a site made for rediscovering old classmates was formed. It was called “Classmates.com.” There Ray Sears found his seventh-grade girlfriend, Gina. He messaged her, asked if she remembered him. She shot back, “How could I forget my first love?” They married and had a couple babies. Two words: social network.
The church growth movement hit her glory days and tried to connect people through common interests, though not yet via the Internet. Meanwhile, America Online drilled tiny pipelines of conversation through the cubicles of office workers. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan hooked up in You’ve Got Mail while their generation’s kids passed hand-written notes in school, kids that later tweeted the world into revolution. Home alone, we shared music on “shareware” the same way we shared everything else: online. They called it “illegal, ” but we called it “the future.”
Before the year 2000, Blogger, Wikipedia, and StumbleUpon were in full swing, connecting people through user-submitted content. In the decade that followed, we Internet babies went to college and picked up sites named Xanga, Friendster, Myspace and WordPress. Facebook took the stage at the peak of our college years, exclusive for students. It worked well, as early users remember, because it took the Classmates.com concept and connected you instead with people currently enrolled nationwide. We shared college not only with our classmates but also with friends from our high school and random students from prestigious universities. At Ozark Christian College, I used Facebook to interact with students not only from my home town, but also from Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Illinois.
For my generation’s herd of sharers, Facebook went the way of all social networks as we migrated on to YouTube then Twitter, Tumbler, Groupon, FourSquare, Google Plus, Pinterest and the rest. We keep finding new ways to share, to spread what we learn and love through digitized word of mouth and letters. In reality it’s just one big, fat, multi-cultural, multi-media walkie-talkie. Don’t believe me? Glance at the nearest smart phone: it’s just a hip version of what my great Uncle Kenny used to call in airstrikes during in WWII Regardless of whether or not I agree with Uncle Kenny’s intended usage of such a device, when we need support, we tweet it in. To share crucial information, we update our status or shoot a message. Need a recommendation concerning planning? Ask around and pin ideas for later. Often this exchange includes an in-person conversation: “Did you see Conan’s tweet today?” or “Oh yeah, I saw that on Pinterest too.” We all know that the digital intersects with the real, but we’re not quite sure what to do about that… yet.
That, I suppose, is the lesson of The Internet’s history: The Internet globalizes language. Language connects us, helps us love each other better by knowing each other better. Ask any counselor and he’ll tell you: communication is key. When people log in, especially if they grew up with the Internet, they want conversation. They might want to communally play a choose-your-own-adventure movie, what some call “video games.” They might want to follow the thoughts of famous painters. Like Ray Sears, they might look for love in all the wired places or like early USENET_ participants, they might dialog about higher, older thoughts… and baseball.
When we use language, Eugene Peterson says we experience one of three things: intimacy, information, or persuasion. That’s why art and advertisement, music and military documents, apologies and apologetics all get caught in this same World Wide Web. Inter-net has no center, no governing powers. If some governing power blocks access, there’s always another way around for those people who keep searching. . Many weeks back, I received hits on my site from the following countries “hostile” to the red-letter life: Qatar, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon. I was in the middle of a series that drew a crisp line from art to Jesus. And you know what? Some of those viewers in closed countries shared back. The digital affects the real. People try to legislate it, try to limit the boundaries of the Internet, but by definition the Internet is limited only by the number of people logged into one another. In fact, that’s how some people describe communion – this is my body, this is my blood. We’re connected to one another across political, social, and linguistic barriers when we gather to the table.
So what’s that got to do with the price of hymnals?
It’s simple. In real-life, no one wants to be sitting in their living room and hear a knock at the door from some solicitor. Or how do you want someone to hand you pages and pages of data for sifting every morning with your coffee? You’d probably rather spend your mornings sitting in silence or reading something that matters like Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer or Chesterton’s Everlasting Man.
Our best communication happens on the level of intimacy, not information or persuasion. Some might call this not communication but “communion.” A mother hears her son coo. Two lovers laugh together. Silence in art museums or during the reading of emotional poetry gives us room for experiencing meaning and intimacy together. We preachers know the power of the pause…
Marketing experts categorize all products-for-purchase into two groups: low-concept and high-concept. Low-concept products include things we need often like bread and batteries. High-concept products include things we have to mull over before purchasing: books, chinaware, and socket wrenches. With high-concept purchases, we ask friends for advice. That’s why word of mouth sells books and films. When something goes “viral” it actually follows the organic channels of communication and communion. “Viral” goes back to those first USENET_ boards that attracted the most attention from viewers like you. If you want people to buy into your book or art or event, you have to get them talking.
If marketing experts use word of mouth, how much more does word-of-mouth – a deep, personal conversation – apply to loving the unlovable? To helping the lost find home? Or, like in Matthew 22, how much more does intimacy apply to inviting every crook and begger from the “highways, country roads, alleyways, and deserted paths” to gather to the table? Jesus needed that kind of fellowship in the garden and we need it more than ever – a table fellowship without borders that goes deeper than the weather and March Madness. It’s seen clearest in this simple fact: if our generation feels a breech in basic word-of-mouth etiquette in any given social network, we move on to wherever communion (or at least conversation) happens. That’s the essence of Internet.
In 2007, South by Southwest Interactive hosted a conference. One company hung two 60-inch plasma screens in the halls, screens that streamed messages from attendees’ phones on a hosting site. Hundreds of attendees tagged sessions with the pound (#) sign and dialoged about the topics that became trendy, the topics that everyone was talking about. In one day with two screens, Jack Dorsey’s Twitter tripled its user numbers from 20, 000 to 60, 000.
I suppose Twitter’s mantra captures this ethic: Join the conversation.
But I also hear Jesus whisper this invite to all, no matter how high or low the road you walk: Gather. Gather. Gather to the table.
Peterson, Eugene. Answering God
Lance Schaubert publishes his work in markets like McSweeney’s, Poker Pro, and Hollywood & Vine. He edits novels, writes short films, and creates copy for marketing firms through lanceschaubert.org. He’s also a proud alumnus of Whiskerino ’07 and husband to the grooviest girl on earth.
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