Net religion bumped into real, organized religion again at the Berkman Center’s Votes, Bits Bytes conference today, held at Harvard University’s Law School. The subject couldn’t be more topical. In the recent elections, church-based groups got out the vote. Despite the view that a blogger’s vote is worth ten ordinary votes, real religion triumphed Internet religion.
Robert Puttnam, the author of Bowling Alone who popularized the term ‘social capital’, followed an ecstatic keynote speech talk by Scott Heiferman, co-founder and CEO of Meetup.com. Heiferman began at the pace of a runaway horse, and his frenzy only increased as he continued.
“We’re on the verge of a new people-powered era!”
Meetup.com wasn’t just for political junkies, he insisted: it allowed single mums, pug lovers and expatriates to meet, as slides of happy single mums, pug lovers and expatriates flashed past. Why?
“It means more power at the node!”
As Scott’s EPM (Exclamation-Marks-Per-Minute) rose to a machine gun tempo, he dispensed with sentences altogether, a high tempo succession of aphorisms.
“We need a new term for this!” he said, and steadied the PowerPoint projector long enough to offer a slide that read:
“Flash, Emergent, People-Powered, Long-Lasting, Open, Influential, Agile, Chapter-Based Institutions, Organizations, Unions, Coalitions, Associations With Card Carrying Members Engaged In Collective Action!”
What did these groups have in common? Scott explained.
The slides of happy pug-lovers, holding their pooches, flashed round again.
“They’re emergent! Esther Dyson wrote that the Republican Party was an emergent organization!”
A thin voice from the front row – which turned out to be Esther herself – piped up, “But that was a very long time ago.” Undeterred, Heiferman rattled on.
“The USA was an emergent organization! – That idea of collective power! – We haven’t unleashed that yet!”
“It’s collective power! – Linux! – Google! – Google is collective power!! – The links!!”
The PowerPoints were now looping past us so quickly on the big screen, the presentation began to resemble a shaky 1920s animation.
“This will empower people! Citizens – shareholders – customers – employees and other people – with more power!!”
And with that, he sat down.
Puttnam welcomed Meetup.com and believed that it could be as big as the boy scouts. Technology had privatized leisure time, with the result that people participated on their own, at home. Now, he hoped, technology could help people meet each other and build real face-to-face ties with people.
He had been studying an evangelical church in Orange County, and confirmed that the church has played a central role in getting out the vote. He was particularly impressed by the low barrier to participating in the church by the group’s ‘Seeker’ drop-in sessions.
“Can internet groups achieve the same level of organization, eventually?” he asked.
The answer, which he hoped would be true, was yes. When people make a lasting commitment to a group, they stick around longer and behave better. Part of the reason online conversations are so hopeful are articulated neatly here: you can disagree with someone in the real world, but it’s hard to online without each party deciding it’s less trouble to walk away. So what’s to stop online groups from falling apart just as easily?
From the audience, an atheist single mum who lived in an evangelical community marveled at the level of support given to church members, and despaired that the secular were so poorly provided for. An earlier questioner had made the same point.
“White conservatives and African Americans have equivalents: they’re called churches. There’s no ‘meetup’ social networking institution for white adults. Where will it come from?”
Alas, despite much talk of low barriers to entry, and the relative stickiness of Meetup-originated groups, both panelists’ answers skirted around the issue. With a church, it’s harder to leave. Afterwards your reporter asked Puttnam why he thought leaving a church, with its faith commitment, was just as easy as leaving a pug-lovers group?
A colleague of his stepped in.
“People leave churches all the time in the United States,” he said.
Oh really? If he left an evangelical church wouldn’t he expect a friendly real world visit from some members of the congregation? The question left hanging in the air, as the party had to depart in a hurry. So for now, we must leave it there.
Although the audience was invited to marvel at the achievement of Internet-based social groups, it’s hard not to conclude that Churches have something even blogging pug-lovers don’t have. And no machine is going to bridge that gap.