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Online dating concept. Hand & Wine Glass Through Laptop ScreenI just achieved the milestone of collecting 500 followers on Twitter. Not really sure what this means, but I’m certainly impressed with myself. Apparently either this many people are interested in seeing my daily collection of random quotations, observations, and links to someone else’s hard work and good thinking, or I have attracted a herd of Multi-Level Marketing scammers. Either way, I was just a tad puffed up at my new-found “popularity”.

I know getting more and more connections is important because people offer me “sure-fire” ways to accomplish it. I regularly receive offers to share the “secret” of how to achieve follower levels in the forty thousand-plus range. I also regularly receive requests to follow someone else to help them reach some arbitrary number of people following their every electronic musing on some networking site.  Apparently this will make them happy.

After all, Ashton Kutcher and Ellen DeGeneris have more Twitter followers than the combined populations of several countries (Ireland, Panama, and Norway, if you’re interested) (source: “Socionomics” blog). If piling up numbers is good enough for them, isn’t it good enough for me?

Facebook.com has a similar thing going with numbers of “friends”, enhanced by the ease of connecting on this gigantic social networking site. Little effort is involved in racking up a respectable list of 200 or more friends.

Even the primay business networking site, LinkedIn.com, supposedly more serious and results oriented, includes a great number of folks that proudly proclaim their status as “LIONs” (Linked In Open Networkers) with thousands of links to other people. They achieve this by accepting any invitations to connect from anyone who asks. I have linked to a number of LIONs and had no meaningful contact with them after connecting, which left me feeling a little like highMPj04331250000[1] school, when I thought I had a friendship with one of the cool kids, only to find out differently in a very hurtful way. While some LIONs actively “work” their large networks, many apparently are just engaging in a game for bragging rights.

So, when does the idea of “enough is enough” kick in here?

I have enough trouble just keeping up with everyone in my nuclear family, which includes my wife and brother, four children, three lovely spouses, and five spectacularly perfect grandchildren, let alone all my online connections.

Well, according to a study by Robin Dunbar, a maximum number for effective relationships does exist and that number is 150.

Mentioned in The Tipping Point , this concept has been applied to military units, employee group sizes, and even church congregations. Maybe this is why so many Disciples congregations of my acquaintance seem to hover around this number.

Tobias Escher expands on this fascinating theory, stating that “. . . to put it simply: Your brain can just deal with about 150 meaningful relationships.” Meaningful relationships are those with people who you trust, can go to in times of distress, and who occupy a specific position in our social network. So we can have those other relationships, but there does appear to be an upper limit on those which really count.

This whole discussion brings up some interesting questions about our use of social media.

Why am I doing this? Am I connecting with others online for bragging rights or am I interested in more meaningful connections?

Do I really need accounts and profiles on all these networking sites or is it time to focus?  Is the time I spend on The Intersection more valuable than other sites (the answer is “yes” to this question:).

CB048713Have I identified my true Circle of Influence? Not those I can sell something to, but those who I would contact if I needed help. Many people are struggling with employment issues these days. How many of those 500 followers on Twitter would I feel comfortable sending an IM that I need some gigs to make the rent next month?

Am I spending enough time nurturing those relationships that really matter, both online and face-to-face, or am I just lost in a blur of online living?  I may be able to handle more than 150, but when do the numbers get in the way of what I am trying to do?

After all, Jesus only had 12 primary connections and look at what he was able to do.

. . . . Just some things to consider as we all develop our social networking strategies on this crisp and beautiful fall day here in the heartland.

John

John E. Smith lives in Maryland Heights, Missouri and is a member of Webster Groves Christian Church.   He  blogs at both A Matter of Strategy and  The Strategic Learner.  You can follow his  tweets as @Stratlearner on Twitter.

Diane Butler Bass is a researcher and writer who looks at the realm of spirituality and religion.  Her work of late has partially focused of late on what constitutes and drives mainstream Christian congregations.  “ Christianity For The Rest of Us” is a fascinating book in which she examines the type of church that many of us experienced as we grew up and what currently makes for a thriving and vibrant worshipping community. 

In her research, which included both “numbers crunching” and a long series of in-depth ethnographic activities with members of different congregations, Bass identified ten elements usually present in these thriving congregations.    One of these elements is Testimony. 

Bass and her interviewees have a lot to say about this venerable and changing Christian tradition.  From the early church’s need for oral history to preserve and grow, to the Puritan practice of public statements about how God had already changed us to make us eligible for church membership and finally to the current practice of sharing our spiritual journey with others in varied places and situations, this is a well-written and interesting look at one of the components of being a Christian in a faith community that many of us are not all that comfortable with.

Testimony is on my mind today for two reasons:  1) because I am using the Bass book in an adult Christian education class right now and we just discussed this chapter, and  2)  because of what happened on facebook.com last week.

There among all the Mafia Wars, Farming, Bingo, pictures of the kids and someone’s summer vacation, and the seemingly endless polls about everything under the sun was this status update from a dear friend:

“No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.”

I have no idea where this post originated because I started to see it in other people’s posts almost immediately.  In true viral fashion, I immediately copied and pasted as my status because I was struck by the simple truthfulness of the statement.  Apparently I was not being very creative because this same message started to appear from many of my connections.  Since my connections include a range that includes childhood friends, college buddies, colleagues from every job I have ever had, members and staff from all my church homes, business partners, relatives from across town and the other side of the world, along with an eclectic collection of friends from various and sundry times of my life, this was significant.  Watching a statement take hold in so many varied minds was impressive to me.

But what really got my attention was what happened next.

Variations of this message from the “loyal opposition” began to appear.  Not really unexpected, since health care reform has been such a divisive and engaging topic all summer.  Our television and computer screens have been dominated by pictures of shouting groups from all sides of the argument and the charges and counter-charges of not letting the other side speak have flown.  Elected officials have been shouted down and good citizens ignored.  The whole affair has not been characterized as “civil discourse”.

So I braced myself for more of the same in this online venue.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by what started to happen.  As you might imagine, people started responding to each other. On Facebook, when you connect to someone you know, you also become witness to their interactions with other people that they know, but you do not.  You can see some of their online conversations with their friends.  Some people find this disconcerting.  I’m a little more of a voyeur, so I don’t mind, although I always remain mindful of the public nature of what we post.

So in some cases, people were reacting to what a “friend of a friend” stated as their public testimony of their position on health care.

 However, in my corner of the virtual world, the discussions were polite, respectful, and with a definite air of “We can disagree and still remain connected.”  I was pleasantly amazed by the general air of open communication that unfolded on my computer screen.  This was not what I have come to expect.

As I pondered all this, several questions came to me.  I’ll leave them with you . . .

Can social networking media provide new ways of enabling us to provide testimony to our beliefs and our faith?

Is it possible that establishing connections before having the “hard conversations” is a key to changing how we communicate when we disagree?

Can social networking media actually support healthy discussion as well as the more-publicized ranting and raging that often characterizes the public impression of how issues are treated in online forums?

 

John

My wife and I have been married for thirty years . . . today! This is a very good thing.

At this point in our lives, we have a daily routine that works well for us. After a relaxed meal together in the evening, she goes up the stairs to her office/den where she watches HGTV and other apparently fascinating TV shows. I go downstairs to my office/den and devote myself almost exclusively to visiting my favorite websites, preparing to teach classes or learn something for myself, with an occasional break to watch some favorite movie from 20 to 30 years ago.

It’s all about being connected. We are content to simply be “together”, because we know where the other one is, and we both derive a sense of stability from that.

I am often asked, usually by someone who is not familiar with social networking online, why I spend time “playing” with it. Depending on my mood, I might dismiss the Luddite or engage in a spirited attempt to convert them to the online life.

Some of us use networking media to do our jobs. While the business application might be to drive your marketing efforts, create new customers or establish a business relationship with a vendor or client, the result is connecting and reconnecting with people.   This is the real power of social networking:  connections.  With our lives being lived on a global scale as never before, the ability to easily stay in touch with those who have touched us is essential.

As examples, here are a few vignettes from my own experiences reconnecting with others who were and are again part of my life.

Paul Svenson and I met while I worked at the National Benevolent Association (now Disciples Benevolent Services). Paul is a gifted musician who excels at working with large groups and specializes in church and religious events. We used him to create musical experiences during employee conferences as a much-needed counterpoint to the mundane business we were often conducting. Now I enjoy Paul’s regular status updates on Facebook where he always names the joy he feels in the days of his life – even making breakfast for his wife.

Tabitha Knerr and Vy Nguyen are two intelligent and energetic young Disciples who I was fortunate enough to meet while both were moving through their educational process in St. Louis. With my background in higher education, I know that students come into our world and they usually move right on through to the rest of their lives. It is particularly gratifying to me now to know where and what these two are doing as they move into ministry with our denomination.

I have been a member of three very different Disciples congregations and was fortunate enough to be ministered by three totally different, but equally nurturing pastors. I consider each of these spiritual mentors and their spouses as a blessing and as truly special people in my life. As life often goes, either we or the minister has moved away and time goes by. You have a maybe vague idea where someone probably is. You receive the occasional Christmas card or see a familiar name in Disciples World.  Then you join Facebook and there they are: Dann and Debbie Masden; George and Lori Richardson; Tim and Kathy Carson, as close as my computer any time I need to check in on them.

While working at NBA, I met many fine and wonderful people around the country with whom I shared a commitment to our mission and our operation. As most of us moved on to new chapters in our lives, an email list was created for those who were still at NBA or had been associated with NBA to maintain this vibrant connection. That worked well for a while, but like many things that depend on one or two people to generate, eventually the list lost its robustness. This is the great weakness of “push” lists, where information emanates outward from a source. Today, I maintain those great connections through various online sites and we all generate content that keeps us aware of each other’s lives. It’s not dependent on any one person or group.

Beyond these examples, there are many others: old friends from grade school, high school, and colleges, colleagues from every job I’ve ever had, church friends, children of old friends, business contacts, and interesting people from various sources across the entire globe, not to forget a great number of Australian relatives, most of whom I have never met face-to-face.

I have to smile when I remember beginning a pen pal relationship with one cousin when we were both teenagers long ago. From writing letters, we graduated to the occasional e-mail and even had a family website, mostly used for posting pictures, for a while. It has only been since beginning to connect online that I am finally getting to know all the generations of my mother’s family in that far-off place.

Yes, the Internet reaches beyond geography. I reconnected with one former colleague from a job in Texas during the late 1980’s. Today she is in Belgium married to a soldier with five lovely red-headed children. I would not have bumped into her at the neighborhood grocery store . . . ever.

I maintain my contacts through LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and a few other specialized networking sites. These are large sites with many participants, but there are other great networking sites that work well. My connections sometimes duplicate, with virtual links to another person on several difference websites. For those who make some attempt to keep our business and social lives separate, this is important. Facebook is like my virtual neighborhood where friends, family, and colleagues mix in a crazy quilt pattern and the content is varied and much more informal. LinkedIn is where I go to work. Twitter is where I practice brevity and clarity, given the 140-character limit to one’s posts.

In all places, I remember that my words and thoughts are usually public.

I have remarked in other venues about a recurring theme in our lives where we meet people and then reconnect at a later time in our lives. Our lives “weave, bob, and intersect with others, time and time again.” Social media applications have the power to do this very effectively on a global scale. The reality is often that, after a brief flurry of “catching up”, we simply continue to be connected into the future.

That’s okay . . . it’s not about knowing every trivial little detail of someone else’s life. It’s about knowing when they are okay, knowing when they are not okay, and being able to reach out to people I care about. I know my wife is upstairs and I know those who are not near physically are right out there on the Net.

That comforts me.

John E. Smith lives in Maryland Heights, Missouri and is a member of Webster Groves Christian Church.   He welcomes invitations to connect on both LinkedIn and Facebook (free registration on both sites is required to connect).   His blog is called A Matter of Strategy and you can follow his sporadic tweets as @JohnESmith on Twitter.

John E. Smith, guest blogger

John E. Smith, guest blogger

Much is being written these days about the power of the Internet and Web 2.0.  Social media has become the new “place to be” and you can hardly breathe without hearing about blogs, wikis, Twittering, podcasts, and other tools of the online trade. The idea of a company without a website now seems quaint.

The ability to function in an online environment is quickly becoming a baseline competency for everyone, rather than the realm of the lucky few. You can find almost anything or anybody online, if you know how. Will Boyd’s recent NewsMuse blog posting was an excellent overview of the uses of social networking media tools.

Who knew “Google” was a verb? Who knew I could “tweet”? Who knew I would someday want to?

It’s a wonderful, brave new world out there in cyberspace . . . so why am I nervous?

I may have figured it out. While watching President Obama’s inauguration, I was keeping an eye on the update comments made by people as they watched the broadcast on the Facebook website: Obama on the left side of the computer screen and a scrolling list of online remarks on the right side, coming from computers or cell phones as events unfolded in Washington. At the height of Obama’s speech, over 4,000 comments were being made every minute. They ranged from poetic to sublime to mundane to just silly, and everything (even Aretha’s hat) was fair game.

I was “boggled” by the amount of information I was receiving. It was both fascinating and disconcerting. This was a relatively new sensation for me, so I considered why this was happening. Finally, I got it: The Internet makes it all visible.

Thousands of people having their personal reactions to an event, and I got to see it all. There was too much going on too fast to take in and react to, other than the general sense of so much thought and communication occurring instantaneously. While I got a general idea that many people were happy, I lost most of the nuances and details that I would have “caught” if I were with a few friends watching on TV.

This is the online world. There are an untold number of discussions occurring right now, complete with comments, rebuttals fair and not, on almost any subject you can name. Google a topic like “leadership” and the sites, documents, blogs, and videos pile up like grains of sand on the beach. Much of this discussion and thinking was going on before, but we could not see it, like we do now. The Net makes it all visible.

We may have tended to think that what we experience in our personal “bubbles” is what is going on. We can no longer indulge that fantasy. Life is loud, multi-faceted, and way too complex for anybody to have a complete handle on.

Hence my question: Is this visibility of human interaction created by the online world positive or negative for us?

I’m no techie, just a person trying to “muddle through.” Questions like this are important to me as the world continues to change at an accelerating pace. So I asked a form of this question on LinkedIn, a business networking site, and received numerous responses from intelligent and thoughtful people from all over the globe.

One of my favorite came from Andrew Thorn, a leadership consultant and all-around Good Guy, who said:

“I could not help but think about God as I read this question. He has the ability to hear and see everything all at once. Did you see the movie Bruce Almighty? Bruce had a hard time dealing with life because he got to experience God’s omniscient capability …. Somehow God can see and hear everything and still be present. That is an amazing thought.”

Yes, Andrew . . . an amazing thought! As I move into a world my parents could not have imagined, it’s also a comforting thought. No matter how complex our lives get, no matter what new technology or challenges come to us, God is able to cut through the noise and distractions to hear each of us, no matter how many are praying, or whether we tweet, blog, talk or just think, our messages will get through . . . all of them.

Now I feel less nervous about tackling podcasting.

John E. Smith lives in Maryland Heights, Missouri and is a member of Webster Groves Christian Church. He welcomes invitations to connect on both LinkedIn and Facebook (free registration on both sites is required to connect). His blog is called A Matter of Strategy and you can follow his fledgling tweets as @JohnESmith on Twitter.

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