Thursday, 26 March 2015

Embrace New Technology

 Technology and Unitarianism - Oxymoron?

I think it's true to say that the idea of using more technology for any reason can evoke some pretty strong feelings in some people. Perhaps UK Unitarians are even worse than the average in this respect: maybe it's an age thing, I don't know. It seems to me that there are a number of reasons why technology gets invented: perhaps to meet a need or to make something easier or to automate a task. Indeed, perhaps the reason that scares people most is when technology is created to facilitate something completely new and foreign to our established ways of doing things - communicating on Twitter for instance.

Using Twitter seems to be more of a 'young person's game' - however you might be surprised to learn that apart from the quick, simple and free capability it offers for two or more people to have private conversations in 'real-time', sharing comments, pictures and other media, Twitter is also considered a vital part of the customer interaction strategy of many businesses. In fact, it's not just businesses; many other organisations (including churches) are getting in on the act because it's a quick (and mainly free) way to communicate information and respond to questions. The twittering population expects fast answers and because of the way twitter works, the tweets are usually public and easily searchable, so the organisations that use it take care to preserve their image and respond accurately and quickly. Some even scour the 'twittersphere' for tweets that mention their name so they can be sure they know what's being said about them. Please, if you haven't already, consider reaching out to someone who can teach you what Twitter might be able to do for your church or fellowship.

Within some Unitarian gatherings (particularly the more business orientated ones), tweeting what is happening live during the sessions, is not only allowed but usually encouraged. By this means, people that are not present can feel that they are connected to proceedings and can feel something of the enthusiasm or spirit of what is going on. It has even been suggested that this kind of live social media usage should be encouraged during regular Sunday worship and gatherings. Shocking right! Never mind the cries of 'put down your phone' to your kids; maybe it should be 'pick up your phone and tweet, tweet, tweet! - tell the world what a great place we have here and what brilliant things we do here'

Beyond Twitter, I think it's clear that almost everybody is engaging (willingly or otherwise) on Facebook. Unitarians are very active on Facebook. If you are not, I might tentatively offer that maybe you are missing an opportunity to engage with others in the wider (and nearer) Unitarian Movement and possibly even depriving said movement of your own unique and valuable opinion and insight.

If you do not currently use Facebook and are even slightly interested in what you might be missing, might I urge you to reach out to someone that does use it and find out how and why it works? If you can't find someone to assist, call me - or even better come to the Unicoms conference at Hucklow in November and there will be many willing hands to get you going.

OK - so that's all I'm going to say about this new-fangled social media stuff: yes there's a lot more out there that we could be using (and some are) but if you can understand and master Twitter and Facebook and actually use it either for personal connection and growth and / or better still for connection with and growth of the wider organisation, then we are all already winning as a result!

While I think about it, let me just interject two words: 'smart phones'. I'll come back to this, but I will say that with a 'smart phone', you can use just about every tool that I will discuss in this article...

So what about older technology that we could be using? This is the stuff that is perhaps too old and uncool for our kids to be using but that maybe has already passed us by or that we do not see the use of. What could I be talking about?

The first is Skype, the second is Google Hangouts. Both do the same thing in essence and that is to provide a way of having a telephone meeting (conference call) with one or even many people, without having to have everyone physically in the same room. This sort of technology is used every day by most companies across the globe but still the benefits of being able to do this are unknown by many, many people.

Both Skype and Google Hangouts are free programs (also available as free apps on all smart phones). They depend on the user's computer or smart phone to be connected to wi-fi to work. Actually, they can also work over a 3G or 4G mobile data network as well but before doing this, users need to be sure that they have enough data allowance on the mobile plans.

Once a potential Skype user has registered (within the Skype program itself), they can connect to any other Skype user, anywhere in the world, free. All that is required is a network connection and a microphone connected to the computer. Similarly, a user with Google Hangouts can connect to any other Google user worldwide. By the way, any person who has a google account (i.e. gmail account) implicitly also has the capability of using Hangouts).

So what does 'connect' mean in this context? It can mean any or all of three things: messaging, audio or video.
Messaging simply means typing text messages to the other party (or parties) that you have connected to and receiving their text responses. Rather similar to SMS messages on our phones, except for the fact that you can be connected to multiple other people simultaneously, who all see the conversation on their computer or phone at the same time.
Audio means that you can connect to one or more people and use your microphone on your computer or phone to talk to those people simultaneously (and they back to you and / or the group also). Unlike dialling one or two people using your phone dialler and the public phone system, such audio sessions on Skype or Google Hangouts are actually being sent over the data network provided by your wi-fi. Because of this, no phone charges are applicable. By the way, you can even use either Skype or Google Hangouts to act like a regular phone and dial other phones (rather than computers or smart phones on a data network) anywhere in the world, but this feature does incur some charges, although these are very reasonable.
Video (in the same way as audio) means that you can connect to one or more people and use the microphone and WebCam on your computer or phone to both see and talk to those people simultaneously (and they to you and / or the group) - again for free. This means that you are able to actually see who you are having a meeting with and they can see you, almost as if you were face-to-face. This can be very effective and amazingly, is still offered free by both Skype and Google Hangouts. The only real caveat with using these services to do a video meeting is that everyone on the call needs to have a good broadband / network connection or else the quality of the sound and video can be poor and also sometimes people tend to get disconnected from the meeting and have to re-join.

Why have I gone through the above in such detail? The reason is that I want everyone to know that you do not have to have your congregational or other meetings physically in the same room anymore. Using Skype or Hangouts, those people who couldn't get out to any given meeting can still join it remotely, or maybe nobody physically attends it at all and everybody joins in to the meeting from their home computers instead.

Finally, here's a 'Marmite' topic to think about: Use of audio / visual equipment as part of your services and gatherings. Have you considered using a computer, PowerPoint and other media as part of your services? Hook up to a projector and audio system of some description and you have the means to include all sorts of material into your worship. I'm thinking of stuff like pre-recorded hymn tracks (perhaps with film of singers too). Or maybe music/video footage such the Pete Seeger 90th birthday conference rendition of 'We shall overcome' available on YouTube - moving indeed. Recently, I have been to many services that actually have almost all of the service displayed on the screen. This has included appropriate pictures and iconography setting the scene or supporting the theme, music if there is no organist, video for stories or illustrations, responsive readings that all present can see and read together and music / concert videos bringing variety and focus to services / gatherings that simply could not be done any other way.

Another opportunity many of us are missing is to record our worship or gatherings and make them available over the Internet - perhaps on YouTube or even more radical, to stream them live over the Internet as they happen. How many more people could benefit from your messages and participate in your worship if you did this? Unfortunately, I simply do not have space to address these topics here.
So I will leave you with two thoughts: firstly, embracing technology can help you grow by reaching out to and appealing to new audiences that might never otherwise have heard your message.
Secondly, if you don't already have one, get yourself a smart phone (it doesn't have to be expensive). Install Facebook, twitter and other tools on it and join in with the wider Unitarian organisation online. Everyone will be the richer for it.

Finally, if you need help with any of the things I have discussed, call me or send me an email and I'll try to help. Better still, come to Unicoms at The Nightingale Centre in November and have your questions answered in person by any of the 'tech-savvy' helpers who attend and run it. Have fun!

Julian Smith

In Response

From: Dorothy Haughton

As communication is made more and more by email it has to be the responsibility of each congregation to find someone who is email savvy to receive communications and pass them on to the appropriate person. Similarly someone who uses Facebook could print out anything of interest from there. The idea that only one person 'the SECRETARY' is responsible for all forms of communication is outmoded. In some cases the new media person does not even need to be a member of the congregation.

1 comment:

  1. The NUF has led the way in the use of the internet so has experience of what it can achieve and what it can't achieve.Monthly video meditations have been a wonderful use of the medium ; there are now many video services available from UKUTV that will give any seeker a taste of what we have Unitarians have to offer : whether they always give the best impression of us is for others to judge.I am not sure that many of the recordings show visual media/drama/ in use and churches need to remember IMHO that one speaking voice only for an hour - however good the speaker- is unlikely to hold viewers' attention.How many churches display the readings for the congregation on a screen ? Is there any visual illustration of the them included .How many churches are properly equipped with loop systems for the hearing impaired ( the age range of many congregations implies that they will likely be needed by some at least of those present ) and has the church been trained in their use ?