Friends and Cyberspace

My interest in Quakerism has grown steadily over the past decade during my tenure as an English teacher and more recently as the dean of students at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. I never had an aha! moment in meeting for worship, what early Quakers might have experienced as a literal shaking of the body. In fact, I have never been much of a religious person. But for the past ten years I have dutifully escorted my charges into the meeting room each Thursday morning to sit with about 500 students and teachers in relative silence for 40 minutes.

For the first few years, I considered these weekly meetings as minor inconveniences in the way of getting some real work done. Now I realize that much of the real and important work of the school is being modeled and reinforced during these weekly meetings, which are individual and communal searches for the truth/Truth.

Meetings for worship at Quaker schools imitate those at monthly meetings, but school meetings also serve a pedagogical purpose. Genuine reflection is an incredibly hard thing to teach, wheedle, or cajole from schoolchildren each week, yet that is what Quaker schools are up to. In fact, meeting for worship is a very deliberate teaching tool, though most practicing Quakers might eschew the notion that meeting for worship may be used as a deliberate means to a secular end. The Quaker educator Robert Smith was on to it when he wrote (in a Friends Council on Education "occasional paper"): "Simple in design, minimally comfortable and as broad as space allows, the meeting bench has been a Friends school’s most important learning tool for more than 300 years."

I’ve come to realize that the meeting for worship experience attempts to create a space in school each week for Quaker beliefs and practices to germinate and then emanate—both inwardly to the spirit and outwardly to the community and to the world in various forms of service. Interestingly, you can’t record what is happening in the room with any device known to us. It must be experienced.

For non-Quaker schoolchildren—like the 93 percent of students who currently attend the 81 Quaker schools in the United States—meeting for worship must feel at first like a peculiar, downright foreign experience. Young people, however, are not totally in the dark when it comes to understanding the norms, rules, and protocols of the nearest Quaker school’s meeting for worship. Students, particularly in middle and high school, often come to their first meeting for worship with listening, reflecting, and speaking skills intact—skills they have developed online in the form of social networking sites and blogs.

More about these sites and blogs in a moment, but for now consider how we are all connected, technologically speaking: electronic communication will increasingly blur the line between what happens in face-to-face interactions and what happens in cyberspace. All the zeroes and ones that make up the binary code of electronic communication will continue to become central in our daily lives. Technology in this century is in the process of fundamentally altering the way we live and love one another.

Most readers of Friends Journal know firsthand the purposes and practices of a Friends meeting. But I suspect that there are more than a few who are in the dark about the topography of the Internet, especially as it pertains to the hottest new phenomenon on the web right now—blogs. Friends meetings and the blogosphere have a lot in common, and their similarities are surprising.

Why Should We Care About Blogs?

"Blog" is an abbreviated word for "weblog," which is a website that offers information that can constantly be updated. People who update blogs are called "bloggers." Writers write, singers sing, and bloggers blog. The labels bloggers, blogs, and blogging don’t sound dignified, let alone important. In fact, most people who are not Internet-savvy look upon blogs the way the ultra-left looks upon golf: anyone who has time to blog must not be working very hard.

But bloggers are engaged in very serious activities. Take the small group of amateur bloggers that upended Dan Rather’s faulty report on George Bush’s military record on the eve of the last presidential election—bloggers began Internet discussions that were picked up by the mainstream media, which was widely held to have accelerated Rather’s retirement. How’s that for the power of the people? A group of average U.S. citizens sitting behind Internet-connected computers—acting alone and yet together—fanned this story into numerous Internet "fires" until the truth could not be extinguished by the pundits in the mainstream press.

This anecdote underscores the power of individuals on the Internet. Bloggers often feel that they are connected and that their voices matter, both individually and collectively. Bloggers are also involved in serious play. At any time, day or night, someone is talking about spitfires or spelunking or Steven Spielberg’s latest movie. If you can imagine it, then there is—or there will be—a blog about it. The sidebar to this article gives some more information about Quaker blogs, including a helpful discussion about the composition of blogs.

Blogs give people around the globe the power to communicate about any topic at any time. Even if you had an army of reporters and writers at your disposal and an unlimited payroll, you could not cover this "beat." In the cyberworld, the beat is whatever people are interested in talking about. The interests of the people—including the infinite pursuits of all kinds of truths—are no longer bound and limited by magazines on a rack, the pull-out sections of newspapers, or journals. Nor is information solely "owned" or disseminated by institutions and organizations, from the sacred to the secular. In the blogosphere, "all the world’s a stage," and anyone with an Internet connection can play a part. If you honestly believe in the wisdom of the group, this is nothing short of a revelation.

Some argue that the democratization of the blogosphere and the reduction of professional gatekeepers (editors, publishers, etc.) in comparison to other media create an environment where purveyors of inaccurate or biased information are elevated to their own soapbox. I’ve always been suspicious of this criticism, since it takes into consideration only one small part of the blogosphere. To be sure, liberals and conservatives have their favorite blogs and their favorite bloggers who stridently espouse rigidly held views in a manner that would bring most Friends’ meetings for business to a grinding halt.

But to characterize the Internet as merely an endless series of camps, each engaged in making more noise than the other, is just faulty. Most people who read and write blogs spend time listening to others, weighing opinions, and generally reflecting on many sources of data and what they mean. Part of the fun is in bouncing around the Internet and reading all kinds of opinions, from amateur to professional, to just plain wacky. Sometimes the professionals get it wrong, or miss something important. Sometimes the wacky, upon review, don’t seem so wacky. In the same way, in a Friends’ meeting for worship, sometimes a profound message or a simple idea is gracefully expressed by the most unlikely member of the meeting. Would we rather hear only from the elders?

How Blogging Resembles Friends Meetings

It is illuminating to consider that almost everything a person needs to know about how to be an exemplary online citizen can be learned in Friends meetings. Meeting for worship has been described as a place and a time to have conversations with God/the Inner Light, without the help of intermediaries. The various roads to Truth are paved by the stones we call community, harmony, respect, simplicity, sincerity, and equality—testimonies that we ideally carry with us and act on long after the meeting is closed with the traditional shaking of hands.

In many ways, blogs are similar. They are constantly evolving online conversations where the purpose of the meeting is not to assemble to worship, but to gather to learn more about something—anything—that interests a group of people.

Like the members of a Friends meeting, all bloggers are equal in their ability to enter the conversation (in most cases, all you need is a computer and an Internet connection), but that doesn’t mean that all opinions carry equal weight. Just as there are "weighty Friends" (those whose judgment is regarded as exceptionally sound) in all Quaker meetings, there are also "experts" in most blogging communities, usually those who have been around a long time, or those who have a certain expertise on the particular topic or theme of the blog.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the experts are always right, nor that those who are right are always the experts. The purpose of most blogs is to harness the power of the group and to chronicle its unfolding and constantly updated wisdom. In blogs, postings are not organized according to an imposed hierarchy; normally the most recent post appears at the top of the page. To see older posts—or to see comments from other people around the Web—you generally have to scroll down.

Newcomers are usually welcome and treated with respect, even if their initial exuberance causes them to leave comments that go against the rules of the blog, which are usually quite simple. They sound a lot like the rules for a Quaker meeting for business and get boiled down to something like this: Be courteous and respectful to all readers and writers. Reflect before you leave a comment.

Eldering can—and does—occur in the blogging community. You will know it when it happens to you, and you will mend your ways or be blocked from future conversations. Bloggers are generally a lot less patient than Friends. For example, in most Friends meetings, Quakers labor with those who are contributing negatively for a long time before "blocking" their voice from further meetings. On a blog, getting locked out of future discussions can happen with the click of a button, especially if you irritate the owner or administrator of the blog by leaving inappropriate comments.

Contributions to the content of the blog are generally encouraged of all visitors, but not required. In order to leave room for others to more fully enter the discussion, every now and then some people need to take a vacation from commenting. Does this sound familiar?

Good bloggers know when to speak and when to be silent. Reflection permeates the language of all blogs. Without reflection and careful listening, the conversations degenerate into shouting matches (what bloggers often call flaming, a practice that is universally abhorred).

At their best, blogs are places where good conversations occur often and where people gather to listen and learn from one another. Bloggers, at their best, are virtual friends who know that rich conversations are held together by traits like reflection, equality, and respect—even if the community is spread across the country or globe.

The Internet community is rapidly becoming the most diverse community on Earth, yet there are still many places around the world where people do not have access to a computer, much less one with a steady Internet connection. Cyberspace is just one more place where the poor and the oppressed have little or no voice. Those of us with privilege and power need to be mindful of how we can better enable more people to participate in the online conversations.

The future is not bleak. It is not unrealistic to assume that at some point on the Internet horizon there will be fewer Towers of Babel and more virtual communities seeking to harness the wisdom of the group. The power of the Internet originates from the power of individual people of all races and all ethnicities, and, increasingly, people of diverse social classes and educational levels. That’s the beauty of blogs. They are leveling the playing field and bending many of the rules of the game. They are, in many ways, quite radical.

Eventually, with technology’s help, it is not a chimerical notion to imagine everyone as a member of the same "meeting."

An Invitation to Join the Conversation

History teaches us that neither culture nor cultural norms are established overnight. But with the Internet, acculturation on a grand scale is happening almost simultaneously for the same generation of worldwide users, who are mostly under the age of 35. William Golding, author of the widely read dystopian novel The Lord of the Flies, might have been surprised to discover that young people—left largely to their own devices in the cyberworld—have set up fairly stable and responsible patterns of behavior. This is an amazing phenomenon.

Perhaps the history books of the next generation will look back on this development with wonder and awe. Our presence in cyberspace may not be sorely needed, but it is certainly a place that most educators, including Friends, have not yet fully explored. Let’s get off our chairs and off the meeting room bench, so to speak, and into the online game.

George Fox, in his Journal, urges his peers to be exemplars: "Be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you" [italics added]. The last part of this quotation is often omitted or overlooked in Quaker literature, but I think it is important. Walking cheerfully over the world and blessing others is not closed or finished—like an electric circuit—until the blessing returns to you. The central idea I see here, boiled down to a few succinct messages, is: Follow the Truth, wherever it is taking you. Be open to new ways to listen to others. Share what you have learned. Complete the circuit.

Let your life speak—including that part of life that exists either on the Internet or because of the Internet. Does a virtual reality truly offend our understanding or imagination of how God or the Inner Light or Truth can be made manifest in our lives? If working for and in a Quaker school has taught me anything over the past decade, it has taught me to be open to continuing revelation and to the idea that the work we perform outwardly and inwardly often comes back to us in unexpected and surprisingly palpable ways.

Mark Franek

Mark Franek is the outgoing dean of students and an English teacher at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, Pa., where he has served for ten years. Michael Moulton, director of technology at the school and a member of Germantown Meeting in Philadelphia, also contributed to this essay.