Community Management in the Manner of Friends
On some level, any religious gathering is concerned with “holy ground.” Worship may happen in someone’s home, in a rented space, in a building owned by the congregation, or even one custom-built for the purpose. Regardless of where worship happens, the gathering must ensure that the property is well-maintained and welcoming, and moreover, that it reflects the character of its religious tradition. For Friends, this has meant having places that invite an inward, communal searching. Rather than dazzle with size or elaborate decoration, a property dedicated to Quaker worship does not put itself at risk of being raised above the practice of worship itself. It reminds us that if we are on holy ground, it is only because those of us who have gathered have dedicated ourselves to a radical openness of soul, hoping to feel Francis Howgill’s words confirmed: “[Y]ou will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present . . . convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging, and giving peace to all that love and follow Him.”
It seems to me that Friends should consider their digital properties in the same manner: their websites, their email newsletters and listservs, and their presence on social media. The Internet is not merely a means of communication but a place where communities are formed. To publish online is not simply a matter of getting the word out but of welcoming visitors to your community. Just as Friends ensure that their meeting spaces are in good order and visible to the newcomer, so should we take pains to ensure that our meetings are easy to find online; that our practices are explained to newcomers in ways that illuminate rather than perplex; and that our behavior online corresponds to our behavior offline, both bearing faithful witness to the Light we say guides us.
A few years ago, my local meeting grappled with these questions as we set out to overhaul our online communications. At the time we had a locally hosted website, frederickmonthlymeeting.org, that had not been substantially updated since the late 1990s. Our primary means of online communication was an email listserv, and our monthly newsletter, which also contained the minutes from meeting for business, was distributed both in print and through the listserv as a PDF attachment. Our social media presence was nonexistent. Several Friends believed we could and should work to make it easier for non-Quakers in our community to get to know us, as well as to deepen and improve communication within the meeting. An ad hoc communications committee was formed, and I joined. We moved our website to Friends General Conference’s Quaker Cloud service and adopted a new, less jargon-laden URL, frederickfriends.org. Because Quaker Cloud allows for uploading the minutes of business meetings, there was no need to have the newsletter handle that task, so we moved our newsletter to the MailChimp email service and made it online-only. We did keep our listserv however, recognizing that email is a common denominator for members and attenders, regardless of age or technological savvy. We made a slight upgrade by moving the listserv to Google Groups. The social media push took a while to implement, mainly because we were focused on those other digital tools. But by 2015, with some prodding from several Friends (including my wife), we set up a Facebook page where we post upcoming events and news items involving our meeting, share Quakerly content, and answer the occasional inquiry from newcomers. We may yet try out Twitter and Instagram, but a lot depends on how much volunteer labor we can raise up—hardly a surprise in a Quaker meeting!
As we set up these new tools, we realized we needed guidance for them, especially the listserv. We knew that discussions there could be acrimonious; also, many had felt deluged by the number of posts and so unsubscribed. With the new listserv, we drafted what we hoped to be sensible guidelines in keeping with Quaker principles and framed them as queries, for example, “Is my announcement about something of which Friends would welcome hearing? Does it harmonize with the testimonies and practices of the meeting? Have I made mention of it or similar topics already in the recent past?”
These guidelines were put to the test fairly quickly. An irregular attender at our meeting (whom I’ll call Alex) began to reply to innocuous posts on the listserv with inflammatory language taken from the world of conspiracy theories. He had previously shown interest in such theories and had even launched a tirade in one meeting for worship about the 9/11 attacks having been a plot hatched by the U.S. government and the Mossad. Friends stood to signal disapproval, and after meeting closed, they approached him to explain that his behavior was inappropriate. Rather than ceasing, he took his inflammatory speech online.
Our web administrator, in consultation with the Communications Committee and Ministry and Counsel Committee (of which I am also a member), wrote to Alex on several occasions urging him to refrain posting that type of writing, yet the comments kept coming. One problem we on the Communications Committee discovered was that the listserv lacked any mechanism for banning people from posting if they abused their privilege. Clearly such a mechanism was needed, but we felt uncomfortable confronting someone about his messages—always a fraught subject in Quaker meetings—and drafting a rule for one person specifically. Certainly Alex felt singled out. To be fair, he was: not because his politics diverged from the generally liberal sentiments held by most of the other members and attenders of our meeting, but because he was mistaking the participatory nature of Friends meetings for an open forum for all and sundry. One allows for the Spirit of God to work His way in the world, but an open forum leads to anarchy. In addition, the accusatory spirit that animates most conspiracy theories is impossible to square with the faithful spirit that is behind Christianity in general and Quakerism in particular. A life of “love, and peace, and tenderness” cannot be lived if you believe the world is in the grip of sinister forces, to say nothing of the unexamined racism that undergirds most conspiracy theories.
After many months of laboring with Alex, the Communications Committee and Ministry and Counsel informed Alex that he was banned from posting to the listserv for several months but invited him to request reinstatement after that time. About a year later, he did so, and Ministry and Counsel arranged to meet with him about it. Then he launched another tirade in meeting for worship, accusing the Pope of trying to depopulate the earth. He never followed up on the listserv matter and has not attended our meeting for a long time.
Although Alex’s behavior was far outside acceptable bounds for a Quaker meeting (or anywhere else, for that matter), we in the Communications Committee and Ministry and Counsel were left with a bad taste in our mouths. We had wanted to be welcoming but not at the expense of undermining our very character as a Quaker meeting. At the same time, we recognized that any rules we have should apply to everyone, even those with whom we agree. And in truth, our listserv had many posts of a secular, political nature that we let slide because we did not find them jarring, as we did Alex’s posts. So we decided to restrict posting on the listserv to just announcements related to meeting. At first, this seemed to work, but then our web administrator found herself uncomfortable with policing the behavior of Friends on the listserv who posted interesting links and articles, as they had done for years. What had been an often lively exchange of views was now largely quenched, and no one was happy with the situation. As one Friend put it, it was as if someone offering vocal ministry in meeting for worship were being shushed for not conforming to a strict set of rules.
Of course, what I’ve described above should be familiar to anyone who has had to manage online communities. At first, people self-organize around common interests, and without regulation, a broad range of participation is allowed. Then come the flame wars and the trolls, derailing discussions with bitter arguments or raining down abuse on members, often with sexual or racial overtones. At this point, community managers must either confront or ban offenders and risk accusations of censorship, or let things run their course and risk losing everyone offended by such behavior. Such is how many corners of the Internet (from Reddit to Twitter to comment sections of news websites) have become veritable cesspools that are unfit for reasonable discussion, even less so for discussion of spiritual topics.
Fortunately, with time, certain principles for online community management have emerged. According to Jessamyn West, a former moderator for the website MetaFilter (not to be confused with the Quaker novelist of the same name), moderation of online communities means “primarily setting the expectations of the site, whatever those may be, clearly.” It does no good for a user to be forced to guess at what behavior is allowed and what isn’t, or to have consequences doled out that seem to treat them as a scapegoat. In this respect, our listserv guidelines were inadequate when they were first put in place: They did not establish in unambiguous terms the purpose of the listserv, or state that failure to abide by the guidelines could result in banning. No matter how respectfully it is done, singling someone out for inappropriate behavior feels wrong within a group that is supposed to be radically welcoming. It is worse, however, for a group to signal through neglect that it has no standards at all: that there are no principles other than letting people have their say.
It is easy to see parallels between the liberal unprogrammed Quaker meeting for worship and an online community, given the value both place on keeping avenues for participation as wide as possible. And many of the difficulties each encounters are the same: Do we allow bad behavior to drive out the good? In giving everyone a voice, do we end up silencing others? Perhaps there’s a difference between setting expectations and setting a party line or creed, or between stating your beliefs and the manner in which they are articulated.
Thinking about online communities has helped me see how Quaker meetings can set expectations both online and offline. Elders, whether they are called by that name or not, play a crucial role in articulating what Friends should do in worship—not because they dictate what we do, but because they remind us of our purpose in worship, which is not reducible to any one person’s whims.
After several months of dissatisfaction with the heavily managed, announcements-only listserv, the Communications Committee held an open meeting to discuss how we might resolve the situation. We recognized that having some kind of discussion forum was greatly desired and helped continue the search for truth past meeting for worship. Yet we also recognized that placing responsibility for managing listserv content on one person was unfair.
We decided to create a second listserv specifically for discussion of any topic “consistent with our Quaker testimonies.” Friends could receive regular announcements without wading through discussions about global warming and the like. The discussion listserv would not be actively moderated, but the meeting had clear expectations that disrespectful and inflammatory language would be avoided. One Friend suggested that this new listserv should be “self-monitoring”: anyone who takes issue with a post should respond to the post’s author directly. Like meeting for worship itself, responsibility for ministry is not limited to select persons but is placed on all who are gathered. We hope that if this is kept in mind, this little corner of the Internet might yet emerge as holy ground.