Lily work, Social Networks, and Pomegranates
Here’s an interesting question: Are our modern Grand Lodge websites already obsolete?
At a committee meeting that I attended recently, the subject came up that some of our brothers were posting notices of lodge events on Facebook, which causes a problem for those brothers who aren’t connected to any of the dozens of social networking, blog-friending, or instant messaging hosts. The bigger concern, though, was that these events were not being published on the regular lodge web calendars.
This struck me as strange, because Grand Lodge of Connecticut has a fantastic web site, with hosting space for each lodge (each with their own domain), plus a web forum , and (and this is the important part) an easily updatable calendar that can be used as an event search tool. For example, as District Grand Lecturer, I like to visit lodges that are having degree work. Going to the Grand Lodge calendar allows me to search on, say, EA degrees, only in District 5. This presents me with a list of the lodges doing an EA degree anytime in the next few months.
At least, that’s what I would see, if the lodge bothered to update their calendar.
I’ve written before that the reason I started blogging was that when I was Master back in 2006 I wanted an easy way to announce events, and at the time the then-new GL web site was pretty much hosed. Events were lost, half the people didn’t know how to use the controls, and the few lodges that cared enough to dress up their site a bit from the cookie-cutter template were constantly frustrated by frequent updates which would wipe out their changes or enhancements.
Fortunately that aggravation is long past; the website is much easier to use, and good features and enhancements have been added over the last few years. Changing your lodge home page is painless, and you can add lodge forums, photos, newsletters, etc. You know, just like a real organization should have.
Which brings me back to the subject at hand: Why would lodges – that is, lodge officers – with their own website and calendar functions turn to Facebook (or any of the other social networking sites) in order to pass along information?
I wouldn’t bring this up if I didn’t already have an opinion, of course.
I think it’s simply a matter of convenience and available technology. Web sites are so last century.
Yes, Joomla and Drupal and their various plug-ins have made large sites much easier to set up and maintain. The problem, though, is that you still have to actually make a point to go visit them. While you might forget to visit a website to check for updates, there’s almost no danger of missing information on a social network, unless you overlooked it because of the sheer number of other updates you might be getting.
Facebook (for example) – especially with the Twitter application – allows you to customize the flow of information so that what you’re interested in comes to you, via your cell phone. Or your Crackberry. Or your email inbox. I can well understand the appeal, especially to those who pretty much live in front of their PCs; it’s definitely easy to send off an email or event notice to your named group, mention a few key details, and follow up with a little bit of chatter; the notices will have links to the events, and anyone getting automatic updates can immediately click the link (should they so desire) or forward the event to their online calendar.
By those standards, I feel like a moss-backed old turtle when I use my cell phone to send an SMS to my update my Google calendar, or to make a blog post via sending a multi-media message to my blogger address.
I understand the concern about lodge members – and not to be stereotypical, but it’s generally the younger members – Tweeting and Facebooking event details and updates. It inadvertently bypasses those who don’t live or work in front of a PC all day, or those who don’t care to immerse themselves in the Web 2.0 media stream. Entire events can be brainstormed and planned online in a matter of a couple of days without any need to meet in person. While it’s great for moving things along, the movers and shakers need to make sure that they aren’t neglecting the older members who have barely managed those wireless telephone thingies that all the kids have nowadays.
Interestingly, I’ve had exactly this conversation in the past, but in the context of static websites and emails being too “high tech” for the older members. Tempus fugit, eh?
Another concern that arose about the social networking sites seems to be the idea that it decentralizes the information, so that a) pretty much anybody (Masons or not) can see it, and b) the people who need to be informed – or at least, who think they need to be informed – might not get the information.
The validity of the first point seems a bit over-stressed, what with Dummies books, Idiots guides, dozens of personal blogs, and an almost weekly mention of the secret inner workings on the cable tv channels. Most Masons hip enough to be using Facebook are probably savvy enough to know what they should or should not be writing for public consumption anyway.
But the second point illustrates the constant tug of war between those who understand the need for some kind of central repository for information, and those who tend to adopt new tools, techniques, and strategies when the need arises.
Obviously, having some central facility for knowledge and information is important to the success of an organization. In fact, I’d say it was inherent in the term itself. People who are in positions in which they are responsible for organizing and overseeing other people or projects really do need some way to get the information easily.
The problem with the “keep it in the house” attitude is that the structure itself often becomes more important than the contents and accessibility. Everybody involved in some way wants to have input on what kinds of and how much data should be stored, who can access the data, and how it should be managed. Then, add in those people who can’t or won’t figure out how to use the existing tools, and you have a situation in which only a few people will actually be using the tools on a regular basis. Eventually, the tools sit unused because they have limited usefulness.
There will always be pioneers and early adopters, people who will use new tools, or perhaps invent new uses for old ones. Such people drive the forces of innovation that allow us to progress as a society, whether it be to profit from more productivity with the same amount of work, or to have more leisure time, allowing us more opportunity for rest and refreshment. The early adopters also help to weed out those tools that aren’t useful, thereby saving the rest of us from wasting large amounts of time and energy.
Early adopters, however, often forget that not only are some people lagging behind a little bit, but that there a lot of people who aren’t even in the same race. Our lodge has at least one Past Master who insists that we send out postcards for major events so that people can hang them on the refrigerator as a reminder, and he is not amused to hear that newer appliances are connected to the internet so that one’s Google calendar can push the reminders to the door at the appropriate time.
I once told him the joke about Java once being something you’d find in your coffee mug instead of your cell phone.
He didn’t get it.
I’m not suggesting that the more static websites are no longer relevant, of course. We will always have a need for safe repositories for the archives of our Craft, and that includes a place to keep handy and useful information. I know that more US states over the last few years have taken the time and resources to create very impressive websites, although from what I can see, most of them are still merely online pamphlets explaining a bit about Freemasonry, and giving a few phone numbers and contact details. A good example is the site of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts: they have a beautiful Flash-driven website that offers some announcements and contact information, along with information about the fraternity; but there is no way to find anything about the lodges themselves, let alone a local calendar, unless that lodge (or a well-meaning member) bothered to put up their own web page.
Indeed, a few minutes of searching on the GL Massachusetts site shows that most of the lodges themselves don’t even have their own web pages, and those that do are a mishmash of 1990s style Geocities pages to more modern, media-laden websites. A perusal of the web sites of other Grand Lodges around the US shows that this is rather typical; I’ve seen a lot of Geocities and AOL personal pages hosting lodge websites, and while I admit that it seems I’m bit of a cyber-elitist, the more distressing part is that if my random surfing is any indication, the vast majority of lodges in the US don’t even have a website. In contrast, GL Connecticut gives web space to each lodge with a hosted dot org domain name, and the calendar for each lodge is tied in to the Grand Master’s calendar, so that once an event is entered, it can be searched from any other lodge calendar. Each lodge website is built on a Joomla template, allowing (if the lodge can find somebody to help them) plug-ins for picture albums, forums, and other little applications.
I can imagine some brothers from a few of the less tech-blessed jurisdictions wondering why anybody would resort to some outside service, considering what we have for web tools. We’re probably just spoiled up here.
With two-thirds of our population using broadband internet connections, and the merging of SMS/text messages into most of the social networking and micro-blogging services, it’s probably unreasonable to expect connected and tech-savvy Masons not to use them for communication, especially since they are probably already using these features for communicating with family, non-Mason friends, and work mates. As one of those aforementioned connected Masons, myself, I readily admit that I like the idea of being able to jump in and out of a conversation that might take place over several days. I find that the more I use Facebook, the more I enjoy the variety of features, and over the last six months or so, I’ve been using it more and often, to where I’m checking it several times a day. At least half of my contacts are Masons from around the globe, most of whom I know from the various web groups to which I subscribe, but I’m discovering more family members and old friends every month.
Ironically, despite the subject of this article, very few of my own lodge brothers use Facebook. They’re probably too busy with their personal WoW and Counterstrike servers.
As to the issue of some brothers using Facebook instead of their lodge websites, I think that first of all, any brothers that are taking advantage of new technologies to keep in touch should be applauded for their ingenuity. That said, perhaps those same brothers, being more tech savvy, should actually be the ones in charge of keeping the lodge websites updated, since they are already spending at least some time passing around event details; five minutes to access the calendar really shouldn’t be much of a stretch.
And that said, despite the fact that we probably have one of the best Grand Lodge websites in the US, maybe we need to look at some enhancements to make it even more accessible and usable for the technorati, and eventually for everyone else in the future. For example, RSS readers are now ubiquitous – not only are there a dozen popular readers for your browser, you can find them built into some email clients and Firefox browser extensions. Perhaps web calendar updates could be aggregated and syndicated for subscribers. Better, could the calendar updates be emailed to a subscriber list? Masons interested in the events in particular lodges could subscribe to the calendar updates, which could (perhaps) be filtered for event type.
But what about information flow in the other direction? The answer might be already available in the form of microblogging : There are a dozen well-known microblogging platforms (such as Twitter or Jaiku ), most of which will accept input from PCs, IM clients, or cell phones/SMS. Installing a Twitter application on a lodge website would allow any of the members to post not only event details, but comments about the event, and even pictures. It might be difficult to figure out how to capture a Tweet and put it into usable for in order to make a direct calendar update, but it might not be a good idea anyway, as you would need to control access to prevent adverts and spam.
Certainly there are a lot of options here, and there’s much to think about. I’m sure that our GrandLodge IT guys will enjoy having a word with me at our upcoming Grand Lodge Annual Communication at the end of the month. If any readers have something to add, please feel free to leave a comment so I can pass it along to them.