Our congregations are really people, though it’s easy to think of them as institutions that exist without the people. The people of our congregations are diverse, especially in background, age, work, and education. Some have what Kim Komando calls the “digital lifestyle,” while others are quite happy without any electronic gadgets beside their phone and radio. As a result, there are many differences between us in the way we understand the Internet and how to use it.
This post is a quick guide that may help to bring us all onto the same page in the way we use our online tools. There are also members who don’t use the Internet at all, and that’s fine. But if you do, as a member of Bethany or Concordia, then you are part of Bethany and Concordia’s online presence.
Since we have such a wide variety of experience online, I have to apologize to some for being overly basic in parts of this post. It may even seem pedantic, but please remember that not everyone has the experience that you do. For those with less experience, there may be things here that are quite new to you, and even hard to digest. So please accept my apologies if I don’t introduce something clearly, and feel free to ask for clarification in a comment to this post! As for myself, I have had an online presence for many years now, but the online landscape has changed dramatically, and there are some things that I have little interest in pursuing, like Twitter, and constant attention to Facebook.
How we are online, and why it matters
First, we should understand that there are several ways people can be online, each with different limitations. Today, many people have begun using smartphones to be online, and they carry these phones at all times. It allows them to receive and send messages, and to view web pages any time, anywhere. The limitations are in the tiny size of the screen, which can’t present much information compared to a large computer screen, and a slow and error-prone text entry system, which tends to make messages short.
Then there are traditional desktop computers, which are very convenient and ergonomic for reading, writing, and just about everything else. The limitation is that they are stuck in one place.
In between are laptops, which offer most of the advantages of desktop computers, but are portable, and tablets, which are like oversized smartphones, with keyboards sold separately.
We each have different habits and preferences in the way we connect to the Internet. For example, I can’t see spending my money on a smartphone, but I do have an inexpensive 7″ tablet that I can carry everywhere. But I find the tablet frustrating when I need to write an email longer than a few words.
Likewise, I’ve noticed that many people (most probably using smartphones) prefer to exchange messages on Facebook instead of email. Others, like me, still prefer email. Some prefer text messaging on their mobile phone. But nobody really likes to receive messages that they consider inappropriate for any reason. (More on that later.)
By understanding that we are not all online in the same way, and that we have different preferences, we can better communicate with each other online, and be more sympathetic to the preferences of others. Gone are the days of a single telephone in each kitchen with an enormous cord that could stretch across the house. Now, communication opportunities are better, but also much more complex.
“Internet etiquette” is abbreviated as “netiquette.” It tells us what our online neighbors expect from us, and what we should expect from them, in order to get along well with each other. One of the important things the Internet allows is quick and convenient communication, but just as with telephones and postal mail, there are some informal rules.
The standby for Internet messaging is email. Some people read in their browser, some on their phone or tablet, some in a desktop or laptop email application. Some people enjoy seeing lots of colors, fonts and pictures, while old-school email contains only text with small attachments. Attachments are just files (documents, images, etc.) that can be sent along with the email message. But email is really designed to carry only messages, so there is a limit to the size of attachments.
As mentioned above, many people today prefer to send messages via Facebook. For them, it’s a convenient replacement for email, since they tend to be on Facebook many times each day. For others (like me), it offers doubtful privacy, and is less convenient than email, because they prefer not to be sucked into the swirling maelstrom of status updates and memes on Facebook.
A lot of messages come from other people, like personal letters sent through the postal mail. Many other messages are sent automatically as a service to the recipient. For example, a doctor’s office might send an automatic message reminding you of an upcoming appointment. They do the same thing in The Dalles on the telephone. Just as you can hang up the phone on a recorded message without a second thought, you can also delete any automated message without reading past the subject line, and nobody would think any less of you.
Those who don’t want to receive automatic messages can usually opt out, but messages sent from real people are a different story. Everyone has their own preferences for messages received from another person. Some (like me) prefer only direct, personal messages. Others enjoy receiving general mail forwarded from others containing jokes, political or religious commentary, and the like. When I receive the second type of message, I delete almost all of them without reading them. I just can’t justify the time to look at those messages, when I have some excellent books that have been awaiting my attention for years.
Messages that are forwarded again and again are similar to chain letters that were sent through the postal mail years ago. I remember my mother receiving one when I was very young. She explained to me how those letters are intended to manipulate the recipient to feel guilty or fearful if they don’t make copies and send them out to many others. Some even promised great wealth! Unfortunately, Internet messages like email are much easier to copy and send out to others, so that millions of these messages are circulated around the Internet for years. Many contain bad information. It may sound helpful, but turns out to be wrong. While I respect those who genuinely find them interesting, it would be more sensitive to the desires of others not to forward them onward. Instead of forwarding such a message, perhaps someone who would like to share it could post the message on a web page or blog, and then send only the link to a few personal contacts.
But Internet messages are not only for communication between two people at a time. They can be sent from one person to an entire group of people. The scum of the Internet world are commercial “spammers,” people who send unwanted messages to millions of people and post links that advertise commercial goods or services (often at least partly pornographic in nature, often dishonest scams, and often infected with computer viruses). Email services offer spam filters that attempt to automatically identify and remove these messages from your inbox. Recently, text message spam on phones has become more of a problem, and is especially irritating because the recipient is often charged money for each message received. Facebook spam has also been a problem.
As irritating and wasteful as unwanted commercial spam messages are, there are some very useful and beneficial examples of messages from one person sent out to many. I have participated in email discussions on groups, or lists, that address certain topics. For example, there are lists where users of a certain computer operating system or application could ask questions and get help from many people at the same time. Each group or list has a certain range of topics considered appropriate for discussion. They also have certain expectations for those who participate, about the best ways to ask and answer questions, or what sort of language is appropriate. There is usually a document of frequently asked questions (abbreviated FAQ) for the mailing list, so that elementary questions may be answered quickly, without trying the patience of those who respond and read all of the messages on the list.
A mailing list works like this: each person subscribes by submitting his own email address to the list, which is kept somewhere on a computer that manages the list. The list itself has its own email address, so that when any subscribers send a message to the one list address, the message will automatically be forwarded to all the subscribers. You can see why it’s important to have rules about what sorts of things are appropriate for the list. If anyone on the list accidentally sent a personal message intended for their spouse or coworker to the list email address, then that message would be automatically distributed to the whole group. Sometimes a person subscribes to an email list with the intent of commercially advertising their product or service to the whole group, ignoring the limitations of the list. That’s considered very bad netiquette, and abuse of the list. Likewise, forwarding chain messages to an email list is also considered bad netiquette.
At Bethany and Concordia, we have email lists of our own. They are Google Groups. There is a form that may be used to subscribe on each congregation’s page on our shared web site. Bethany’s group page is here, and Concordia’s is here.
Most of the posts to our email lists are simply announcements. In fact, most of the announcements are automated messages about church calendar events in the coming week, sent out on Friday. However, these are fully-fledged email lists, so that subscribers can also write posts and send them to all subscribers by using the group email address. If you do, please observe these simple guidelines:
- Make sure your message is connected with our congregations or our synod, or at least the interests we share in common.
- Use language that you would use at church.
- Feel free to reply to any messages by sending your reply to the group address, but keep in mind that you may also reply directly to the original sender by sending your reply only to their own personal address.
- Remember that everything you send to the group address will be received by all subscribers, whether they have asked for it or not. Please respect their time and convenience.
We also have a Facebook group for Bethany and Concordia. If you have become a part of that group, you may post messages there as well. The same guidelines apply.
In addition to the Facebook group that allows messages, there is a Facebook Page for Bethany, and soon there will be one for Concordia. You are encouraged to post on those pages as often as you like, but please make sure your posts relate to our churches or our faith in some way. These Pages are a public face of our congregations, and we can use them to help introduce ourselves to others on Facebook.
Other ways we are online
Of course, we have our web site, which includes several features, including:
- Our blog, a kind of online newsletter. In fact, you’re reading it now.
- Our online calendar of events.
- An archive of recent sermons, allowing you to listen to most of them.
- A photo scrapbook.
- A Moodle site for classes, especially youth catechesis.
- A collection of pages that are editable through your web browser (called “Wiki” pages), allowing our members to contribute to them.
- A planning tool for future church services, showing what has been planned, and which hymns we have used back several years.
If our members would like to contribute to these things, or to make use of them, you are most welcome to do so. In particular, the blog, the photo scrapbook, the Moodle site, and the “Wiki” pages are appropriate ways for you to contribute to the online presence of our churches. Just ask Pastor about the thing that may interest you.
Finally, remember that the members of our congregations are always ambassadors for the Gospel and for our churches. Every time you send an email to anyone, you are being a contact between your congregation and others. If you wish, you may even obtain an email address of the form “@bethanythedalles.org”, or “@concordiahoodriver.org”. But even without it, your presence online is the presence of our churches online. In fact, you are even representing your Lord and Savior.