The Internet as a Growth Tool
Use of the Internet by religious organizations has expanded rapidly over the past decade, with the majority of Protestant churches with more than 100 members now boasting a Web site, according to American Congregations 2005, a study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Some 25 million people use the Internet for religious expression, according to the Pew Internet and American Life project. Internet users are skewed toward younger people and toward larger and wealthier congregations. Since all congregational literature agrees that congregations must attract young people to grow, effective use of the Internet is a topic that we will ignore at our peril.
The trend has raised a host of difficult issues of staff at religious institutions; among these are that many discussions that previously would have been private have now entered the public domain and leave a “paper” trail, raising questions about the responsibilities of religious professionals to remote “members” of a congregation and to non-members. Commercial entities such as beliefnet.com have of course entered the fray, offering discussion about faith surrounded by advertisements.
The great majority of Ethical Societies (perhaps all) have Web sites, and most include variants of the AEU statement of purpose. The usefulness of Web sites as a means for communicating with members can hardly be doubted. Whether a Web site can bring new members to a society is a little less obvious, but as long ago as the early 2000s staff at the Washington Ethical Society (WES) were saying that a significant proportion of first-time visitors discovered WES online. Jone Johnson Lewis is convinced a good Web presence can draw visitors to a society. We encourage societies to ensure that they have attractive Web sites that are kept up-to-date: nothing is sadder than a Web site whose latest event listings refer to something that happened two months ago. Sites should include pictures if they are to be popular and they should ensure that they are tagged so they are readily discovered by search engines.
Social Networking Sites
Beyond Web sites, so-called social networking sites have assumed prominence as places to converse online. The most prominent are Facebook and MySpace. Both include forums and groups dedicated to religious and philosophical topics. A lot of the content may seem trivial, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t thoughtful people there too, and some of them may be pleased to read what Ethical Culture is and how it can help people. These sites are to a large extent taking over from listserves. Facebook seems to have relatively more adults, MySpace more young people.
It goes without saying that societies and people willing to discuss Ethical Culture online need to have concise and compelling statements of what Ethical Culture is at their fingertips and be able to discuss, interpret, and defend these; they may attract more people if they display pride and conviction in the value of the social action work accomplished by the societies.
Members of the GRLT have used Facebook and MySpace to contact EC members at other societies who they didn’t previously know. Though we cannot provide objective empirical data about effectiveness, it seems that societies would do well to let their members know that they would welcome publicity provided on networking sites through references to activities at societies and through references to Ethical Culture. Societies should be warned that these sites have cultures of their own, and that users do not appreciate people using the sites in a crass way to get publicity. Mass mailings conducted through such sites, even to members of a group that would seem relevant, are blocked.
The level of activity on social networking sites is rising dramatically. Several Ethical Societies have sites on Social Networks, primarily Facebook. These sites serve publicities societies and activities. It is not clear if these sites work as recruiting tools.
Several Ethical Culture leaders amd members have blogs, and these items are often picked up by Web sites that search the “blogosphere.” The more people who write about Ethical Culture on blogs, the more readers will learn about the movement. Setting up a blog is no longer technically difficult, so again it seems as though societies would do well to encourage their members to blog about ethical culture. Needless to say, blogs the comment on current events are most likely to be read.
Another prominent internet venue is YouTube. Several platform presentations are already posted there. Again, considering that it costs nothing to do so, societies can hardly lose by posting videos of compelling platforms. Podcasts too are becoming quite popular, and St. Louis has made podcasts of platforms available online. Basic podcasts cost little to make, although they require high quality digital recording equipment to sound good.
An Internet service that has been used by the Bergen and North Carolina societies, apparently to good effect, is meetup.com. This service is not free, but it is able to send targeted emails to individuals in a specified geographical area who have indicated interest in particular topics. For $70, will send hundreds of emails, targeting people who have indicated an interest in (e.g.) humanism or ethics or liberal religion. The North Carolina Society for Ethical Culture has used meetup.com to advertise its platforms, reportedly with success.
Sharing Among Societies About Membership Growth
By way of such free Internet services as Yahoo Groups and Google Docs, any member of any ethical society may participate in the effort to grow our ethical societies and the ethical culture movement in general.
A Yahoo Group has features of a listserv–in that members of the group can send messages to all others in the group–as well as features of an online library of documents, photos, event calendars, and other files may be stored in an organized form for retrieval by group members. The AEU has established a Yahoo Group called “Ethical Culture Growth,” which is devoted to membership growth ideas, devices, tools, etc. An ethical society member may request membership in this Yahoo Group by way of the AEU Web site, selecting the “Membership Development” option from left menu bar.
Google Docs is an online Office-type suite of word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and form development applications. Although the AEU has not at this time established a Google Docs folder devoted to membership growth, ethical society members who want to work with other members to jointly develop such documents may establish one by going to http://www.google.com, clicking on the “More” menu option, and selecting “Documents.”
It would be valuable for Ethical Societies to collaborate in an organized way to discover good ways to use the Internet. A more careful description of the pros and cons of the avenues for Internet communication, together with directions on how to follow them, could only benefit societies who have members with the interest and skill. The cost is generally low, and all indications are that these modes of communication will become more important in years to come. It is in the interest of societies to encourage and develop suitable expertise within their memberships.