Communications: Making connections in a media literate world — Part 1

Defining Communications

During the past thirty years of being involved with communications and technology in the church I have seen a consistent trend. Invariably some new technology will come along — be it video, blogging, or something esoteric — and every leader in the church who thinks that they are half way hip wants to jump on the bandwagon. Back in my video editing days it involved doing videos in a particular way (pretty much anything that had an MTV edge to it). These days it is social networking and podcasting. But in it is easy to fall into the trap of using technology simply because it exists rather than considering what one is trying to accomplish first.

I once attended a workshop in the early days of the “emerging church” movement that attempted to teach folks about ministry with “postmoderns.” It was a pretty good event which was my first introduction to Brian McLaren, however I found myself frustrated in that there was far too much talk about the use of technology and thinking that the church had to jump on the technology bandwagon because “that’s what the kids are using.” What the leaders failed to recognize was that technology was simply a tool being used for a deeper purpose — facilitating community between like minded persons. Folks used blogs and IM’s as a communications medium not because they were inherently cool, but because they wanted to connect with others and these tools allowed them to do so in a cost effective way.

The communicative function must always be the driver behind the use of technology, not the other ways around. Technology is simply a bunch of tools that help persons tell their story and share their ideas. While, as Marshall McLuhan once said that “the medium is the message,” I would argue that the medium should ultimately serve as a tool of the message. That medium can enhance the message or detract from it, but behind all media is a basic concept or thought which is trying to be shared, and technological solutions must be careful not to get in the way of what is trying to be shared.

Thus, as I look at religious communications and the technologies that can enhance that task it is important to define what we mean by communication. As is so often true for church folks, we come to the table assuming that we know what me mean by communication . . . ask any member of the communication committees of local congregations. Communication, these people would say, is about producing the newsletter, updating the website, and ensuring that our programs are promoted. Yet those definitions of tasks fail to consider the underlying purpose and goal of communication.

Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary defines communication as

…a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.

Note that the focus is not a medium or technology but rather a process of exchanging information. The medium used is the common system of symbols, signs, and behaviors. Those media are absolutely crucial in the task, however they serve the goal of exchanging information which is the ultimate goal of communication.

Simply put, communication involves connecting people to things that I want them to know, and their connecting me to things they want me to know. It is about making connections between persons and groups, not about demonstrating some feat of technical prowess.

This is always the case behind successful uses of technology. The best examples are often simple in design. Take CraigsList for example. This is a site that is technologically simple, in fact, it is fairly ugly. There isn’t any great use of the latest technology. It fails all the Web 2.0 tests. It is nothing but a page of links. Yet, it has been wildly successful, in spite of (and some might say because of) its limitations. Why? Because it makes connections between stuff and services that people want to sell with persons who are wanting to purchase that stuff and those services. For those seeking such connections, how the site looked didn’t really matter. What mattered was a web site that worked and hooked people up with one another. It was a simple concept, which was best accomplished by a simple site.

CraigsList could update their site. They could pull out the latest drag and drop AJAX technology. They could update their graphics, include more visuals, and generally make the CraigsList experience more visually pleasing. But why? After all, their goals are being met. Connections (and money) are being made. Why take on a technological solution where there is no problem? They have recognized what they are trying to communicate and have left their site alone to meet that goal.

That is, for all persons, perhaps the most important and most easily ignored task in communications — identifying what we are trying to communicate and our ultimate goal in that communication. It is only when we recognize what we are trying to say or do that we then can begin to develop a plan for communicating our story.

In the next article, we will be looking at developing a communications plan, focusing on three questions that can keep us sane and realistic in communicating with others.

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