Can Twitter change the world? @martinsaunders @christianitymag

WARNING: Full length magazine article

As the ‘microblogging’ phenomenon celebrates its fifth birthday, Martin Saunders asks: is Twitter a pointless distraction, or does it offer a landmark opportunity for the Church?

Come, follow me. The famous words of Jesus have now become a mantra for a generation, not of disciple-makers, but of social networkers. At the leading edge of 21st century communication, one seemingly-humble idea has helped to change the way we communicate and relate to one another. When it launched five years ago, it looked too simple to make a splash; now ‘micro-blogging’ website Twitter is used a billion times a week.

Though it has been keeping the early adopters busy since 2006, Twitter now seems to have reached a sort of cultural tipping point. The site sees just under half a million users register for its services each day; while in the past year usage has almost trebled. In March 2010, 50 million messages were being sent through the site each day; by March 2011, that figure had reached 140 million. Facebook’s dominance in the social media sphere is – almost unthinkably – being challenged.

Twitter remains a simple website which provides users with a small white box into which they can write their response to the rather chirpy question ‘What’s Happening?’ That response can contain a maximum of 140 characters, and then constitutes one ‘tweet’ – instantly transmitted to the accounts of every person who has chosen to ‘follow’ that user. And whereas social networking megalith Facebook sees such messages transmitted between ‘friends’, Twitter’s messages are in most cases public, with ‘following’ based on shared interest rather than existing friendship.

So while Facebook allowed us to transfer our human connections to an online space, Twitter created opportunities to make new friends. It took ‘traditional’ blogging – in which you would write long essays about your current thoughts, and post them online for, in most cases, 12 people to read – and shrunk it down to microscopic size. Writing for Twitter, with its 20-30 word maximum, is a skill; in some cases it’s an art form. So users read the thoughts of scores of micro-bloggers within just a few minutes – in most cases deriving a different idea from each.

Not only that: they respond; they join the conversation; they re-tweet – relaying someone else’s message to their own pool of followers. And in this way Twitter becomes an extraordinarily rich community, updating at a rate of hundreds of messages per second, through users all over the world.

Celebrity involvement – and early adoption – was a vital and perhaps unforeseen reason for Twitter’s success. Many people, like my mum, know about Twitter because they know that Stephen Fry uses it. And Fry now has so many followers that, when he chooses to point out a new favourite website, said site is immediately crashed by the ensuing stampede from the comedian’s loyal followers. US President Barack Obama even tweeted to celebrate victory in the race for the White House, having seen Social Media play an important role in his campaign.

Many users created accounts because doing so gives them direct access to people they might admire or engage with, but who previously they would never have been able to meet. On Twitter, you can send a message to Jonathan Ross, Naomi Klein, Britney Spears or Rob Bell, and if they’re in a good mood, receive a reply. The star factor adds another layer of intrigue and addictiveness that keeps users returning several times a day.

For once, Christians have been at the forefront of engaging with Twitter. Many well-known US pastors – such as Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Rick Warren – have established accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers, through which they regularly offer their latest theological musings, or provide links to a new blog or sermon. More generally though, Christians are using the site to debate issues of theology and culture, often with people they don’t know, in completely different parts of the world. Usually this is respectful and friendly (see the hashtag #lovewins for a less positive example) but it is always worth remembering that these conversations are public; even though they are taking place between Christians talking about obscure details of theology, they could be being read by anyone. With that caveat in mind however, a major application of Twitter for the Church is as a place to share ideas and enjoy stimulating discussion about mission and theology with Christians from all over.

And not just from all over the world; all over the Church too. Twitter breaks down denominational and theological boundaries too. Generally speaking, the tribalism we see in the physical church, and even in Christian events and festivals, is less pronounced in the twitterverse. This can only be good news for the Church, which often does unity about as well as three pre-schoolers sharing an Iggle Piggle doll.

Twitter also has great missional potential, which is already being explored through innovative projects such as the Evangelical Alliance’s Natwivity (natwivity.com), a retelling of the Christmas story through fictionalised 140-character accounts, and The Passion Experience (thepassionexperience.co.uk), an initiative developed by a Southend church, being extended this Easter to take the story of Christ’s Passion to Twitter users across the UK. Much more simply though, Twitter offers a mechanism for Christians to naturally ‘meet’ and converse with those of no faith; linking with them naturally through shared interests. Many of us find evangelism difficult principally because we don’t know many non-Christians – Twitter provides instant access to millions of them!

Again this reminds us that our Christian witness extends far beyond our physical actions. Many of my Twitter followers don’t have a Christian faith – every tweet I send can either reflect a positive or a negative witness to them. This can go further still: the growing phenomenon of ‘tweetups’ – physical meetings where geographically-close tweeters meet up in a pub or café – offers opportunities for these people to see what I’m like in the flesh, when I’m unable to hide behind a digital avatar and plenty of thinking time. It seems to me that these physical meetings contain significant evangelistic potential – not because they could be hijacked – but because they bring us face-to-face with people who already know how important our faith is to us.

Because what Twitter does ultimately is remove barriers. It puts every web-enabled person on the planet on a level playing field, regardless of age, gender, theology or celebrity (and auto-translation tools will soon remove the language barrier). It offers community which at its best is supportive, generous and which – crucially – listens. As a relatively new medium of communication for the Church to embrace it offers so much promise for the future of mission, discourse and unity.

So can Twitter truly change the world? In one sense at least it already has – the recent political protests seen around the world simply couldn’t have happened ten years ago when we didn’t have social networking. The ease of engagement and the hyper-connectivity of it all means it is ripe for catalysing movements. Could a new kind of conversation about God be one of them?

Martin Saunders is an author, screenwriter and editor of Youthwork magazine. Follow him at twitter.com/martinsaunders.

This article is taken from the latest edition of Christianity magazine, published today. Look out for a practical article on tweeting tomorrow morning from Bryony Taylor.

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