Monday, May 11, 2020

What I've Learned about the Global UMC Internet Presence

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

While I've long paid attention to global United Methodist news for the sake of this blog, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed me to be more thorough in searching for the online presence of every United Methodist central conference, episcopal area, and annual conference outside the United States. In the process of surveying these sources for information about United Methodist responses to the pandemic, I've learned something about the ways in which The United Methodist Church is (and isn't) present online around the world. Many of the following could also be said about the annual conference in the United States, but here are six things I think are true of the UMC beyond the US.

1. Facebook is king - especially in Africa
I looked for official UMC websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. Twitter feeds are relatively rare, though the Swiss and German UMC branches have quite good Twitter feeds. Most European branches of the UMC have a website, though the quality and frequency of updating these varies. But almost every branch of the UMC around the world has an official Facebook page. In many places in Africa, an official Facebook page is the only official web presence for an episcopal area or annual conference. Granted, there are significant variations within these Facebook pages with regard to the frequency and content of posts. Still, the best place to learn what's happening in most places in the UMC is on Facebook.

2. Different communications channels carry different types of news
While Facebook may be king, some branches of the UMC, especially in Europe, will have multiple communication channels: a website, perhaps with a separate news page, a Facebook page, and perhaps even a Twitter feed. Often, the sorts of material that appears on the website and what appears on the Facebook page are different. Websites tend towards official announcements, news stories, and reports on events. Some of that also appears on Facebook, but Facebook also contains a lot more prayers, other devotional materials, and event announcements. This distinction is similar to how US Americans use the Internet.

3. Size does not determine technological sophistication
Some branches of the UMC outside the US are huge. Some are tiny. Size, however, does not determine the quality of a United Methodist website or the facility with which United Methodists use social media. There are some really nicely designed and fairly regularly updated websites for very small branches of the UMC in Eastern Europe. There are larger groups in the same region with fairly static websites with less contemporary designs. In Africa, some small annual conferences or episcopal areas update Facebook regularly, and some large annual conferences or episcopal areas do so infrequently. I attribute much of the difference to the presence or absence of technologically-inclined leaders and staff, not the size of the group.

4. There are differences between and within regions
There are certainly differences between how European, African, and Filipino United Methodists use the Internet, as indicated above. But there are also differences within those regions as well. Two out of the three Filipino episcopal areas have regularly updated websites and Facebook pages. The third does not. There are also significant differences, for instance, among the countries in the West Africa Central Conference. Some of the difference here may be access to the internet, but some of it is also likely due to personal differences in communication style or cultural differences around how important formal communication via the Internet is.

5. Some places in Africa have no official web presence
While some annual conferences/episcopal areas in Africa have active Facebook pages with regular posts and perhaps websites as well, some have nothing. The two Mozambique annual conferences and the Uganda Annual Conference have no official internet presence. The Malawi Provisional Annual Conference hasn't posted anything online since 2013. That doesn't mean that there is no online communication that happens in these areas. It does mean that communication happens by other than official channels and is therefore difficult to access by outsiders.

6. Personal networks still matter
Both in those places with a robust official Internet presence and especially in those areas with little or no official Internet presence, a lot of communication about United Methodist issues happens on personal Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. Important issues are discussed on personal pages, and important announcements may be made on personal pages. While having online discussions through personal or unofficial pages is common in the US as well, the extent to which the line between personal and official is blurred for the sake of sharing news is less so. It is harder for outsiders to know what is happening in Liberia, for instance, when information is not shared through official pages but only on personal pages. This model of communication makes a lot of sense in cultural contexts where personal networks are still very important and official infrastructures are less so. But this model of communication reinforces the tendency of US Americans to see Africa as a black box whose internal workings are a mystery. This makes international understanding more difficult and the role of intermediaries that much more important.

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