Born in country NSW, I celebrated my first birthday in the 1960s; but a few weeks later decided that I was bored with this decade and we moved into the decade of flares, big hair and the first TV that my family owned. Some of my earliest memories as a child are of watching reports of the Vietnam War and thinking ‘why are people so unkind.’ Our TV was a big box with a small black & white screen that only had one channel, Win TV, because we lived behind a hill that blocked the ABC signal. We also had a couple of radios – here we were luckier, because we had a whole two channels to listen to: the ABC station 2BA, and the local Bega commercial station, then known as 2BE. We only received two newspapers as well – the twice weekly Bega District News (which we generally only bought once a week – the Tuesday edition, because that was Mum’s weekly shopping trip when we ventured into the ‘big smoke’) and the Catholic Weekly.

This was still the era of centralised media production and distribution. News content for our family came from these few defined channels. Broader information came from books that we bought or borrowed from the school library. If you wanted to find out information for a school project, you read articles in the World Book Encyclopaedia, or if you wanted to seem especially brainy, you looked up the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Eventually my family were able to purchase our own set of Encyclopaedias, when a door-to-door salesman convinced us to purchase a set of Funk and Wagnells – which as kids we like to quote from because it was as close as we were allowed to say something that sounded rude.

The Brittanica, published continuously since 1768, ceased print publication this year; its 65,000 articles written by over 4,000 expert contributors and $3,000 price tag could no longer compete with the eleven-year-old Wikipedia with its more than 22 million articles (over 4 million in English) in 285 languages created and edited by idiots and experts alike. When my parents sold our family farm five years ago and downsized to a smaller house, the decision to recycle the Funk and Wagnells was an easy one; they no longer had a relevant place in the 21st century.

The world has certainly changed in my lifetime. Okay – in part that is because I’m an old middle-aged fart [Adam Hills reference] and grew up in the country. But mainly this is because all of us are living through what objectively can only be described as either a revolution or a key watershed moment that the annals of human history (in whatever format that is) will record as a key turning point. In the work of Canadian educator, philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan (died 31 Dec 1980), who although born into an agnostic family became a Catholic in his mid-twenties and lived a subsequently devote life, this current revolution that he predicted and described with such accuracy is as significant as the two key watershed moments in human history that McLuhan identifies: first, the creation of the full alphabet (vowels and consonants) by the Greeks in the 8th century BC, and second, the conversion of a wine press into the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439.

Both of these innovations set in place revolutions that radically altered the shape and complexity of human history. What we are living through now is doing exactly the same.

One of the dimensions of this present period is the way that hundreds of millions of people have changed from being content consumers to content producers. Our news no longer comes from only a few select channels like when I was a child; we help to shape and create the news. This is the case whether we have a regular website, or a blog on WordPress, Blogger, TypePad or Weebly; a micro-blog on tumblr or twitter; a video channel on YouTube or Vimeo; a podcast; send out random emails or texts; or we just like using our iPhones to take photos of food or drunk friends which we then share on facebook, we have all become part of the social media network.

Time for a Quick survey:

Facebook – which began in 2004 and was opened up to non-student  international users in September 2006 – claims they have almost 1 billion users (active monthly); about 60% of these use facebook daily. So what about us? I will presume that most people here have a facebook account. Hands up if you don’t use facebook, or you use it less than monthly. 90% of daily facebook users access it on their mobile devices, and surveys indicate that a majority of female users (and a smaller proportion of males) sleep with their phone to allow for quick access to the news feed upon waking. Anyone want to admit to doing this?

Over to six-year-old Twitter, which claims 500 million active users: how many of them are here? Hands up if you have a twitter account; now keep your hands up if you tweet at least weekly; keep your hands up if you are a daily twitter or tweeter.

So all of us are undoubtedly hoping to make better use of these new technologies to connect and interact with the young people that we minister with and their wider social networks.

Using the Bishops Protocols

In 2011, the Australian Bishops issued a new edition of the Social Networking Protocols for the Catholic Church in Australia, recognising a desire to use new technology for the greater glory of God insofar as it promotes growth in faith and communion with others.

Respect for persons and human dignity is central to the Protocols. The ACBC document provides simple, easy-to-understand guidelines for beginners in the area of social media. One of their greatest values may be to give them to the priests or parents in your parish or community, to help explain why communication through social media needs to be such a central part of any youth ministry strategy. The protocols also provide guidance in maintaining a clear distinction between personal and professional communication, acknowledging that there is great potential for the blurring of boundaries. Finally, they also acknowledge that even in a country like ours, that poverty prevents the full engagement of some, which can be a profoundly isolating experience.

We have also provided the US Bishop’s ‘Social Media Guidelines’ which provide more background and helpful definitions and go into greater detail for how we can more effectively engage in this area. While some of the material is only applicable within the US, the guidelines lend themselves to ready adaptation and application within local youth ministry contexts.

Finally, I want to offer two more personal reflections regarding social media.

The first is little more than a question that seems to suggest a way forward in the area of social media. One of the particular characteristics of our Church is our sense of God communicating with us through sacrament. Some theologians describe the way that we understand and appreciate the inflow of grace and our encounter with God as the “Catholic imagination.” Social networks and new technology provide new ways to bring the Catholic imagination into the experience. The question is: how do we sacramentalise this? How do we ensure that what we are pouring our energies into actually provides that possibility of encounter with God?

Yesterday, we heard about integrity in ministry. But parts of the presentation disturbed me, including the suggestion that youth ministers should have 2 profiles (professional and personal). Because integrity in ministry is not about being caught; it is about being part of this grace-infused world and being present in a world where the love of God is always present, sometimes in the most unusual places. We are called to be present in the midst of the world, living the kind of life that gives glory to God in everything and honours God in every person that we connect with.

Examples may help. Usage of this Blog (the most formal), twitter (mostly formal – knowing that the audience is universal) and finally Facebook where I am more open, since the audience is mostly family and friends.

Finally, I want to mention my idea of Social media currency (or the SMC communications rating system)

I joined facebook in May 2007; so at the end of the year, when I celebrated my birthday, the fact that 20 or so friends wrote on my wall with birthday greetings (when I only had about 70 friends), that experience rated highly, in part because of its novelty. So I would have rated most of those as 7 out of 10. But in subsequent years the value of a facebook birthday greeting has steadily declined, probably by a point a year. The value of a “Happy birthday emoticon” either as a wall post or message barely rates a one; if there is a few lines of actual communication, it might increase in SM currency. An email, which once may have rated a few points, has now degraded in a similar way. Likewise, the ubiquity of text messages brings them down to a base level of 3 or 4, increasing only with the level of thought and sentiment contained within them. Old fashioned greeting cards still rate higher, because they require a degree of planning to purchase, complete and post in order to be received in a timely fashion by the recipient. Likewise phone calls are still up there as a 6 or 7 in SMC.  What hasn’t changed over the years is the birthday greeting that is conveyed with a hug or kiss and quality time spent with family or friends or spouse.

As social media becomes more prevalent, the quality of interaction that is possible over time inevitably declines. While it may be easier than ever to create events and invite friends on facebook, or use a trending hashtag to communicate an idea widely on twitter, or to bulk message the youth group via text message or messenger, we need to also acknowledge that the depth of what is communicated is very limited. As messengers and missionaries of grace, we should always strive to offer those that we serve the very best that we can offer and not accept anything that sells ourselves, young people or especially the gospel short. When given a choice, always go for the experience that rates a ten; not the one.

Thank you.