After blogging off and on for a few years, I’ve just about come to the conclusion that blogging is little more than another form of individualism. Think about it. One person post thoughts and links that is important to them. At best a conversation begins among the readers in the form of “comments.” (Admittedly, there is the occasional team blog—but they are far fewer in number than the solo blog).
Now, I’m all for conversation, but will the conversation every trickle down to the majority? Let me restate that—will the conversation every trickle down to those who can turn the online emergent conversation into a movement? If so how will that happen? I don’t want to be overly negative but from my experience it appears the ones who need to (and would) sign on to the conversation must first be online reading the conversation. Is that the possible link that is missing in transforming our conversation into a swelling and unstoppable movement?
I’d like to take a stab at the question, with a “yes-and-no” answer.
Emergent as a Movement: Not ‘If’ but ‘When’
Firstly, the question may presuppose that the online Emergent Conversation wants to become the Emergent Movement. Read this post on that subject: Brian McLaren says Emergent is not yet ready to become a movement, and he is probably correct. (See here as well.) When will the conversation be ready to “grow up”? Well, I suggest that the answer is, “Not as soon as it will have to.”
The reason to suggest that Emergent will be forced to become a Movement is based primarily on Doug Pagitt’s recent blog post advising the assumption of some very wise battle positions, which comes on the heels of Stephen Shields’ article observance of “The Emerging Storm” which is brewing. (Also see further comments in this post with links cited there.) In other words, it would appear that by the middle of 2005, Emergent will be commonly referred to as a Movement by its detractors. For better or for worse, responses may need to come from Emergent voices as a movement.
Are We There Yet?
There’s a follow-on question, of who determines when a movement becomes a movement – I submit that it can be labelled from outside and not from within, which implies that Emergent may become a movement based on a time not of its own choosing. In responding (or not) to criticism, Emergent can continue calling itself a Conversation, but it’ll be hard to make that stick for very long if the critics keep calling it a movement. As soon as they feel they can identify a cohesive group moving in a common direction, they’ll call it a movement and start reacting. Now, since one can already pre-order, I think we may be there already.
What would an Emergent Movement look like? Well, everyone knows that movements have leaders, spokespersons, and meccas. We’ll stop and grant that Emergent has spokespersons, that’s a given. The rest is a bit more difficult. Spokespersons are normally leaders and normally operate from the meccas, but in Emergent there isn’t nearly enough structure or the will to create leadership structures or meccas. (Those are modern conventions.) The Emergent Movement will therefore have to be a grassroots movement, and one in which the movement is structured much like is says the church should be structured. Note that grassroots movements of the past are only grassroots to the building of an establishment – but it can’t really be that way with Emergent, remember Emergent is “…a name given to the phenomena of how new organizational structures progress from low-level chaos to higher level sophistication without a hierarchical command structure.” (It’s the same way the Internet is structured.) Emergent establishes friendships, networks, and conversations… only loose examples of structure. This helps avoid movement becoming a machine.
The truth about Emergent as a movement is that it may already be one, in grassroots form — but if this is true, don’t tell anyone, since it’s best to hold off on the label as long as possible. In reality, that time will probably come later this year, when the phrase, “Rubber, meet Road” will ring out and Emergent will be forced to corporately pilot a destructured movement. In a fishbowl.
The Mechanics of Conversation
Now that we’ve declared an Emergent Movement an inevitability, let’s consider if Blogs can get it there. Or if they should. Blogging has obviously come of age in the last couple of years, but I would challenge the notion that they are individualistic… they’re just a different form of conversation. Maybe it’s like sitting alone in a crowded restaurant and talking to yourself…. you know someone is going to be listening, but you don’t know who; but every now and then someone answers. Blogging is like this — most bloggers would probably tell you they have solid evidence of readership far beyond what “Comments (0)” seems to indicate (that’s certainly true of my blog). If used, comments of course fill in the ‘return’ part of the conversation to some degree, and I would suggest that comments are made for the masses. Right now, the conversation is largely between bloggers and other bloggers and as such should appear in the “trackbacks” instead of the comments — this lets you know that other bloggers are interacting with you, and there is a thoughtful conversation taking place, with a virtual roomful of people pinging each other’s ideas, developing and building on them, so that everyone comes out ahead. Unfortunately of all the blog links in this post, only The Kiwi Spokesperson and the self-referential ones have a Trackback feature. Let me pause here and urge every blogger who doesn’t have Trackbacks enabled to bombard their bloghost with requests to add it, or else move to a platform that does. These help one follow a conversation much like the webrings of old…. uh, sorry ’bout that (steps off of soapbox). Blogs are a solo act only to the extent that they do not interact with other blogs. To the extent they interact, they become conversation.
Emergent bloggers have a role to play in helping to shape the conversation, and that the spokespersons should take note of what’s being said, regardless of the level of their day-to-day participation. My sense is that this is occurring as it should be. It is these spokespersons who are to some degree charged with taking the online and offline Emergent conversations to the wider audience. Many from the wider audience will be able to relate to the spokespersons before they can to the bloggers, though an avenue is created for them to hear from the bloggers through the spokespersons — who will often be speaking through “old meda.” What occurs next is a drawing toward new media as well as toward the Emerging Church. Old media doesn’t do two-way communication very well unless they pick your “letter to the editor” and that’s not exactly conversation.
Press On, Then
So here it is, then: Bloggers will not cause Emergent to become a movement; they could theoretically decide among themselves that Emergent is a movement, but they really shouldn’t try to force the issue. What bloggers need to do is keep the conversation rolling, keep it archived, and keep interacting with one another — actually increasing the level of interaction where possible and practical. As new arrivals start joining the conversation, bloggers need to be there to listen and provide a venue for the new voices. So don’t give up, Fred.
I do have a concept idea to help facilitate this though — what about an online message board which maintains a corporately-defined “Emergent Blogroll” that gathers posts and displays “recent updates” as well as most popular blog posts and “hottest” discussions. Much of the conversation could take place on the community message board and be archived in a common repository. Think Google News meets Google Groups, but much more integrated, with a decent portal-type summary page. But I digress once more.
That’s how I see it — Emergent won’t have a real choice about being dubbed a movement, one way or the other. When it comes though, it’ll feel like Saul’s armour, and we’ll wish we could take it off again. But we know how that story ends.
Of course, this is just my opinion — I could be wrong. And in some ways, I hope I am.