I recently said in an interview with Friends Journal that I would like to challenge Friends to get clear about our relationship with the internet.
Getting clear would look like one of these two things:
We are at a mighty crossroads in history. There is no excuse for us to be doing this half-in/half-out thing.
Let us not deny the role of the Spirit in dictating our relationship with this incredibly new, incredibly powerful tool.
I have begun to hear back from Friends who read my article and who have long felt that they should bring their ministry onto the internet but needed a push. I am glad to provide that push.
But I also feel the weight of responsibility to ask that Friends engage with the internet prayerfully. The internet is a tool like no other. It can suck you in and spit you out. It can strip you of the power and truth that you began with.
When I decided to bring my music ministry onto the internet five years ago, I began by teaching myself HTML and CSS.
Just as important, however, would have been wisdom. I would like to encourage Friends to approach bringing their ministries onto the internet with caution. Pray, discern, give over thine own willing and sink down to the seed.
So if you’ve ever considered starting a blog, a facebook fan page or a twitter account for a ministry or other project that you’ve been called to, I would like to share with you this list of 12 things that I wish I had known when I was just starting out:
1. Discern Well
The internet, as you probably know, can be a black hole. You come online intending to write a quick post and before you know it, it is 3 hours later and you forgot to eat.
This doesn’t get any easier. Basically my whole career is online and I still get lost, distracted, absorbed 10 times every day.
But. If I’ve discerned my plan well and I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, these distractions are minimal. I write down my goals every day and when I notice I’m getting distracted, I return to the list.
2. Limit Your Platform
If you are just getting started with an internet ministry, don’t get carried away with trying to join everything.
If you don’t know how to use Twitter, don’t worry about it. If you’ve never heard of Tumblr, you’re not missing anything. Each of these platforms requires separate knowledge and skills to engage with successfully.
Take them one at a time. Major success on one platform is infinitely more valuable than minor success across several platforms.
3. Respect the Medium
Don’t come onto the internet expecting to immediately know how write/vlog/tweet in the context of the internet. You are not writing a book. You are writing a blog post. It is a totally different thing.
And. It is a skillset that can be acquired when you approach it as something new to you from the outset.
Be humble. Know that you are engaging with a new skill. Be patient with yourself. Celebrate minor accomplishments.
4. Remember the Humans
The difference between success and failure on the internet is: numbers.
The internet is so measurable. Often the only way you know that your work is impacting anyone is statistics. I find that most online ventures quickly become abstracted by numbers.
How do those numbers translate to real life? I can’t see into peoples’ living rooms and schools and Meetings to see how these videos are impacting them, what conversations they are starting, how they are being used.
Since numbers are front and center, there is a temptation online to get sucked into a numbers game, following people on twitter so that they will follow you back, using high value keywords on your blog to bump up your stats.
But the truth of it is that there are eyes and hearts and relationships behind those numbers, and the more you are able to stay in touch with your own humanity, vulnerability, and faithfulness, the more meaningful views you will get.
Try to have as many in-person interactions about your online project as possible. Ask people how they were affected. Pay attention to comments. Organize a support/anchor committee. Ask for feedback.
5. Develop a Plan
One of the dangers of the internet is that it is so. easy. to start something. Setting up a blog takes 5 minutes. Same with a YouTube channel. Less for Facebook, less for twitter.
But then, once its set up, and that burst of newness and excitement is gone, can you maintain it consistently and successfully?
I recommend to everyone who is going to start a blog or a YouTube channel or whatever… give yourself six months to a year of experimentation.
Try out a bunch of different strategies with developing and sharing your content. Experiment with titles and keywords. Try being really wordy. Try being really concise. Try using images. Try being really playful. Or being really serious. Read what others have written about how to be successful on your platform.
After your experimentation phase, step back and look at it all:
- What worked?
- What really didn’t work?
- What feedback did you get?
- How often should you post, and what kind(s) of content?
- Where are the places that you could you grow at this skill?
- Where are you naturally gifted at it?
Ask yourself these questions. Pray over them. WAIT until you’ve got an answer. Then develop a plan.
6. Study Success
Seek out people who are having major success on your platform.
- What are they doing that you like?
- What are they doing that you dislike?
Watch them over a period of time. Notice their rhythms, their audience. Notice the ways they succesfully encourage interaction.
You might hate what they are saying. You might feel like they’ve sold out. You might be inspired.
But you will definitely learn something.
7. Do Re-Invent the Wheel
The internet is itself so novel that any creative idea that you try out will likely attract attention for its novelty. Now is the time to experiment and be creative.
A Youtube channel devoted to bad lip readings. Morgan Freeman’s voice sloppily narrating nature videos. A twitter account dedicated to the musings of a cranky father character. All of these incredibly novel ideas have led their creators to success beyond their wildest dreams.
But these ideas were not without background research. People on the internet like to watch cute and strange animals. And they seem to like listening to Morgan Freeman’s voice. These are realizations that Ze Frank came to after doing some experimentation.
I’ve launched 5 YouTube channels so far, experimenting with what kind of video naturally gets passed around, what kind gets views from searches, and what kind gets “related keyword” views. It is only after having gathered this data and experience that I feel ready to launch my own thing-that-has-never-been-done.
8. Utilize Bookmarks
One of the major ways that I’ve cut down on random web surfing and hours lost in distraction land is to heavily rely on bookmarks for my internet navigation.
I have 5 Facebook pages that I manage, 2 twitter accounts, multiple YouTube channels and 4 ongoing consulting projects. None of this would be possible if I hadn’t learned a long time ago how to organize my bookmarks into folders and rely on them almost exclusively when I want to navigate away from the page I’m currently on.
9. Think About Your Traffic
No matter what you are doing online, from blogging to making videos to facebooking, there is no more important ingredient than your audience.
- Who is going to be reading/watching this?
- How are they going to find it?
- How can I encourage that to happen?
If you haven’t asked these three questions, don’t start a project on the internet.
10. Be Amazing.
I know. This kind of goes without saying. But it needs to be said.
Be amazing. The distraction factor on the internet is extremely high. Readers and viewers on the internet are unforgiving. They will click away in an instant. Don’t give them a chance to. Make your work too amazing to click away.
Be so amazing that they are not only going to stick around, but they are going to share your work with all of their friends.
Be so amazing that every time you post something new, everyone is like, “FINALLY”.
It is one thing to post something online. It is. sincerely. another thing entirely. to post something AMAZING online. It takes so. much. time and energy. But the payoff is infinitely greater. If you are going to put any time and energy into posting something online, go the extra mile and make it amazing.
11. Be Shameless
There is a seemingly thin line between “getting low” and hiding your light under a bushel. Similarly, between evangelizing and deifying yourself.
Stray too far in the direction of hiding your light under a bushel, and you are being unfaithful by not using the gifts that you’ve been given. Too far in the opposite direction and you risk playing out your ego and self-love deficiency in public, at great loss to your ministry.
Quakers, generally, are not in a functional conversation about these nuances. We judge quickly and thus hide for fear of being judged.
I have been approached by judges on both sides of this argument, who either share their vehement distress at my approach to “self-promotion” or, alternately, who wonder why I have not done more to get my legitimately transformational art in front of larger audiences. Trying to remain faithful in this whirlwind seesaw of community feedback has been difficult, to say the least.
I think my only advice here is to courageously wrestle. Wrestle with the toughest questions that this brings up for you.
- How is your ego/self-love deficiency played out by your seeking to have a public face?
- How is God calling you to be a good steward of the truth that you’ve been given?
- What scares you about that?
The only other thing I would offer about this tricky territory is hope. We can get clear. And, with clarity, we can be bold.
12. Don’t Get Discouraged
The internet is a mind-bogglingly big place. Getting noticed takes a great deal of skill, luck and perseverance.
It is natural to write a few blog posts and feel as though no one has time to read them. I have felt at times as though I have to beg people to click over to something that I spent days, months, even years on. This is a terrible feeling, especially if you’ve been personally vulnerable or courageous by posting.
Don’t get discouraged. If God has laid a valuable message on your heart, it is meant to be heard. And you are its steward. Thank you for your dedication and faithfulness.