Tennessee restaurants and the power of the personal

Posted Jun 26, 2012 | New Media Project


By Jason Byassee

What have we learned so far? With more than a year of study and reflection under our belts, the New Media Project research fellows have put together a set of recommendations for using social media. Our blog posts for June 2012 will focus on suggestions for everything from “why use social media?” to “how to know if what you’re doing is working.”

New media at its best (and maybe worst) can be a fast-paced, snarky, aggressive way to communicate. I saw this recently in a webspat between two (quite secular!) humor sites, The Oatmeal and FunnyJunk (note: you can’t show these to the youth group!). The Oatmeal has pilloried FunnyJunk for allegedly reposting its comics without attribution. FunnyJunk responded with a lawsuit alleging defamation and demanding damages in the amount of $20,000. The Oatmeal then showed exactly how it is one of the most uproarious sites on the web.

Instead of paying $20,000 to FunnyJunk, The Oatmeal said it would raise $20,000 and take a photo of it. It would mail the photo to FunnyJunk and send half the money to support endangered bears and the other half to fight cancer. It then posted a “donate” button on its site and the magic of social media took over. Sixty-four minutes later The Oatmeal had its 20K (driving mad traffic plus outrage at a perceived malicious lawsuit helps). It’s now raised $180,000. Whatever happens in court, The Oatmeal has already won on the web.

There’s new media: It’s personal, hilarious, and occasionally, even serious. What’s the church stand to learn from this?

That new media works best when it’s personal (and yes, that’s one of the recommendations from the New Media Project). Fans of The Oatmeal may not know its writer personally but we feel connected to someone who makes us laugh. It takes that for wallets to come out. Humor is essential. And then people want to stand up for justice in a way that touches them personally.

The church also has to use new media in ways that highlight the local, the particular, and the personal. For example, on a recent trip across Tennessee, my family and I found ourselves aiming for dinner in Memphis. So we posted a question online—where does one eat with one meal in a great barbeque town? The answer came back—Rendezvous downtown. Now, we could have found it with a Google search—as a famous tourist establishment, Rendezvous would have turned up high on any search engine. But so could a tourist trap with advertising dollars. Instead, I got a word from a friend who pilgrimages to Memphis annually for the music. As a bonus, it turned out we were there on a night when the local minor league baseball team was in town. An unplanned vacation in a great American city culminated with a beautiful night in a stadium nestled into a downtown recommended by a friend on the fly.

On the way home we found ourselves aiming for Knoxville for dinner and a similar query yielded the counsel to eat at Calhoun’s on the Tennessee River. It’s a beautiful spot near the University of Tennessee and opposite the river from a haunting, abandoned hospital. Local, particular, quirky, and glorious. This is the opposite of how to eat in the suburban age, where proximity to the highway and faceless chain restaurants rule. We paid a little more, took more time, but saw two great cities in their glory and ate well.

By contrast, I recently heard a presentation at a conference from a seminary I admire. This man was present in the flesh, but not in relationship. He parachuted in to trumpet the great endeavors of his school, with no knowledge of the graduates of said school sitting right in front of him. To be fair, he’s new. But his presentation could have been done for a group in North Dakota or Afghanistan or Swaziland for all its attention to the local and particular and quirky. The meeting was embodied in one way (we were all in the room together), but abstract and impersonal in every way that mattered.

As the church uses social media it will do better to imitate The Oatmeal and make a way for people to laugh and put a shoulder to the wheel of justice. And it has to be local, embodied, granular, not pumped in from central headquarters with the personality of an airport. The new list of recommendations on the New Media Project website says much more about how to do precisely that.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.



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