More on the Virtual Church

Originally posted on Fri, 02/08/2013

I’m starting to think that this Virtual Church thing has legs. One thing I mentioned several times in my last post was Stack Overflow, a website which uses social science techniques (a.k.a. gamification) to encourage high-quality answers to technical questions. One thing that simplifies this is the decision to make Stack Overflow explicitly not a discussion board. Well, they’ve done it again and introduced discussion board software which encourages civil discourse. They call it Discourse. It’s too early to be certain if it will work, but it’s got an awfully good pedigree.

On Google+, I commented to Stephen Starkey some of the directions that this Virtual Church idea could take. I should add that “any and all, and by people other than me” is a perfectly good option. In fact, human progress tends not to be the work of lone geniuses, but of many people and teams racing to explore a newly discovered scientific or cultural frontier. Here’s what I said:

Right now it’s a jumble of ideas. I can see it going in a number of directions. A few examples, in no particular order:

  • A filter or shell on top of existing social media, to amplify the spirituality and dampen the negative stressors. (This is the least likely, as Facebook, Google, and Twitter want to control the UI. But you can get a similar effect by only friending ministers.)
  • An alternative social media site, highly targeted (like StackOverflow or and implicitly encouraging mindfulness and self-health while promoting environmental and social justice.
  • A toolkit for developing social media sites like the one above, or incorporating mindfulness into existing social media toolkits. The latter could be particularly subversive (if that’s the right term) if a suite of general-purpose widgets has defaults that encourage mindfulness, wellness, and enlightened discussion.
  • Out-of-the-box forum software for churches and other organizations.

Some of these may sound distantly removed from the original notion of a virtual church. But for some people, Facebook is their church. It’s where they find words of inspiration and are called into action in the real world. And for others, the physical church is as meaningless as so many cat pictures and links to cheer-our-political-team, shame-the-other-side that get mixed into the Facebook stream.

You’ll notice that if you scale back the explicit mindfulness/spirituality, a number of these ideas start to look like Discourse. And the rest could use Discourse as a component or starting point. (Or not; it could be that voting on comments isn’t the best way to promote spiritual discourse.)

The thing that excites me the most about the Virtual Church is that it ties together so many of my interests. This could turn into a quit-my-job sort of project. Which would be quite something, considering how awesome my job is. But going on my own would involve a ton of things I really don’t like: paperwork, self-promotion, financing, and all the rest.

I encourage anyone to take these ideas and run with them. Anyone else would take them in a different direction. Me, I’m a tool builder, not a moderator, minister, or conversationalist. Here’s how I see things:

  • Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day
  • Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for the rest of his life
  • Open a fishing school, and many will eat
  • Develop a good curriculum, and fishing schools will thrive
  • Develop easier techniques for fishing, or for teaching, and teachers will be able to reach more people– and some will teach themselves
  • Develop tools to make it easier to improve fishing techniques, such as ways to measure teaching success, and the teachers and students will improve the techniques
  • …but success is more certain if you just teach one person to fish.

I am definitely at the more meta end of that list– but you need all kinds.