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Christians and Social Media

Making an impact on the world of social media.

On Saturday I had 11,000 unexpected guests drop by. One of my stories got picked up by Reddit and StumbleUpon, two of the big social media sites, and it ended up on the front page of both sites concurrently. This caused about 11,000 people to drop by my blog in a matter of hours (on a Saturday, no less, when traffic to these sites is probably far less than it is during the week). I was out and about and busy for most of the day so didn’t really notice much happening, but a quick check of my statistics monitoring later in the day showed that about 1,500 to 2,000 people per hour were dropping by while the stories remained on the front pages. This is the first time one of my articles has been picked up by these sites. It was far less thrilling than I might have imagined, especially because it was just a silly story I wrote a couple of years ago that offered nothing at all profound.

I guess there is no real way of knowing if the people who poured in to read the article that ended up on these sites actually stuck around to become regular readers. I’m guessing none of them did, or certainly not many (though if you are the exception I’d be interested to know it). These social media sites have an amazing ability to drive traffic, but I’m not sure how adept they are at driving long-term visitors, especially to what is rather a niche blog like this one. I suspect that most people visit these sites to get a quick entertainment fix and are not looking for any kind of long-term commitment!

It got me to thinking, though, about how Christians might take advantage of social media. After all, it seems that if a story ends up on the front page of Digg or StumbleUpon or Reddit, people click and read. It is no doubt a safe assumption that the vast majority of people using these sites are completely disinterested in anything even resembling the gospel. Most of the stories that show up on Digg (the only one of these sites I tend to keep an eye on) that deal at all with Christianity are firmly opposed to it.

Digg is one of the ways information moves these days. The site has caught on like wildfire and has spawned hundreds of imitators. But none of them have the sheer power of Digg. The term “the Digg effect” refers to the site’s ability to send so many visitors to a particular site that the site’s server can’t handle the capacity and gives up the ghost, at least for a time. A whole mirroring program has been put in place to attempt to make links visible even after Digg has crushed the server. A single story on Digg’s main page can bring in tens of thousands of visitors in a very short time. If a story ends up on Digg and a few of the other sites, well, you do the math.

The concept is simple but brilliant. Wikipedia sums it up well: “News stories and websites are submitted by users, and then promoted to the front page through a user-based ranking system. This differs from the hierarchical editorial system that many other news sites employ.” In other words, individuals post links to stories and the user community gives these stories either a “digg” or a “bury.” The stories with the most Diggs make their way to the front page where they are seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors, producing a veritable flood of traffic. The other social media sites each have their own features, but they work in roughly the same way—users submit stories and they are democratically promoted or demoted.

It is an interesting system. The stories that are promoted are often well worth reading, though certainly they need to be read with discernment and the headlines must be read carefully to ensure the reader knows what he is likely to see when he clicks.

The biggest problem I’ve found is the unbearable stupidity of so many of the comments—and perhaps even the majority of the comments. Digg seems almost incapable of producing good, useful or interesting discussion. This article is a case in point. The article describes the “hero” of the Minneapolis bridge collapse and his efforts to avoid media exposure. His desire for privacy even led him to decline a photo opportunity with the President.

Mr. Hernandez was not available to comment on the offer; Ms. Schwartz said he left town for northern Minnesota late on Friday, overwhelmed by the attention and concerned that his co-workers were being overlooked. He spent the weekend fishing. When President Bush’s staff contacted him to request a photo opportunity, “He was just, like, ‘Nope,’ ” she said.

Here are some of the comments provided by the Digg users:

  • he should have taken him up on the opportunity and called him out on some **** when he was there.
  • He should have gotten an “I’m with stupid ->” t-shirt! :)
  • I’m guessing it was more of a ‘photo opportunity’ for Bush rather than for the kid.
  • Well good for him, coz BUSH IS AN IDIOT
  • lol. Owned. I wouldn’t want to be in a picture with that ******** either.
  • If he was a real man he would have taken the opportunity to speak his mind.

Enlightening, isn’t it? Unfortunately, this kind of discussion is endemic within Digg and other social media sites. And the people who leave such comments are the same kind who are involved in promoting stories to the main page. Needless to say, this means that stupid stories by far outweigh good ones and frivolous content outweighs serious content. A story bashing President Bush is on the fast-track to tens of thousands of visits; one supporting him may as well not even be submitted. Again, some of the stories are certainly interesting and worth reading, but one certainly does need to look for the diamonds in the rough.

And so I wonder if Christians could use Digg and other sites to try to drive people to the occasional good article. Say, for example, that a blogger wrote an article that refuted five of the most common claims of today’s most prominent atheists, or someone wrote an article showing why we can trust the gospels. Or what if there was a ten minutes video clip (with transcript) of John Piper sharing the gospel? Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if these could be promoted to the front page and be seen by thousands or tens of thousands? It would require a coordinated effort, I’m sure, and might even be destined to fail (is it true that there are a very few people within Digg who have an outrageous amount of influence in demoting certain stories?). It would be nice to be able to promote just a few kernels of wheat amidst all the chaff.

For those who participate in social media, I’d be interested in knowing how such an effort might work. I’d be interested in knowing if it is even feasible. Can sites like Digg be salvaged, or are they destined to primarily only ever promote content that is unbearably light, inconceivably stupid? Can Christians hope to make an impact in the world of social media?