11 May 2008

Blogging and Facebook: not just for a younger generation

Bishop David Chillingworth’s blog: but has blogging a long way to go in Ireland?

Patrick Comerford

IT is hard for many of us to get our heads around the fact that the internet only became available to the general public from around 1994. We are so used to using e-mail and accessing the web for information, communications and social networking, that we forget what it was like before that, relying on faxes, the Telex and what we know call “snail-mail.”

Even people who once felt that all this was something for younger generations are becoming computer literate, getting their own emails and beginning to use forums on the web for arranging their social lives and keeping in touch with one another.

Although almost half the adult population in Ireland uses the internet for accessing news or current affairs, this falls to just 14 per cent for those aged 14 to 17. On the other hand, 70 per cent of teenagers use social networking sites such as Bebo, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube.

Most adults use the internet for e-mail (80 per cent), random surfing (79 per cent), online shopping (55 per cent), and news and current affairs (44 per cent), but only 23 per cent use it for social networking. Social networking is the most popular reason for Irish teenagers using the internet (70 per cent), followed by school research (54 per cent), random surfing (53 per cent), e-mail (52 per cent) and on-line games (47 per cent).

Irish-based blogs

I have yet to reach the fluency many teenagers have when using MSN messenger and Bebo. But in recent months I have signed up to Facebook and have taken to blogging. Some say there about 2,000 to 3,000 Irish-based blogs, although even this is a difficult figure to calculate. A Blog or web log can be a personal journal, a forum for political debates, an outlet for braking news or a collection of links. At its simplest, a blog is a website where someone can write and put infomation online on a continuing basis.

Twenty.Major is the best-known Irish blogger. His blog includes a gallery of foul-mouthed fictional characters such as Dirty Dave, who rarely showers, Stinking Pete, Catchphrase Ken, Lucky Luciano, and Blindy Reilly, “who got his eyes blown out by a dodgy firework he bought from some lady on Moore Street.”

His blog is so popular that the publishers Hodder Headline Ireland offered the writer who uses the name Twenty Major received an advance for his debut novel, The Order of the Phoenix Park, expecting it to be a major success. At first, Twenty Major’s publishing deal was seen as a major breakthrough for Irish bloggers, but the book has since been a publishing damp squib.

Another well-known Irish blogger is Steve Simpson, originally from Cheshire but now living in Glenageary, Co Dublin. He is an artist who has been illustrating for major advertising and design companies in Dublin and further afield for the last 10 years, and his characters have appeared from postage stamps to crisp packets, gourmet pies, the Beano and the Dandy, and children’s books both in Ireland and in the US.

The best known blog in Northern Ireland is undoubtedly Slugger O’Toole, a blog on politics and culture edited by the political analyst Mick Fealty. In France, readers followed with intensity the blog postings of an English woman in Paris using the nom de plume of Petite Anglaise as she described the break-up of her relationship with “Mr Frog.” Catherine Sanderson (35) was fired for blogging in 2006. But events were turned on their head when she was offered a publisher’s contract to write a memoir based on her blog. Her Facebook page now has about 700 fans, and she is about to get married. Petite Anglaise is at: http://www.petiteanglaise.com/

Free soapbox?

The Sunday Times columnist Kathy Foley recently asked whether the blogosphere is “anything more than a free soapbox for ranting, foul-mouthed angry white males, the sort who fulminate on radio phone-ins and fantasise about taking revenge for its perceived failings.”

Kathy Foley, who is a blogger herself, wondered whether Irish people dismiss bloggers as “self-regarding geeks, oddballs and social pariahs.” But the blogging scene is different in other countries, and ten new books on blogging have been published in recent months by eminent publishers including Doubleday, Wiley and Oxford and Princeton University Presses.

In the United States, on the other hand, has long been accepted in the US as part of mainstream culture, communications and publishing. Blogging is rapidly-growing phenomenon there, and the speed of its growth has been accelerated by the presidential nomination campaigns. Bloggers are often the first people to publish breaking news, and blogs receives serious attention from analysts, academics and commentators.

But blogging has its downsides too. In the US a 19-year-old created a blog by a fictitious 15-year-old whose online video diaries gained world-wide popularity before they were exposed as hoaxes.

Kathy Foley decries the fact that there are no Irish blogs from high-profile business leaders, none giving the inside view from political spin doctors, and few of value from the world of academia or the liberal arts. According to BlurredKeys.com, an Irish media blog edited by Cian Ginty, about 40 Irish-based journalists have blogs, but only three of these appear under the auspices of the most traditional of Irish media outlets, The Irish Times.

Social networking

The worlds of bloggers and social networks come together when people use their Facebook pages to invite their friends to read their blogs and when blog readers check out the writers they enjoy and start becoming friends with them on Facebook.

The Facebook group for Anglican bloggers had about 370 members at my last count, including a number of bloggers from the Church of Ireland. Among them are Gary McMurray, a third-year ordinand; Canon Stephen Neill of Cloughjordan; the Revd Stephen Fielding of Agherton, Co Derry; the Revd Judith Hubbard-Jones of Kinneigh, Co Cork; and the Revd Niall Sloane of Taney, Dublin. Bloggers from the Church of England who are part of the Facebook group include Ruth Gledhill, the religious affairs correspondent of The Times (London) and Bishop Pete Broadbent of Willesden.

Irish-born bishops who blog include Bishop David Chillingworth of St Andrews, who is at: http://www.bishopdavid.net/. Bishop Alan Wilson of Buckingham is one of the best-known bloggers in the Church of England. Episcopalian bloggers in the US range right across the theological spectrum, from Martyn Minns to Jan Nunley or Louie Crew.

Social networking sites such as Bebo, MySpace and Facebook appeal to different ager brackets. In March, AOL (“America on line”) recently acquired Bebo, an up-and-coming social network, bringing Bebo to the attention of a much older age group than those who normally use it. However, Facebook appears to appeal to people closer to my age group, and is very popular, for example with students and ordinands at the Church of Ireland Theological College, and other groups within the Church of Ireland.

There are Facebook groups for the Church of Ireland, the Church of Ireland Theological College, the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission and wide range of interest groups throughout the Anglican Communion, such as Affirming Catholicism.

A growing phenomenon

Facebook was set up for students in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard student. At the beginning of last year, it had 7,000 users in Ireland, but today there are more than 190,000 Facebook members here, seven million in the UK, and over 65 million worldwide, with two million new members joining each week. Facebook is especially popular with students. Its users keep in touch with each another, share book, movie and music reviews and travel tips and invite one another to upcoming events. Over 8,000 students are on the Facebook network at TCD alone, and over 5,000 students are on the Facebook network at UCD. This means over half the student population in Ireland now keep in touch through Facebook.

With the rapid growth in popularity of Facebook, the social network is considering Ireland as the location for its European hub. Goggle has 1,500 employees in Dublin, the online auction site ebay has 1,200 staff in Blanchardstown, and the online retailer Amazon set up a support operation in Cork with 450 workers last year.

Facebook has produced a mini-industry in new programmes, with companies launching thousands of features allowing users to swap reviews of books, music and movies, to build and race virtual cars, or buy each other virtual drinks. More than a million people compare their tastes in movies each day and 600,000 people play Scrabulous each day. Some observers compare the Facebook programming boom with the boom sparked by Microsoft’s Windows software, with thousands of companies springing up to produce packages.

I use Facebook to keep in touch with students, friends and family members, but have found or renewed contact with cousins (close and distant) in Ireland and on every continent through Facebook. My personal Facebook page provides immediate access to my two blogs, while a separate Facebook page invites people to discuss the history of the Comerford family.

The hidden dangers

Social networking sites like Facebook are changing the way people relate to each other and pay attention to and work on their friendships. But there are hidden dangers. Many politicians have seen their identities hijacked by people who want to ridicule them. Potential employers can check out embarrassing postings on a job applicant’s Bebo or Facebook page. But some people have found their identity hijacked by business opponents or jealous ex-partners or work colleagues, who then start posting fictitious but incriminating photographs or accounts of nights on the town that never happened.

Already schoolchildren are being bullied on social networks. Some British newspapers have tried to link a series of deaths by suicide among teenagers in Brigend with social networking sites, pointing to the posthumous tributes on one teenager’s Bebo page.

There is a real gap between what parents think they know about their children’s use of the internet and the reality. Many parents do not understand the technology, the language, the vocabulary and the social understandings that have developed around teenagers’ use of the internet.

Seven out of 10 Irish teenagers use social networking sites such as Bebo and MySpace, but a government-commissioned study shows that most parents have little understanding of the phenomenon or the dangers associated with it. Parents need to warn children and teenagers about the dangers of giving out personal details on social networking sites and about how other people can lie about their identities. We need to know what sites they visit and whether they are suitable, and we need to get to grips with the technology they are using for their protection and safety.

And if you’re not blogging, if you’re not on Facebook, if you don’t know what Bebo is, there’s no better time to sign up and learn.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay was first published in the May editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory)


David Chillingworth said...

Interesting stuff, Patrick. Slugger O'Toole is a long-time favourite of mine. I think the Scottish Episcopal Church has adopted a blogging culture - possibly as an alternative to the earlier model of the C of I E mail forum, on which I am a long-time lurker. The blogs of course mean that one is open to the world, not just to a closed membership. Either way, if one wants to get 'across the boundaries' of the church, there is no better way

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you David.

I find blogging allows more considered, thoughtful pieces, rather than the kneejerk reactions email forums foster. Blogging the synod was a new approach for me, and the response was interesting.

And thanks for your blog too.