Is Twitter too risky for General Convention?

Last summer, I served as a Deputy to General Convention. We were told that we Deputies could not tweet or access the Internet in any way during legislative sessions because we might be distracted. (Never mind that people distract themselves in countless ways.) The sense seems to be that there is some kind of risk in allowing Deputies to tweet.

Here are a couple of case studies. Astronauts are allowed to tweet on the job (even when in orbit). Now I’ve learned that brain surgeons can tweet on the job! Surely Deputies can manage the hazards of tweeting whilst following legislative debate.

There is, of course, a real risk that has gone unnoticed in the current policy. We are a church that is sliding into precipitous decline. The whole business of General Convention is widely perceived, by many Episcopalians, as hopelessly irrelevant to the actual mission and evangelism work of the church.

Perhaps, by encouraging — not just allowing, but encouraging — tweets, the Episcopal Church might find a way to make real connections to people who otherwise wouldn’t follow what was happening at church gatherings. I can tell you that since General Convention, I’ve listened to Lutherans and Anglicans meeting in synod, and in both cases I wouldn’t have been able to follow what was happening without Twitter. I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that neither synod was ruined by the presence of some participants using Twitter. In fact, it’s possible the proceedings were enhanced.

Can we please change the rules before the next General Convention — maybe even the next meeting of Executive Council? Let’s face it, our current rules are a failure, unless the goal is to become wholly irrelevant.

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24 Responses

  1. Hi, Scott–

    Also having served as Deputy, and having experienced the power of Tweet-enabled conferences in other contexts, I appreciate your post. I think the conversation should center on whether we think the sitting Deputies want/should be in dialogue with one another during legislative sessions. Right now, the rules also prohibit conversation while the President continues seated. In addition, nonmembers of the House aren’t allowed access to the floor of Convention, and must pass notes via pages if they want to communicate with Deputies.

    Social web tools change how we communicate with one another, but any question we ask of them as channels can and should be asked of any other channel.

    Regardless of the medium, if we want to change the rules of the Convention to allow active conversation during the sessions, then we’ll have taken the step toward questioning whether Twitter (or any electronic channel) would add to our effectiveness.

    L2, Ohio

  2. Bob Chapman says:

    On passing notes or holding discussions during sessions, I’m reminded of Paul telling women to keep quiet in church and let their husband explain it to them later. Part of that (but not all of it) had to do with the segregation of the sexes during worship. He didn’t want disturbances across the floor, as it would be distracting. Knowing that Paul greeted a woman as a fellow apostle, as well as treating a certain seller of purple with respect, Paul wasn’t all anti-female.

    Good order. Make it possible to listen to debate and discussion of what is before the body at the moment.

    That makes it clear that there should not be any cell phone conversations on the floor.

    Since notes are passed, though, apparently it is thought that deputies can do more than one thing at a time during debate on the floor. They can read whilst participating. Why not deliver those notes electronically through e-mail or Twitter?

    I still see occasional tweets using the #CWA09 hashtag.

  3. Mike Collins says:

    Hey Scott,

    Interesting topic. We used Twitter to great effect in our coverage of GC. There were tons of discussions going on and in most cases it turned people into what is becoming a more common descriptor, citizen journalists. I’m not sure how social media might work in the context of legislative bodies but it’s fun to think about.


  4. Dan Martins says:

    So….Scott…how do you account for all the tweets that DID emanate from the floor of HOD?Scofflaws? Say it ain’t so!

  5. I tweeted GC2009, among many other meetings, and I have no intention of stopping whenever it seems productive. I admit that I don’t want to bore people with tweets such as “still going over the budget as published — I still am not crazy about laser pointers.”

    But I believe that when people have no solid information to fill in blanks, most of us tend to fill in blanks with fears and anxieties. I think our official as well as unofficial communications folk do well when they further appropriate transparency.

  6. Ann says:

    Easy to change – offer an amendment to the Rules. Also provide wifi – so people can access their files from remote locations. Stop infantalization. I can see not talking on the phone – but tweets texting and email. Go for it.

  7. Jim Naughton says:

    I don’t think transparency is a useful rationale for having participants tweet open meetings covered by the media while those meetings are in session. To me this has nothing to do with adaptation to new technologies, it has to do with paying attention to the business that people elect deputies to do. The House is in session for an average of, what, five hours a day for eight to ten days every three years, and the Church is going to hell in a handbasket because deputies can’t tweet during that time? Please.

  8. Scott Gunn says:

    Jim, I don’t think — nor did I say — that the Episcopal Church will suddenly start growing if tweets are allowed at General Convention.

    I’ll write more about this, but I think your premise is flawed (just as I didn’t state any particular argument very clearly). There are plenty of Deputies who can tweet and pay attention to the proceedings. I do not need to be infantilized and told what to do or not do. If elected again, I certainly will fully enter into the work of being a Deputy. My failure to do so would be rightly criticized.

    Were I to attempt knitting, I would be unable to pay attention to meetings. But I can recognize that this is different for others, whose attention is actually aided by a seemingly unrelated activity.

    There’s a generational issue at work here. For people younger than me, texting is second nature.

    To put my point another way, if we want General Convention to be connected to people outside the church geek set and the bureaucratic love-fest, we need to try new things. Lots of people don’t give a @#$! about “media”. They want relationships. And tweets can help create them.


    P.S. “Please” was a bit over the top for you methinks. I’m wondering why this one is so annoying. Really, I am.

  9. Scott Gunn says:

    Jim, one more thing. Your comment would have appeared sooner, but Akismet thought it was spam for some reason. Sorry for the delay in getting it approved.


  10. One more thought: I remember last summer that I very gratefully followed non-members of the Convention as they tweeted what was happening in the House of Bishops. I’m happy for those who attend the legislative sessions as visitors to be completely free to tweet what’s happening to the world.

    Following the conversation here, I believe I’m on the side of not tweeting from the floor of the House.

    Thanks so much for this piece, though!!!!

    L2, Ohio

  11. Helen Mosher says:

    That tweeting means participants are not paying attention is a myth.

    When used as many did this past year at GC, it’s the equivalent of taking notes in class. If anyone would like to make the assertion that a person taking notes in a class is not paying attention, I’d be glad to hear the case for banning Twitter on that assumption.

  12. Scott Gunn says:

    Thanks, Helen. Certainly there are some people who could not tweet and also pay attention. But those people should not prevent the rest of us from getting along with things.

    Frankly, I see little downside to opening things up, and there’s plenty of upside.

  13. Sue stromquist says:

    I’ll be honest, before the last GC I had never even opened Twitter. However, being unable to attend, I followed the tweets avidly some days for hours at a time. I felt more a part of the church just by knowing what was going on. I have some concerns about ” outside influences” on deputies but I would guess we will manage that problem if and when it arises just as we do others.

  14. Scott Gunn says:

    Sue, thanks for your comment. I think the “outside influences” argument against internet access is a red herring.

    While the House is in session, I can get up to use the restroom. I can receive notes. I can walk over to another table to chat with someone. All of these things would permit me to be influenced, were I so inclined.

    This, of course, invites the question: is outside influence a bad thing? Must good decisions be made in a bubble? But I digress.

    If we are really concerned with outside influence, we’d want to sequester the House. To permit one kind of outside access (free access to the outside world by Deputies) but not another (internet access) exposes the double standards at work here.


  15. Doxy says:

    I’d like to know just who decided that Deputies would not be allowed Internet access? Who gets to make that proclamation and what enforcement powers do they have?

    I REALLY don’t like the idea that deputies are told that they may not communicate–I don’t care *what* the format is. Deputies are grown-ups, and we ought not to be “managing by exception.”

    If there’s a problem with some individuals, deal with those people. Otherwise, it simply looks like the church is afraid for people outside of convention to know what’s going on. And it’s not as if “they” (whoever “they” are) can control the flow of information anyway. All they do is delay the inevitable, and create ill will and suspicion in the process.

  16. David Michaud says:

    I don’t think the lack of internet access on the floor of the House is due to a decision to keep the internet from the Deputies, but one of cost. The convention venues don’t provide free wi-fi access and so if the convention wants to make the floor of convention a hot spot, the convention has to pay to have the technology in place. There is a cost of having enough bandwith available to handle a large number of deputies accessing the internet, and with the budget being slashed for the next convention, there doesn’t appear to be a spare pot of money to make this happen — or if it is done cheaply, there will be complaints that it isn’t working correctly.

    Right now the world can access legislation and the status of legislation online from the church website in real time. I think convention information has become more accessible to the world — for instance, as soon as legislation is reported out of committee or voted on in a house, the information is available to the world at the same instant as it is recorded at convention (see The question is whether thousands of dollars need to be spent so that deputies can have private access to the internet on the floor of the House. Certainly they already get access in their hotel rooms, in other wifi hotspots or by going to the computer kiosks.

    If the cost for a wifi hot spot goes way down by 2012, it would be a non-issue and it should be installed. But the electrical power and the access costs for making the floor a wifi hotspot seem to be the real reason why deputies in session can’t access the web, not some conspiracy to keep deputies from accessing information.

  17. I think we’re missing the point. It’s not whether internet access or tweeting should be allowed. The question is one of how the House shows respect to one another while we are engaged in our commissioned responsibilities.

    I think it’s unfair to compare getting up to go to the restroom and tweeting. One is a physical necessity and the other is a distraction.

    Again, I use Social Web tools all the time for collaboration, and I have been part of conferences that are tweeting as a meta-conversation about the learning. It’s absolutely great. But the contexts are different.

    I believe that for the House to do its job, we owe it to one another to put aside all distractions to devote our attention to the primary business, with the same concentration and devotion as to prayer. It’s not that we can’t pay attention and tweet at the same time, it’s that we show respect to one another by not tweeting at the same time.

    Taking notes is different. When you take notes, you’re in conversation with yourself. When you Tweet, you are in conversation with the world, and you’re not only “speaking” but “listening” as well.

    L2, Ohio

  18. Doxy says:

    David–I have Internet access on my cell phone. I don’t need wifi to browse the Web, e-mail, text, or tweet. (Not that I’m ever likely to be a Deputy to GC…)

    Stephen–I can see your point. But not everyone defines “respect” the way you do. As someone who struggles with ADD, I find it terribly difficult to sit still and pay attention to people talking for long periods of time. If I were tweeting from GC, it might actually help me pay BETTER attention if I was trying to distill what someone was saying into a 140-character tweet.

    But, then again, it might not. 😉

  19. Doxy, if people don’t define respect as I do, then it’s only because of the degeneration of social norms in American society: When people are talking to you, you should give them your attention. When you are in conversation with someone, you don’t suddenly turn away and converse with someone else.

    If you have difficulty focusing because of ADD, and you think that typing would help, then take notes.

    So let me ask you this: Do you tweet in Church during worship? Why or why not?


  20. Doxy says:

    Doxy, if people don’t define respect as I do, then it’s only because of the degeneration of social norms in American society

    Way to shut down the conversation, Stephen….

    (Hint: Not all cultures define “respect” as sitting quietly and listening to someone drone on. Ever been to an Orthodox church?)

  21. Mike Collins says:

    There were certainly people tweeting from both houses throughout convention. I’m not sure if any of them were deputies. I’m pretty sure none of them were bishops 🙂

    I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the wide ranging discussions and sometimes breaking news quality of some tweets following the GC hashtag enhanced the experience for people following along.

    Twitter has become a pretty powerful communication tool.

  22. Bob Chapman says:

    So let me ask you this: Do you tweet in Church during worship? Why or why not?

    Not that I do it regularly, I have tweeted during worship. On more than one occasion the rector had made a great point during his sermon that I wanted to share. If I had waited until after the worship service had ended, who knows if I would have done it? You get distracted with other things.

    There was also one occasion where the sermon so-did-not-speak-to-me that it was going to be either Twitter or the Articles of Religion. Since there was something spiritual (believe it or not) I wanted to track and follow up on Twitter, I decided that the Articles of Religion could wait this time. (I have years of reading the Articles under my belt, along with the Psalter.)

    I wouldn’t dream of doing a review of the choir anthem. Too many people know me.

    (There was once the time I did a review of the church school Christmas pageant in the style of David Sidaris’ “Front Row Center With Thaddeus Bristol.” Since, again, people know me too well in the parish, I kept it fun. I made sure to mention all the names I could. I may be crazy but not stupid.)

    I can’t think of a higher compliment for my rector’s sermon than to let people around the world know about it.

    I can’t think of better advertising (yes, advertising) for worship services at my parish than to send a tweet out?

    I do know there has been at least one person that has shown up on Sunday morning because of my Web 2.0 stuff. Considering my parish is 20-25 minutes from downtown Everett, don’t think it was simply because we both list Everett in our profiles.

    Getting back to delegates to GC and Twitter, I can’t think of a better way of calling “bullshit” on a speaker than to have someone tweet a web link that disproves a point being made in a speech on the floor. Just sayin’ that sometimes we all have need of encouragement to not bear false witness.

  23. Scott Gunn says:

    Stephen, I think your definition of “respect” might not be universal. Context is everything. I wouldn’t stare at a giant three-ring binder while chatting with you one-on-one in a hallway, but that’s exactly what we do as Deputies.

    Generally speaking, in pastoral care, I do not sit there and takes notes, for example. But when I meet with couples for pre-marital counseling and we’re covering family history, I often take notes for future reference. Disrespectful? I don’t think so.

    Sitting in a room with 800 people, I do not think it is disrespectful to tweet — if it doesn’t distract other people. My guess is that 25% of Deputies in Anaheim were accessing the Internet while the House was in session. And yet the world continued to spin.

    There are, I think, at least three issues here. One is the paternalistic attitude of determining what a Deputy may or may not do. Lots of us would like to be treated as adults. Second, there is a related question about the effectiveness of Deputies. If it doesn’t harm anyone else, and if I can serve as an effective Deputy, what’s the downside to me tweeting or otherwise using the net? Then there is the potential upside to changing the policy. Might there be benefits in me being able to check with others about specific bits of legislation or things that are said? Might there be benefits in us sharing our experience with the wider church and the world?

    David, and others, I’m not asking the church to give me electricity or Wifi. I can use my own stuff to get access.

    Speaking of which, surely there’s a better way to run things than killing entire forests every day to fill three-ring binders? It’s all related. General Convention needs to get with the times.


  24. Ah yes, well contextual ethics have ever been the enemy of moral theology, haven’t they? Kill someone in one context and it’s murder, wage war on a country where millions die and it’s “just.” The question about tweeting during worship is not about etiquette but about whether you can give yourself over to the corporate worship if you’re “talking” on your cellphone. It’s all exactly the same thing, regardless of the context: On cannot be fully present when one’s mind is elsewhere.

    Clearly, this is not the place to debate the “right” versus the “good.”

    In closing, I’ll only suggest that if you want to tweet the legislative sessions, then give up your seat to someone who will devote him/herself completely to the job, and instead join the press corps. Visitors can (and should) tweet what they witness: That is why they attend the sessions.

    The Deputies, on the other hand, should take on the discipline of being fully present to the session for a couple of hours, and tweet to their hearts’ content in between. (Human beings cannot, by the way, multitask. Plenty of research has shown that you cannot tweet and drive at the same time, so the argument that “I think better when I’m tweeting” is the red herring.)


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