— Monitoring Online Activity in a Church Social-Media Based Site

January 25, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Posted in Community Management, Online Ministry | 2 Comments

To monitor, or not to monitor? That ain’t the question.

The question is: Do you have faith in your members and in your commitment to growing together?  And then: Will you consider your answer in the context of UU principle #1? Or, as we stand on the side of love, do we stand on the side of faith and trust that our members know how to comport themselves online? Or do we design our decision on a worst-case scenario? Is there a gray solution?

The debate sessions at our General Assemblies always impress me. True, a moderator presides to keep the debates on point and within time limits. Moderation in an online community of practice and purpose only needs a light touch. Caveat: the lay leader of online ministry and the ministers need to be in agreement on how to handle the very rare worst-case scenarios. Meaning: Ministers speak to transgressors privately. Lay online ministry provides guidelines on how to leverage technology to support the ministers; satisfy congregation trust; and uphold several of our principles at the same time.

In the two years we’ve ministered at uucava.org, only one significant incidence occurred which resulted in suspension of the poster. Suspension is not a permanent removal from the site. It denies the user the right to sign in and make comments.

Meanwhile,  moderation is an issue that comes up occasionally at my church but in minor ways. For example, someone considers the daily gratitudes posted by a member to be boring ans unnecessary. These gratitudes flow through an activity feed (a kind of news feed) that sits below the “fold” on our home page. The naysayer has advocated they be removed. Yet, there are many church members who routinely follow the gratitudes.

There’s  been only one significant monitoring emergency in two years. It’s the only time that I’ve had to insist that we stop and discuss solutions immediately before we just delete behavior and content from our site. My instance is born from years of holding and respecting the trust of AOL members. I was one of many  executives who routinely made decisions to keep the trust and respect of 55 million people. This experience has served me well in many other online community related decisions. This isn’t  to say that what I’ve practiced to date is the only right way for a congregation to make online decisions. I bring this up because we gotta start somewhere. At my church we discuss issues as they come up and work to find ways to balance differing opinions.

Here is what happened in our monitoring emergency: an individual, in a group, posted inappropriate comments on that group’s private discussion board. He also wrote blogs that indicated questionable mental balance but, to be fair, blogs that also were very honest explorations of his struggles with multiculturalism.

At the same time that troubling discussion comments appeared, he also began sending external mail to group members. Those communications broke our covenant.  His comments could easily be read as threats. One of our ministers, at that time, wanted him deleted from the site. Instead of taking such a drastic step, here’s what I did to buy a little time so that staff, ministers, and I could discuss the ramifications of such an action.

I changed the site’s privacy and access controls so that none of his behavior was visible anywhere. He could continue to view everything on the site. I recommended that the minister make every attempt to call the person and have a conversation to turn the situation into a learning moment; to give him the chance to alter his behavior. Specifically: try reaching him by phone three times in one day and also send him email. If there was no response or conversation with him by the end of that day, the minister would send an email letting him know that he was suspended from the site and that a conversation should take place between the two.

Why handle this situation this way?  Deletion can be interpreted as censorship by those who don’t know the particulars. Also a disgruntled party can blog and comment elsewhere on the internet about his experience. However, it’s more likely that he or she won’t, if the incident is handled in a way that respects UU principle #1. We get ahead of an accusation of censorship by deciding how to handle a worst-case scenario and to ensure it isn’t just a black/white, dualistic response.

My recommendation was agreed to. At the end of that day, I ended up suspending him — not deleting him. Think about that: deletion. Personally, I find it distasteful and the exact opposite of the Benedictine Rule of Hospitality. Our online administration tools allow us to note why someone has been suspended, and the recorded reason stays in the system to guide us for future consideration if need be.

I believe we need to give even the most challenging of folk a chance to grow and change.  We can protect ourselves by using the technology to that end, and we also can uphold UU principle #1.

So far in this blog, I have outlined how we handle posts that are text-based such as blogs, discussion comments, status line updates, and comments to wall posts.

We do moderate photos and videos. Individuals unwittingly make mistakes by exposing content that they really don’t want all to see. Videos that are meant to support or prepare folks for Sunday service or to continue an ongoing church conversation may be lengthy. When pressed for time ministers and members may only watch 8 mins of a 9 min video. It may be a great video. It’s then easy to  assume there’s no need to finish watching it.   They hit the submit button.   Oops! In the last minute of the video, a frame shows a decapitated zebra. OMG! — a real whammy to make the video’s poetic point. But it’s really disturbing — too disturbing. This is a true story. I talked to the minister who embedded the video. She was horrified and agreed it shouldn’t be posted. We found another one to take its place.

I cite this example because it’s important to support ministers in this way –just as we would members who don’t view all of their content either or who put up photos of their kids without thinking through what that could mean.

We are now discussing whether to allow non-members of our brick and mortar church to be signed-in participants. These would be individuals whom we have never met in person. The issues in review now are:

  • Covenant with our congregation: When we launched our digital sanctuary we addressed privacy concerns by noting that only individuals known to us physically would be registrants. Known to us means: They’ve attended church for eight weeks and have had discussions with our staff membership coordinator. Or, a person who already has the status of “friend,” which means he or she is participating and supporting the church in some way. Or, an individual is a signed member.
  • Training: From Sept. to Xmas 2009, we held two training sessions and q&a events every Sunday in which we reiterated who would be signed in and commenting. We had several Wed. night training sessions for parents in particular. (Few showed up)
  • Video Tutorials: I created several video tutorials in which privacy and access where discussed. Our members can view those tutorials anytime online.
  • Welcoming Congregation: If we are welcoming and anyone can walk into the church on Sundays or participate in a number of open church-sponsored activities in the church, why aren’t we welcoming them online and enabling them to post?

Our discussion on the above bullets include these thoughts:

  • Transparency and welcoming: 98% of our content is viewable to anyone. They are getting a vicarious view of how we love, think, practice, and worship.
  • Our facebook page: If the general public would like to comment it can through our facebook page and also through twitter
  • Church of the Larger Fellowship: If people are looking for a digital only religious affiliation, we can point them to CLF. Sr. Minister Meg Riley, of CLF, has a team of volunteers who take turns monitoring the site. Anyone can register to be in CLF.
  • Monitoring non members: Our ning-based platform doesn’t currently provide for a class of registrants whose participation must be monitored. There’s no way to single them out. However, there is evidence that it may be coming to the platform. One solution we are mulling now is: requiring non members to watch video tutorials on our church covenant and then take a quiz. Think of this solution as an equivalent to the online certification that many companies require, through their HR programs, on sexual harassment and unethical behavior.

What do you think? How would you handle this non-member issue? And in general, how do you address the subject of monitoring?


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  1. Thank you for this terrific resource in educating congregations, and helping open doors (at least finding handles) to the Social Media and Digital Ministry universe.

    Well said, well practiced. “I believe we need to give even the most challenging of folk a chance to grow and change and that we can protect ourselves by using the technology to that end; but we also can uphold UU principle #1.”

    • Thanks so much. I will increasingly share more thoughts in an effort to get much needed feedback to complet grant work I have. I’ll be finishing a model program for UU ministry in June. And I hope my blog followers will participate in the journey to completion.

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