In Baltimore With Bishops and Bloggers

So if you’ve been cruising around the Catholic blogs and news sites, you may have already heard about the bishops and bloggers meeting that took place on Sunday, a day before the official start of the USCCB’s general convention. Security was light and I was able to sneak in and pretend to be worthy of spending three hours among the princes of the church and some of the best religious bloggers on the interwebs. I even managed to photobomb the Patheos class picture when no one was looking:

I’m the one on the far left, wearing my uncanny Lisa Hendey costume.

Meanwhile, the guy who takes care of my chickens is being subjected to a Vulcan nerve pinch by Mark Shea while Kathy Schiffer stands on his feet and says “Smile and you may escape with your life.”

I’m a day late in posting because my first coverage had to go to the National Catholic Register, which now has a journalism-type article written with objectivity and professionalism:

 Bishop Coyne began the discussion by forcefully stating that the question is not “If bishops and the Church should be involved in digital media, but how.”

“Facebook is the new parish hall,” said Poust. She cited the recent example of Hurricane Sandy, during and after which people used Twitter and Facebook to stay connected and share information.

Palmo observed that almost all of these technologies are free, and that even if only a minority of Catholics is using them, that still represents people who are seeking ways to be connected to their Church and parish.

“Yes, it’s unofficial,” Palmo continued. “Yes, there are dangers, but the thing I’ve found is that it has an intimacy that speaks to people, which institutional commentary doesn’t have.”

Okay, enough of that jazz. What you really want to hear is what Mark Shea is really like, if Leah Libresco is really going through with this Catholic thing, and if Rocco Palmo actually has the Pope in his rolodex. Here are some random memories from my 12 hours spent on the Baltimore jaunt.

I drove down from South Jersey for the day. Our Sandy-strained electrical grid gave out again shortly after I left home, and the day after Chris Christie promised all the power in the state would be restored. Except, you know, for those places where it wasn’t.

Only the weak use real navigation software: the daring among us use Apple maps, and we like it! Sure, you can have software that sends you to your location quickly and efficiently, but when you’re trying to squeeze in a morning mass at the Baltimore Basilica, pick someone up at the train station, drive someone to their hotel room, and make your 12:30 meeting, you want something that adds a little spice to your day.

That’s where apple Apple maps comes in. It’s like have a drunk with Tourettes reading a map upside down and acting as your navigator, randomly shouting out bizarre directions. Turn left! No! No! The other left! Arggg! You’ve killed us all! At one point it ordered me to take a left, a right, a right, and a left on a straight road: a perfect U. Was that block of route 40 mined, perhaps? Did Siri save my life?! And when it suddenly blurted out “MAKE A U-TURN,” did it meant that I should literally start heading in the other direction, or was it offering advice about the spiritual direction I was taking? Mysteries upon mysteries.

I got to the venue for the conference early and ran into the other bloggers. I asked where registration was. Some weren’t sure. Some thought there was no registration. There was some debate about whether it was on the third or fourth floor, or perhaps in another hotel, or maybe on another day, in another city. Why, yes, this event was organized by the Catholic church. What makes you ask?

Baltimore Basilica, under wraps

I zipped out to the 10:45 mass at the Baltimore Basilica, which is in the midst of restoration and wrapped in muslin like a new work by Christo. The Basilica is quite beautiful in its undraped form, but there was something appealing about the tent-like wrappings that shrouded everything, like attending mass inside a tent at the Quidditch World Cup. The mass itself had a full choir. They offered a fine rendition of “Gift of Finest Wheat” that almost made me not want to puncture my eardrums.

Since I cover the conference in my story, I won’t rehash the details here. I think it went fairly well. I’m not sure what the successors to the apostles made of a bunch of self-appointed public diarists holding forth, but it seemed to be pretty productive. A few points:

Some people pronounced blogs “dead.” I’ve also read people pronouncing  Facebook “dead.” Or Twitter “dying.” Or Pinterest the “next big thing.”  Or this or that. Let me give you a final and definitive answer about what’s dead and what’s not, based on years of experience in tech trends: anyone who pronounces this or that medium dead has not one single clue what they’re talking about. I have no idea if Facebook is played out, and neither does anyone else. I suspect it has peaked. It may decline. It may not. Anyone trying to predict anything else is just guessing and assigning the word “analysis” to their guess.

About that “Blogs Are Dead” bit: bullshit. We were told that USA Today killed all their blogs because they couldn’t get ads for them, thus the blog format is history. Meanwhile, checks arrive at my house each month containing money from Patheos blog ad revenue. The crappiness of USA Today‘s blog effort–and the failure of their sales team to build a functional revenue model or their editorial team to provide interesting content–does not translate into the death of blogs. (Exit question: USA Today is still published? Who knew?)

You want the truth about social media trends? We’re off the grid, people. Nothing is dead. Everything is in flux. I have no map through the next few years of technological shifts because too much is in the mix right now. I wouldn’t dare make that kind of bold predication, and I spent years writing columns on various tech trends for major magazines.

My gut is telling me that Twitter is ascendant, but it could peak soon too.

My gut is telling me that bloggers need to find a new means of convergence along the Patheos and Gawker model, with single URLs opening to multiple writers.

My experience is telling me that young people are cooling on their Facebook attachments, which means usage will contract to a smaller, but still large and dedicated, user base. Again: these are not predictions. They’re guesses informed by experience and observation.

The bishops seemed curious but unsure just what it all might mean. Bishop Samples rose to say that his whole purpose is to bring the presence and message of Jesus Christ to people, and he wanted to know if this technology can do that. The answer is: it’s a part of it, yes. You have to find people where they are if you’re going to evangelize them, and where they are is online, on Youtube, in MMOs, playing games, watching streaming television, listening to podcasts, following social media, and so on. It’s a vast apparatus of tools–almost every one of them free–that can be tapped to spread the message. Gutenberg gave us the printing press and the explosion and democratization of knowledge. The internet and social tools are not a new Gutenberg revolution: they are the same revolution extended into new spaces in new ways.

My own comments were limited to the end, where I pointed out that we have a model for how this all works, and it’s really not hard to follow. Fr. Barron is the master of these media, and has already shown the way to use it all. He plays new media like a concert master plays the violin. When trying to understand a new format, find someone who does it well, and do what they do, then add your own twist. (I also babbled something about World of Warcraft, but I was rushing and didn’t connect up my point, which was this: Fr. Barron began evangelizing the culture through movie reviews. Cultural engagement. Games, mobile tech, even viral videos are all cultural touchstones, and need to be places where we are present as Catholics.)

I may write about the CARA study–mentioned in my NC Register story–in the future, so I don’t want to go into it now. I take a dim view of survey-based studies. The sample size was adequate but hardly decisive, and the tendency of people to reply with what they may perceive to be “correct” answers skews the results. Yes, I know the models take that into consideration. I still don’t find them useful.

F’rinstance, CARA would have us believe that the posts people want most are on church history and the saints. Um … no. Really not even close. Those are what people think they should want, because what they really was are snarky posts, scandals, celebrities, sex, media reviews, and puppies.

Hit counts don’t lie. Survey results do.

Also, they made a big deal about the fact that “Catholic” attached to other words in Google search took something like a 34% dive between 2004 and 2012.

Hmmmm, let me think … what was happening in 2004 that might make people search more for the word “Catholic” than they would in 2012? Anything coming to mind?

In other words, they misread a spike in 2004 as a dip in 2012. They make some passing reference to this in a footnote, but the takeway was that PEOPLE AREN’T SEARCHING FOR CATHOLIC TRUTH ANY MORE! OMG! EVERYBODY PANIC!!!!! No. Wrong. Next.

The meeting was quite good, but the real cherry on top was retiring to the James Joyce pub to consume beverages and victuals with the other Catholic media types. What a fine bunch of folks, really. Some quick observations:

Yeah, Brandon Vogt is really like you might suspect: an absolute unlimited bundle of energy and good will. He’s a man you just like. He would have been an awesome preacher, and in a way, he is a true lay preacher in the digital realm. I love seeing that much joy in one so young. He will move mountains.

Telling moment in my time with Leah Libresco: She’s quick, no-bs, scary smart, very down-to-earth, and a pleasure to be with, but when she started talking about scattergraphs, she just kind of lit up. It was statistics-as-religious-experience. If math is indeed the true language of God (which I suspect), Leah is already talking with Him. She’s ready to enter the church this month, thanks be to God.

Leah Libresco, Mark Shea, Kevin Knight (l to r)

Mark Shea is a grand soul, which should surely vex his enemies, who have him pegged as some sort of monster for speaking boldly and passionately on important issues. He’s a pure force of good cheer and generous spirt, the way you imagine Chesterton would have been. He also ordered two glasses of milk at the same time. In an Irish bar. And he bears the name “Shea.” Yet he still held his head up high. That, sirs and madams, is a man.

I liked Kevin Knight right away. He’s quiet and unassuming, yet when you remember that he built what is arguably the single most important Catholic resource on the internet single-handed, you can’t help but be a little awed. With the exception of Fr. Barron, I can’t think of another Catholic whose presence on the internet is so consequential, and he’s just a nice guy.

If I heard tomorrow that the next pope was being personally selected by Rocco Palmo, I’d probably believe it. I don’t know how he knows what he knows, but I can’t think of many Vatican watchers who are more perceptive or better writers. He’s also a damn good guy. He spoke with some passion–and irritation–of the digital realm’s lagging outreach to the booming Hispanic Catholic population, and expressed chagrin at the combox hostility towards them, a point echoed by Mark.

I’ll be perfectly candid: I’m inclined to resist that kind of balkinization along ethnic lines, assuming that what I write about prayer or technology or history is as interesting and relevant to someone with Latino roots as to someone with anglo roots. On the other hand, I understand that this is my own blind spot, and cultures have their distinct ways of understanding and experiencing the faith that is no less valid than the forms we’ve evolved in our largely Irish/Italian/German/Polish/French-Catholic heritage. Rocco is right: there is work to be done.

The biggest disappointment of the day was not meeting The Boss. Elizabeth Scalia’s plane broke down on the runway and she didn’t make it, so I lost a chance to meet a woman I admire tremendously. Same goes for Kat Fernandez and Fr. D. Next time, okay?

I had a lot less time to speak with Deacon Greg, Lisa Hendey, Sarah Vabulas (who knows social media better than anyone else in the Catholic pond), Thomas Pringle, Fr. Kyle Schnippel, and Kathy Schiffer, but I was glad just to  shake their hands and say hi. Thanks letting me ride along. It was grand. Let’s do it again some time. I’ll bring the chickens.