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Hi and thanks for landing here. It might seem a bit backward, but I decided to start blogging only because I've been enjoying Twitter so much. While I love the 140 character limit of tweets, I realised that a blog would give me a place where I could have the luxury of saying a bit more. I've also set up here because I have a blogging project in mind... but more on that later.
Right now my face is stuck in the following books...
Paradise Lost   Bring Up the Bodies  
Forest Church   The Geometry of Type  
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Category: internet
Photo of the Pope on a visit to Fatima
Tweeting the Pope

Posted on 06 December 2012, 4:40

Next Wednesday, an 85 year-old man will tweet and the media will report that it is news.

The Pope has debuted before on Twitter, in June 2011, when he sent a tweet to inaugurate the then-new Vatican news website, but this time he has his own Twitter account @pontifex. It’s clocked up half a million followers in the couple of days since the account opened for business.

That supernatural growth spurt is only one of the things that’s unusual about this account. For a start, it’s being run by a man who prefers writing in longhand to using a computer keyboard. And although the Vatican says the Pope ‘will tweet what he wants to tweet’, his involvement will be limited to signing off on the 140-character messages, which according to the Vatican Insider will be put together by staff in the Secretariat of State.

The Pope is apparently not going to follow anyone on Twitter. But actually, that’s not quite correct, as the @pontifex account is already following seven other people, who all turn out to be the @pontifex accounts in other languages. That means the Pope is following only himself, which isn’t very much in the spirit of things on Twitter.

Benedict will also not be retweeting anyone else’s tweets, although he will be replying to questions put to him on Twitter. That’s better than just delivering a monologue, although question and answer always puts the guy with the answers in the driving seat. Unsurprisingly, the @pontifex account has already been bombarded with questions and comments, ‘sometimes irreverent, often downright hateful’, according to Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs as The Anchoress.

The absence of retweeting, following others and actually writing your own tweets makes me wonder whether the whole exercise is for real. It certainly takes a lot of sincerity out it. I’m sure the more conservative sections of the Roman curia see this as a new megaphone for the Pope to deliver his one-way messages, but the world doesn’t work like that any more. It’s very Supreme Pontiff (pontifex maximus), and the @pontifex handle is a strong reminder of the worst aspects of the papacy.

However, there could be some promising signs. The Dalai Lama, who has thrived on Twitter for the past couple of years, is supported by a social media team which translates his teachings into tweets. That operation has not only worked well but seems to have been true to the Dalai Lama and true to the social medium too, so perhaps there is a model here that could work for Benedict. The Dalai Lama’s account, which follows 0 people and does not retweet, has 5.6 million followers, making him the 91st most followed person on Twitter.

The Catholic blogger Brandon Vogt yesterday offered five suggestions for the tweeting Pope. They included: engage in dialogue, be funny, and don’t be afraid. Says Vogt: ‘If you’re simply pushing out information, you’re not using Twitter’s full potential. The great power of Twitter is that it puts you in dialogue with a billion Catholics around the world – and billions of non-Catholics – most of whom see you as distant and inaccessible.’

The Pope has I think distinguished himself in reflecting on Internet culture over the past few years in his messages on World Communications Day. In his 2011 message, he talked positively about the way people can connect with each other through social media. He said: ‘Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others.’

If Benedict can turn that thought into action by breaking out of the confines of his office and finding an authentically human way of communicating with the social media world, that would be a very hopeful sign.

It’s a big thing to hope, but if the Dalai Lama can do it, maybe the Pope can too.

And while they’re about it, perhaps they could follow each other.

Photo: Catholic Church (England and Wales)

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March of the metronomes

Posted on 28 September 2012, 17:02

If you like to think you’re a non-conformist, watch the video above. Things start getting interesting from about 1:05. There is one rebel who holds out past the 2 minute mark (far right, second from the front), but by 2:40 the game is over.

The experiment was filmed by Ikeguchi Laboratory in Japan, which studies nonlinear chaotic dynamics.

As seen on BoingBoing.

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Photo of a cross in the clouds, with more than a little help from Photoshop
Piety builds audiences

Posted on 07 June 2012, 5:56

Which generates more social engagement: vacuous tweets by celebs with tens of millions of Twitter followers, or motivational tweets by religious leaders with followers in the thousands?

According to On Twitter, God is Greater than Glitter, a New York Times story, it’s the religious tweets which win out, with huge numbers of retweets and favoriting. All of which must be making the angels cheer while Lady Gaga and Rihanna slink back to their gilded hotel rooms sick with envy.

However, when you read the detail of the story, it quickly hits you that the religious tweets are really nothing to tweet about. Here’s Rick Warren’s offering, for example, which apparently gained a huge number of retweets…

Growing older is automatic. Growing up is a choice.

Meanwhile, Joyce Meyer opines…

God’s timing is perfect; He is never late…

Rick and Joyce may have 626,000 and 993,000 followers respectively, but on this evidence they are sending their followers tweets straight out of The Book of Well, Duh. (In fairness to Rick, not all his posts are this saccharine.) At least Lady Gaga’s tweet, which revealed that she glued pearls to a mask on a flight to Korea, was personal and intriguing, even if it didn’t raise a storm of retweeting.

But Rick and Joyce are not alone. You don’t have to search very hard on Twitter to find its deep stream of piety, with people happily announcing 24/7 that God never closes a window without opening a door (which frankly makes him sound a bit OCD), that they’re not looking for a hole in the ground but a hole in the sky, and that the Lord never sends us burdens greater than we can carry – an observation coined in the days before God gave us suitcases on wheels.

But out cliché-ing everyone else in social media is Jesus Daily, a Facebook page with approaching 13 million likes. Founded by Dr Aaron Tabor, an anti-aging skincare specialist, Jesus Daily was crowned most engaging page on Facebook in 2011, smiting Justin Bieber and Real Madrid into 5th and 8th places respectively.

Jesus Daily builds its incredible social engagement by posting platitudes, questions with ‘right answers’ and kitschy pictures of puppies, kittens and crosses in clouds (see above), all with the relentless invitation to LIKE. For example…

 

LIKE if everyone should be able to read the Bible!

LIKE if you believe ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE WITH GOD!

LIKE if you thank God for great mothers! We love you.

LIKE if JESUS is your BEST FRIEND!

 

That last example received 241,328 likes, 4,163 comments and 19,959 shares, which makes the Jesus Daily brand a Facebook success by any measure. But its easy piety, offered every day to its ‘me too!’ audience, is like shooting ichthus fish in a barrel. The page’s creators know exactly what to say and show to manipulate their followers, and the truthlets they peddle are so worn down by mindless repetition that the main thing they do is make people feel nice about their faith.

That, of course, is what piety always does. It pressures you to agree with its simple beliefs and then reassures you that you – along with 241,328 others! – are an accepted member of your religious tribe. Praise the Lord! Clicking that LIKE button tells me I’m among the countless saved, rather than the damned!

It reminds me of that joke: ‘Eat shit. One million ants can’t be wrong.’

Piety is a fake form of faith, as it can never be true to the messy experience of people who live as fallen human beings struggling in their journey to God. Jesus always resisted piety and instead said awkward and difficult things which were not designed to build audiences. He was the polar opposite to Jesus Daily, with its oppressively positive tone, not to mention its pictures of Jesus with shampooed hair, dirt-free fingernails and rugged good looks.

I know I’ve gone for the negative in this post, but for me piety has always been one of the big enemies of faith. I take from it all the challenge of communicating a truly human faith in the different online worlds we live in.

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Photo of Pope Benedict XVI
Silence and word

Posted on 30 September 2011, 3:52

I’ve enjoyed the Pope’s messages over the past three years on World Communications Day, which was created by Vatican II to provide an annual message to the church and the world on the subject of media. Benedict has done some very creative theological reflection on social media and the new possibilities for relating with others through them.

If there’s another major church leader providing this sort of thinking on new media, I’d like to know who they are.

Although the 2012 event is eight months away (it happens on 20 May), in a miracle of forward planning the message will be published in January and the subject of the message was announced today. The Vatican displays a level of OCD that others can only dream of.

But I do like the sound of the message, whose theme, unexpectedly, is silence.

 

In the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, silence is not presented simply as an antidote to the constant and unstoppable flow of information that characterises society today but rather as a factor that is necessary for its integration. Silence, precisely because it favours habits of discernment and reflection, can in fact be seen primarily as a means of welcoming the word. We ought not to think in terms of a dualism, but of the complementary nature of two elements which when they are held in balance serve to enrich the value of communication and which make it a key factor that can serve the new evangelisation.

 

News.va
Photo: Rinaldo Cornacchini

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Photo of a papyrus fragment from Euclid's Elements of Geometry
Ancient shredded papyrus… and you

Posted on 18 September 2011, 19:08

Zooniverse is a crowdsourcing website which made its name by asking Internet volunteers to help identify galaxies from vast numbers of astronomy photographs. That project, Galaxy Zoo, quickly attracted more than 80,000 volunteers who made short work of 10 million images of galaxies, deciding whether they were rotating clockwise or anticlockwise, for example.

Now Zooniverse has launched a new project, Ancient Lives, with the same aim of clearing the in-tray of experts and making new discoveries. This time, volunteers are being asked to transcribe fragments of Greek papyrus recovered in 1897 from a Roman-era town, Oxyrhynchus, which flourished in the Egyptian desert, but has since disappeared into the sands.

The fragments are from the town’s ancient rubbish dumps and include everyday stuff such as contracts, shopping lists and tax returns – but also long-lost books, plays and even gospels. One century on from when they were pulled from the sand, only a small percentage of the half a million scraps of papyrus have been deciphered. The job of identifying Greek handwriting on bits of rubbish that were sent to the dump some 2,000 years ago is much more of a challenge than galaxy-spotting, I think, but this sounds like a great project, especially if it speeds things up. The Ancient Lives website says…

 

For classics scholars, the vast number of damaged and fragmentary texts from the waste dumps of Greco-Roman Egypt has resulted in a difficult and time-consuming endeavor, with each manuscript requiring a character-by-character transcription… An immense number of detached fragments still linger, waiting to be joined with others to form a once intact text of ancient thought, both known and unknown. The data not only continues to reevaluate and assess the literature and knowledge of ancient Greece, but also illuminates the lives and culture of the multi-ethnic society of Greco-Roman Egypt.

The data gathered by Ancient Lives will allow us to increase the momentum by which scholars have traditionally studied the collection. After transcriptions have been collected digitally, we can combine human and computer intelligence to identify known texts and documents faster than ever before. For unknown documents, we can isolate them and begin the long process of identification.

Like any other scientific project, the data will require a lengthy process of vetting and analysis. There are no quick answers or discoveries. We want to make sure our findings are accurate. However, instead of just a few scholars going through the collection one fragment at a time, users of Ancient Lives are allowing professionals to process large batches of data at any given time.

 

Interested in eavesdropping on the citizens of ancient Oxyrhynchus? Visit Ancient Lives.

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Cover of Ready Player One
Ready Player One

Posted on 02 September 2011, 5:31

My bedtime reading at the mo is the engrossing Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which is just out in paperback. It’s a novel set in the year 2044, 30 years into a great depression so bad that the final decades of the 20th century look like a golden age. Our man on the spot is high school student Wade Watts, who lives with his aunt in the stacks, mobile homes stacked 20 high without proper sanitation, and which give ‘trailer park trash’ a whole new depth of meaning.

Cline has given his novel a thriller-like plot, but what is fascinating me as I read is the book’s reflection on Internet culture and online worlds. Social conditions in the story are so dire that most people escape by immersing themselves in the OASIS, a virtual universe of cosmic dimensions which provides them with all the education, entertainment and relationships they need. In this sense, the novel is a credible imagining of how the virtual world might develop.

A well as peering into the future, Ready Player One cleverly invokes the familiar past, as the culture of 2044 is fixated on the 1980s and the beginning of the digital era. The novel is rich in references to the TV shows, computer games, movies, comic books, magazines and other cultural debris of the 80s, and this scheme, where the reader is in the time between Wade Watts’ world and the Thatcher-Reagan era, is as beguiling as can be. It evokes nostalgia and futureshock in one hit.

Some reviewers are hailing the book as a worthy successor to William Gibsons’s landmark 1984 novel, Neuromancer, which fixed the term cyberspace in modern culture. Whatever the unlikely merits of that comparison, this is a book worth reading in its own right, both for sheer entertainment and thinking about the state of cyberculture.

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Screen grab of people in St Pixels the online church
Suspicion of online church

Posted on 18 August 2011, 5:47

There’s an interesting conversation happening over on the Big Bible website, where Tim Hutchings is posting good stuff on their blog about online church. Even though the Net has a large number of groups which identify themselves as religious communities, Christians have remained suspicious and wary of them. As Tim says…

‘However sophisticated online churches get, whatever new parts of the Internet they find to grow in, they still make Christians REALLY uncomfortable. If you’re a Christian, and you’re writing a book about the Internet, you’ll almost certainly end up throwing in a grumble about online churches. Online-church-bashing has become one of the most predictable and unimaginative clichés of Christian writing about technology.’

I’ve been thinking about the ironies of this situation for a while, partly because the few Christian conferences I’ve been to in the past year have featured speakers warning against the dangers of false identity on the Internet… a warning so past its sell-by date that it could walk straight out of your smelly fridge and put itself in the bin.

So, a couple of things to say on this.

First, it’s somewhat ironic for Christians to be extolling the virtues of physical communities (‘real-life’ churches) and attacking virtual ones. After all, the whole Christian belief system is based on things that are unseen, including God of course. Our faith may be expressed physically, but the heart of it is virtual. In prayer and worship Christians consciously enter the virtual realm, either closing their eyes to block out the physical world, or looking up to where they imagine God and the spiritual realm to be.

Which makes me think that it is slightly ridiculous for Christians to object to online community on the grounds that it is unreal. It is no more unreal than important aspects of my faith.

Second, online communities are often held to higher standards than we expect from offline communities. For example, here is the Pope (who in fairness has given three thoughtful reflections on digital media in as many years) listing the limits of online communication: ‘the one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence.’

Those are good points, but they could equally well be made about the face to face relationships of people in the local church. Creating a fake identity, acting in a superficial way or posing as a pious person were not invented by the Internet – Chaucer had a go at those very human vices in The Canterbury Tales. It’s obviously prejudiced to compare the worst of virtual church with the best of physical church.

In reality, online churches can be just as challenging, boring, exciting and revealing as the church round the corner from you. I don’t see how it could be any other way, since real people, body and soul, make both kinds of church happen.

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Screen shot of the Vatican homepage
Eternal city, eternal website

Posted on 13 June 2011, 20:45

The Roman Church may be semper eadem (ever the same), but will the Vatican website ever change its design? It seems unlikely, despite the ‘redesign’ currently being hailed by Catholic commentators. The website was launched on Christmas Day 1995, and its parchment-look background has always started to look tired after even a few visits, so I’ve been interested to see when it would be dropped.

Sadly, the only thing to change in the current shakeup is the homepage (pictured above, or click here for the real thing), which now looks to me like a Casio sports watch straight out of the 1980s – packed with features that make you ask, where do I begin? I can count no less than 45 links on the page, which is hardly the simple welcome to visitors you would expect from such a heavily visited domain (almost 14,500 websites link into vatican.va).

Most of the other pages in the site look as they’ve always done – narrow columns (of about 600 pixels) packed with brown text which scroll forever with hardly a picture to break the monotony.

Refreshingly, the website is run by a woman, Sister Judith Zoebelein, who is editorial director of the Internet Office of the Holy See. She’s been at the helm since the Vatican went online, and her role as founder of the website was recognised by the Pope earlier this year. He gave her the highest honour possible for a nun: a sign of his esteem for her, of course, but also of his esteem for the Internet.

In a fascinating ad hoc video interview in 2007, Sister Judith spoke to journalists about the vision and practical work that goes into producing the Vatican website. Asked how many people work on it, she replied, ‘Seventeen. Too few, believe me!’

She seems like a sparky, progressive person, so maybe the slow pace of change could be explained by something she also said.

‘We’re trying to integrate something of technology into a 2,000 year-old institution. Sometimes I feel that the echo waves have to go all the way back 2,000 years and then they come back up again and you find the integration or the mix between the technology and the institution. To me that’s been a challenge, but it’s also fascinating.’

It looks like the challenge might currently be winning out over the fascinating.

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St Pixels invades Facebook
First Church of Christ Zuckerberg

Posted on 07 May 2011, 4:54

I went to church last week, which is rare for me these days, but then it was the ‘don’t even have to get out of your sofa’ church experience of St Pixels, the online church.

St Pixels has been around since 2005 (when it took over from Church of Fools), but it’s always been a website based community. Last week was different, though, as the church is flirting with the idea of moving its live services off its own sacred IP address and on to Facebook. This is rather fascinating, as I don’t think anyone’s tried it before.

Unlike the experience offered by online campus churches such as LifeChurch, which broadcast their services on the Net to a passive audience, St Pixels offers something potentially more satisfying and Web 2. Everyone who checks in for a service can see and chat with everyone else. And that makes the whole experience – including a cascade of typed prayers as well as rude asides during the sermon – a lot more human and churchlike.

On the down side, the readings at St Pixels are accompanied by pictures of puppies, sunsets and snowy trees, enough to make the hardened designers of Hallmark cards weep. But then that’s just like church too, or churches fixated on PowerPoint, anyway.

After the Facebook service, where I joined 22 other people for bells, prayers, readings, a sermon and a corporate typeathon of the Lord’s Prayer, I spoke to Mark Howe, a leader at St Pixels and the chief mover of the software side of things, about the Facebook initiative, which has been beta testing and launches properly next week at the Christian Resources Exhibition.

These days, he said, you need a multi-million dollar budget if you want to launch a new virtual world from scratch. But Facebook offers the chance to do something really effective and at low cost, because the infrastructure is all there.

‘There are already lots of people on Facebook,’ he says, ‘and there’s an open model of how to communicate with them. You write your code, plug it into Facebook, and amazingly it works. It’s the complete opposite of getting apps into the Apple Store.’

Who else is doing this? ‘I don’t think anyone else,’ says Mark. ‘Christians are setting up Facebook groups, of course, or micro-blogging about their ministry, but there’s only a limited amount of synergy and interaction.’

And looking at the wider commercial scene, no one is really offering a real-time experience where lots of people can interact at the same time. ‘If you look at the big Facebook games, such as Farmville, they only offer an individual experience. They’re not offering “I’m online, you’re online, we’re here together” – which is what we’re doing.’

Mark thinks the demand for what St Pixels is doing could be quite high. ‘Facebook users will be just two clicks away from joining a St Pixels service,’ he says. That’s a big change from what we currently offer, where you have to go to the website, find the right page, register, download the software and then log in for the service. We think people will like the idea that they can simply say to their Facebook friends, click this and come to church.’

The launch services on Facebook are next Tuesday, 10 May, at 1 and 3pm. But beta testing is continuing at the moment – check the St Pixels app on Facebook for details.

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Picture inside the BBC green room
Twitter and Radio 4

Posted on 17 September 2010, 5:23

Above: the Green Room at BBC Radio 4 this afternoon.

An interesting day of new meets old media. The Pope landed in Edinburgh at 10.30am for the start of his state visit to Britain, and while the plane was still in the air I thought I’d tweet his arrival for the Ship of Fools feed. I’ve done this a couple of times now: posted a fast-running Twitter commentary as events unfold – but you have to be light on your feet to think up the jokes in time, and willing to risk looking stupid when some of them fall flat.

In all, I posted 19 tweets, taking us from the Pope’s plane landing, to him meeting the Queen, and then on to lunch via a Popemobile dash through the packed streets of Edinburgh. The most successful were (these all got 10+ retweets)...

shipoffoolscom Dove One has touched down in Edinburgh after some tense moments with air traffic control, who do not speak Latin.

shipoffoolscom The Pope is meeting the lovely old Queen. Which must happen to him every 5 mins in the corridors of the Vatican.

shipoffoolscom Queen to Pope: ‘And what do you do?’

shipoffoolscom Archbishop Rowan says through spokesman that he would have had a haircut and beard trim, but only does it for special occasions.

shipoffoolscom Papal lunch menu: Aperitif: Bloody Mary. Starter: Eggs Benedict/Ratzatouille. Main: Stake (rare nowadays) with Newman potatoes.

In the middle of all that intensity, I got a call from PM on Radio 4 (their late afternoon show) inviting me to go in and talk about the Ship of Fools papal tat. In the taxi on the way to the Beeb, I thought up a nice comedy scenario where the Pope jumps into the mosh pit at one of his masses to ‘get with the faithful’. I didn’t think I’d get a chance to use it, but Carolyn Quinn (interviewing) gave me the perfect in just before the end of the piece, and I took it with both hands.

PM interview – listen to it here.

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Gadgets for the Pope

Posted on 16 September 2010, 17:55

I was interviewed outside Waterloo station yesterday for Channel 4 about the Ship of Fools Picnic with the Pontiff feature, where we’ve collected religious merchandise for the Pope’s visit. See above for the interview, and see the Weird and wonderful souvenirs piece on the Channel 4 website.

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Holy Communion… in six tweets

Posted on 07 September 2010, 0:36

My piece about online communion has just been published on Ship of Fools. A shorter version was published in the Church Times a couple of weeks ago, and is now available on the Church Times website.

Revd Tim Ross, whose idea for a Twitter communion service sparked the whole thing off, gave me permission (thanks, Tim) to put his Twitter liturgy online, so here it is. The service was to be delivered in six tweets, and I assume there was to be a short gap of a few minutes between each tweet.

Father of us all, your people round the world join together in praising you. God of wonder, we marvel at your grace, power and love.

From the depths of loving grace you gave us Jesus, your Son, our Saviour. Dying, he brought us forgiveness. Rising, he brings us new life.

In this simple meal, we remember what Jesus shared with his followers and all that you share with us now in his name.

Fill us with your Spirit and through his power, bless these gifts of bread and wine to us.

The body of Christ was given for you. (Take bread) The blood of Christ was shed for you. (Take wine)

Thank you that you are our Manna and our Daily Bread. May our food be doing your will and your joy our source of strength.

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Screen grab of the Ship of Fools joke among the top tweets
Stephen Hawking is trending

Posted on 03 September 2010, 21:03

Ever since Stephen Hawking announced that the universe has no need of God – ‘It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going,’ he says in his new book, The Grand Design – I’ve been puzzling over how to make a joke about it on the Ship of Fools Twitter feed. Today I came up with an amusing line I liked and posted it late morning…

Stephen Hawking in Ikea. Hawking: ‘This table easy to put together?’ Assistant: ‘So easy it assembles itself.’ Boom boom.

Just after hitting the Tweet button, I looked down the page and realised Stephen Hawking was trending worldwide, and at the top of the list. So far as I know, he’s been trending for two days now. Because of that, the joke collected a lot of retweets very quickly, and became one of Twitter’s top tweets of the day (currently approaching 120 retweets, including old-style RTs and new style button retweets).

This is easily our most succesful tweet to date, so there’s a lot to learn from here. We’ve also collected 32 new followers and counting since the tweet was posted, which is another record for us.

Following all this gave me a chance of seeing how lucrative an issue this is becoming for Hawking (who is surely now going to see royalties of a Dawkins magnitude), and how theists and atheists were tweeting each other to death over it in real time. Here are some of the tweets which caught my eye…

RichaelGimbang Someone oughta pray for that Stephen Hawking guy. He just bought front row tickets to catch Hell. Again.

Nnewibruv Stephen Hawking says there is no God… that gravity helped create the Universe… errr… who created gravity??

EricStangel Stephen Hawking says there is no God. I guess that A-Hole has never eaten at the Cheesecake Factory. [If someone knows what this much-retweeted comment means, do let me know.]

jeffward05 I wonder if I should believe Stephen Hawking or a youth group leader with a jesus tatoo, a soul patch, and an acoustic guitar.

sazzadee Perhaps Stephen Hawking is just annoyed because the stairway to heaven has no ramp access.

And finally, some wisdom…

petsnakereggie I feel all the inevitable refutations of Stephen Hawking should begin “Stephen Hawking, who is a way fucking smarter than me, said…”

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Screen shot of the Bible Online game
Virtual Genesis, anyone?

Posted on 01 September 2010, 4:02

If you had to choose any book of the Bible to turn into a game in the style of World of Warcraft, the book of Genesis would be a strong contender, despite stiff competition from the blood-soaked book of Judges and the warlike books of Samuel. The Bible’s first book is a natural for conversion into a game, with its heroic characters, feuding families, epic journeys, fire and brimstone.

So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that a new multiplayer game, The Bible Online, is about to open with the pre-10 commandments world of Genesis as its chapter one, titled ‘The Heroes’. The TechEye site commented today that the game is ‘unlikely to attract the wrath of the Bible Belt, in fact we think they are going to force kids to play it.’

The Bible Online, produced by new German games publisher FiAA, is a MMORTS (massively multiplayer online real-time strategy game) in which many thousands of players can play and interact simultaneously. The game features the world and story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, complete with ziggurats, camels, sling-firing soldiers, bearded patriarchs and quotes from the Good Book, and can be played through your browser.

FiAA describe the gameplay thus: ‘As the leader of their tribe, players have to construct their villages, manage recources and the budget. They will have to decide between diplomacy and warfare. However, players do not stay in one place. They will go on a quest to the Promised Land. Leading Abram’s tribe from Ur to Haran and finally to Canaan, players and their heroes will face many challenges before reaching their goal.’

The illustrations I’ve seen on the website look a bit Sunday School (and the symbol for Priests is a bishop’s mitre complete with a cross), but this could be interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing which Christian group will be first to establish a virtual church inside the game and then produce the theology to justify Christian worship BC.

AiFF are running two other role-playing games: Kalos War, launched in August, and Operation 7, launched last year – the company says it has hundreds of thousands of players. The beta launch of the Bible Online is on 6 September.

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Photo of Karen Ward
Talking online community

Posted on 31 August 2010, 3:20

Had a very enjoyable and sparky 90 minutes at the Online Community discussion at Greenbelt last night. I was one of the panel members, sitting alongside the journalist Andrew Brown, who edits Cif belief on the Guardian, and episcopal priest Karen Ward, who curates several online communities, including Anglimergent. Keeping us in order was Kester Brewin, founding member of Vaux whose new book Other was published in the summer. I didn’t take any photos, but found the picture of Karen (above) on the Net.

Just a few personal highlights from the session, which is already available as an MP3 download from the Greenbelt site…

Talking about Anglimergent, Karen says the community requires members use their real names and give their real diocese and parish to prove they are genuine. ‘I actually investigate everyone who joins. Once you get over the 1,000 mark you become a target for all sorts of malicious, false people joining, so now I have to moderate membership, and I can pretty much spot a fake in five seconds.’

I (of course) enjoyed Andrew’s remark, when asked if there is an online community in Cif belief: ‘I wouldn’t remotely say that we had a community half as successful as Ship of Fools, for a number of reasons, but the simple reason is that we don’t have a rule against crusading, in the way that they do, so that people feel perfectly able to come in, make the same point, take no notice and bugger off.’

Karen also runs an offline church, the Church of the Apostles, which uses online tools to facilitate community. When people can’t come to their Vespers service on a Wednesday night, they tweet prayers with the church’s hashtag, which are collected for the service and read out.

Kester asked us about the positive and negative impacts of social media on us. My negative was the incredible fragmentation of attention as you keep checking Facebook and Twitter every 15 minutes to see what’s new, which Karen said could become addiction: playing Farmville all the time, or sleeping with your iPhone next to your ear.

But on the positive side, I talked about the way Facebook in particular connects us with friends who are geographically distant: ‘Being able to have a casual laugh at something they’ve said, or make some clever comment – to have this frivolous contact, which you might have if you worked in an office with them, I like that a lot. When I see them next, which might be months or even a couple of years, there’ll be a continuity of relationship happening on that level.’

Andrew responded: ‘I was struck by what Simon said about it being like working in the office with someone, because I do spend quite a lot of time in the office with people, and it’s amazing how I will be sitting two chairs down from someone and reading her twitterstream because she no longer talks to the people immediately around her.’

And he continued… ‘The really big change that technology has brought about is how much easier it is to fall in love with people that you’ve never met. We live at a time when the physical and visual image of sexual attraction is everywhere, but online, people fall in love with each others’ minds, and they find it easier to do so than ever before. And that’s a very curious fact, and probably rather a good one.’

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Picture showing Don, Joan and Roger in Mad Men
Mad Men, mad schedule

Posted on 23 August 2010, 16:01

The almighty BBC schedule has caved to file-sharing pressure and brought forward the screening of Mad Men Season 4. This was originally set for January, a bizarre six months after the US audience started to watch, tweet and blog about the continuing and compelling story of Don Draper, Peggy Olsen, Roger Sterling and all the other characters in the orbit of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The new start date, on BBC4, is 4 September.

Social media are now at the point where posts of the ‘Can you believe last night’s episode?’ variety function very effectively as advertising, but all the more powerfully, since they’re written by people posting because they love what they’re watching and want their turn on the Facebook and Twitter stage to say so.

I can understand the logic of waiting a few months to see how an audience builds for Season 1 of an unproven show. After all, the promising but ultimately cheesy sci-fi drama Defying Gravity recently fell to earth and was cancelled after Season 1 of a planned 3.

But in a proven hit such as Mad Men, it’s surely wasteful not to harness the free and natural energy of social media and let the audience boost what you’re doing. If you fail to do that, then the viral effect works against you, as people cut you out of the loop altogether and start downloading episodes the night they’re posted by US viewers. It’s illegal, but the Net has taught us we don’t have to wait for TV schedulers to get the plot.

The BBC’s belated correction to its schedule now leaves Mad Men followers with a dilemma. Carry on downloading as they’re already in the week-by-week momentum of the story? Or park the series and wait for the BBC to catch up? It’s no way to treat an informed audience.

Photo: AMC

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picture of the rev tim ross
Communion on Twitter

Posted on 19 August 2010, 23:17

Writing my piece for the Church Times about the cancelled Twitter Communion, I talked with Rev Tim Ross (pictured above) on the phone about his thinking behind the project.

One of the questions I asked was whether Twitter was an appropriate medium for communion, which for me has always been a very reflective experience, while Twitter can be pretty noisy and fast-paced. I notice that Tim is currently following 1,945 people, which must make his feed quite busy.

He said, ‘I find Twitter quite intimate, as many people have asked for prayer in response to what I’ve been posting.’ His posts to date have been a mix of the Lord’s Prayer in contemporary language, individual prayers, and a service of prayer for Christian unity and vision.

Tim told me he especially likes the SMS-like brevity of tweets, the instantaneous nature of Twitter and the around-the-globe audience you reach whenever you click the Tweet button. These qualities gave him the idea for attempting his communion service.

‘We have to be careful about making communion too parochial,’ he said. ‘If we think it can only be expressed in a local body, that narrows our horizons. The teaching of Paul, that we are all one body, is about a deeper connectivity that goes around the world. The community of saints is bigger and broader than our geographical constraints.’

When I pointed out that the sense of community on Twitter is bound to be greatly diluted when compared to the average local church, he responded, ‘You can take communion alongside people all the time in a local church without knowing who they are.’

That observation really does ring a bell for me. One constant I’ve noticed over the years of talking about online religion is that the opponents of virtual church demand much higher standards of community than you will ever find in a local congregation.

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picture of the online church, church of fools, with people kneeling in the chancel
Pixellated bread, tweeted wine

Posted on 06 August 2010, 18:39

Last week, a Twitter communion service scheduled for 14 August was called off after the UK Methodist Church pulled the virtual plug. The service was the brainchild of Rev Tim Ross, a Methodist minister, and as far as I know would have been a first for Twitter.

Tim explained on his Twitter Communion website: ‘Whilst I have not been absolutely forbidden to perform the Communion on Twitter, British Methodist Church authorities have strongly urged me to cancel it. The main reason for this, they say, is that it comes at difficult time, because the whole issue of performing services like Twitter Communion over the Internet is being re-examined by the Methodist Church.’

I’m writing a piece for the Church Times about virtual communion: mad, bad or fab? And including the current state of play on the subject in some of the online churches, including St Pixels, i-church and the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life. I’m collecting material for that over the next few days, so if you have a story to tell about online communion or virtual worship, or want to say what you think about the pros and cons, please comment below.

When we launched Church of Fools in 2004, we did think about installing a pool baptistery (as we’d already made a virtual swimming pool for The Ark), but decided we’d have enough to worry about in just doing 3D church – which proved to be right. Church of Fools was partly sponsored by the Methodist Church, so I’m especially interested to hear that they’re now making cautious noises about online worship.

Picture: Church of Fools publicity shot

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Overheard on Holborn tube platform

Posted on 31 July 2010, 20:02

Tall student: Yeah, I’ll tell you what’s also weird is when you meet a college friend’s husband, or wife.

Short student: Right.

Tall student: And you’ve seen their pictures before on Facebook even though you’ve never met them.

Short student: Oh yeah, totally.

Tall student: And you already know a bit about them.

Short student: Yeah, that is weird.

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picture showing two poor clare nuns with the prayer companion
Pray without surfing

Posted on 31 July 2010, 3:35

The Poor Clares of York, who live an almost medieval lifestyle, have allowed a quiet invasion of technology into their convent. They’re getting breaking news and personal prayer requests on a new gadget, the Prayer Companion, seen above. The tiny strip of a screen keeps the sisters in touch without distracting them with poker sites and other web temptations.

They’ve christened it Goldie, after Goldsmiths art college, who designed it for them. We’ll be featuring the Prayer Companion soon on Ship of Fools as a Gadget for God, so this is a preview. Thanks to John Smith for emailing the details, and to Goldsmiths for the photo.

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Is your Google broke?

Posted on 17 July 2010, 5:47

Talking with a friend over lunch yesterday, he told me how he’d emailed a work colleague for help over an obscure bit of software, only to get the message back: ‘Is your Google broke?’ And it made me wonder if the art of factual conversation might be dead, or close to it.

There’s certainly a problem now with asking people fact-finding questions if you’re anywhere near a computer keyboard. Why ask another human being which is the quickest route to the superstore when you can look it up in five seconds on Google Maps? Or why should a child bother their busy parent over whether Jupiter or Saturn is the bigger planet when Wikipedia will patiently and reliably answer the question 24/7?

If only the Net had been around before now! Then those vexing questions of yesteryear would have been dealt with far more efficiently…

Juliet: ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ Romeo: ‘Check my Facebook status update.’

Diana Ross: ‘Why do fools fall in love?’ Supremes: ‘No idea. Tried Yahoo?’

Jesus: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ Disciples: ‘You’re trending on Twitter and you ask us?’

The thing is, my dad called me earlier this week with a problem about opening pictures sent him by email. It would have been easy to say the polite equivalent of ‘Is Google broke?’ But instead we talked and tried to find a solution, in the course of which I found out more about how PCs handle email, and he Macs, and we got his pictures opened.

Which makes me think factual questions and problem solving are good for people to do together, even when they produce 1,000 search results on Google Almighty.

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picture showing the poster by molly norris with domestic objects saying they are the likeness of the prophet muhammad
Mocking Muhammad

Posted on 22 May 2010, 17:07

It’s hard to know what was going on in the mind of Molly Norris, a previously little-known cartoonist in Seattle, who casually proposed celebrating 20 May as Everybody Draw Mohammed Day on her blog back in April (complete with her own cartoon, above). Presumably she’s never attacked a hornet’s nest with a large stick. Her post was a protest at Comedy Central’s decision to edit sections of an episode of South Park showing Muhammad dressed in a bear costume.

Norris’s proposal sparked a Facebook group campaigning for the event, under the banner of freedom of speech, which was quickly countered by other Facebook groups attacking it. Under a rain of angry emails, Norris withdrew her proposal, but by then the juggernaut was rolling. ‘It’s been horrible,’ she said in an interview. ‘I’m just trying to breathe and get through it.’

When I checked on the morning of 20 May, the Facebook group had 77,000 members and 6,000 images, most of them of the sort that would make the calmest imam delve into his filing cabinet for the section called fatwa. Looking at the brutality of the visual humour, I was reminded of a comment in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, where one of the storytellers says that ‘the nature of wit is such that its bite must be like that of a sheep rather than of a dog, for if it were to bite the listener like a dog, it would no longer be wit but abuse.’

By that point, Pakistan had blocked the whole of Facebook, and followed that up by blocking YouTube, which was carrying video contributions to the campaign. Later in the day, after the group soared past 100,000 members, Facebook removed it, presumably under pressure from protesters.

Out and out mockery of people’s deeply held beliefs has a long and undistinguished history. One of the earliest images we have of the crucifixion is a piece of graffiti scrawled on a wall in Rome showing Jesus with the head of a donkey. That public attack on the Christian faith is mild compared with the savagery in the images collected on Facebook, and it’s surprising that the event hasn’t roused the mass demonstrations which followed the publication in 2005 of the infamous Muhammad cartoons in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Five people died then in the riots in Pakistan.

All religions, but especially the ones in the monotheism brand, need to find ways to take the piss out of themselves, since they have always been so brilliant at taking themselves too seriously. Religions with no sense of humour play especially badly in the western world where irony is in the very air we breathe. If religions can’t or won’t do this, they open themselves to cultural attack, and social media now make this possible in a fast-moving and extremely uninhibited way.

It takes just a few minutes to make an image trashing someone else’s deeply held beliefs, adding shock in the form of bestiality, paedophilia or whatever else comes to hand, and then posting it from the comfort of your laptop. But added to that is the high of performing on the Facebook stage, of knowing that my joke or insult will succeed in amusing or enraging thousands of others.

We’re suddenly living in the age of mass satire, where poorly-considered but deadly insults, barely clothed in humour, are published instantly and made available to a global audience. In the social furnace of Facebook, such rapidly accumulating insults create the visceral mood and momentum of a mob. Reading the wall comments of the ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’ group, with posts pro and anti, is like hearing the bigoted chants of two opposed gangs burning with hatred for each other.

There has been an unexpected moment of redemption, though. In the run-up to 20 May, atheist and humanist students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison chalked stick figures on the ground of their campus, captioning them ‘Muhammad’. The Muslim Student Association found a witty way of responding, not by erasing the images, but by adding boxing gloves to the figures and the word ‘Ali’ after ‘Muhammad’.

Maybe if South Park had gone for the same visual gag, the whole thing might never have happened.

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