A parent is upset about how his child is treated by a summer camp and wants the circumstances rectified. In 2012, how does a parent deal with this scenario? By blogging about it, of course, and sending the link to the blog out to all of his friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter.
Since the post has a catchy title and hinted at an injustice done to a disabled child, people’s interest is piqued. Several thousand click on the link and then send it on to others though their social media connections. Helping a parent fight for the rights of his disabled child becomes a small cause celebre. Within 24 hours the camp has apologized for its actions and the situation is set right.
This is how business gets done today. This scenario, involving Camp Ramah Canada last month, is a great example of the culture we now live in. Several current sociological phenomena are exemplified in this story.
First, the power of the individual over an institution. As documented in Clay Shirkey’s book Here Comes Everybody, the rise of social media allows individuals or small groups to come together to topple huge institutions. For example, social media allowed a small number of people to bring attention to the issue of pedophilic priests in the Catholic Church. The attention brought to this issue has led to a severe decline in Catholic affiliation and church attendance in the Northeast.
This new power accorded to individuals plays into another trend highlighted by Steve Windmuller in a recent post on eJewish Philanthropy: the decline of denominationalism, and religious and social movements. In general, people now harbor a distrust of large institutions — not surprising in an age that has seen the scandals of the Catholic church, Penn State, and our largest banks and investment houses.
The institutional Jewish world has yet to figure out how to respond to these trends. Consider the Camp Ramah controversy: In Facebook comments and blog posts, most readers clearly supported the father of the disabled child and showed their support by reposting and tweeting his blog post. Others, particularly rabbis and other Jewish professionals, expressed horror that this issue was even made public in the first place. “There are three sides to every story, the truth lying somewhere in the middle,” wrote one commenter. “There were many other avenues that could have been pursued before dragging this issue through the cyber airwaves.” Others complained it was lashon hara — hurtful gossip.
There is some truth to these views. But in today’s world, they simply do not matter. Anyone can sit down at the computer and issue a rallying cry, and perhaps topple long- standing institutions and governments, as we saw during the Arab spring. The Jewish community is not immune from this trend. And the sympathy will always lie with the individual trying to fight the big institution.
Leaders of Jewish institutions need to become as fluent in the use of social media as individual constituents are. In the case of Ramah, as the number of reposts of the initial blog and comments multiplied, the silence from its national office was deafening. I realize that this was an extremely sensitive situation and that all the facts were not known. Still, a few statements issued immediately, saying they were working on this delicate issue, would have been extraordinarily helpful for Ramah’s reputation.
I have led social media training for rabbinic groups across the country. More and more rabbis are learning how to use social media in sophisticated ways to build communities and as avenues for outreach.
However, I have also encountered deep resistance. “I don’t have time for that,” is one major lament. To which I answer, “You do not have time to ignore it.”
If Jewish communal leaders do not learn how to deftly use these tools, we will become obsolete extremely quickly. And not only one person in an organization should be the “social media person.” Everyone should be trained to use it and know how to get out the message they want.
Another objection is, “But if I allow anyone to post in my Facebook page who knows what will happen? I can’t control it.”
This is true. You can’t; that is part of the power here. But in my experience very few people have abused a Jewish institution’s Facebook page. And if someone is checking it regularly, as they should be, inappropriate comments can be quickly deleted. It is far better to open a door for communication than to ignore the medium all together.
Given the current distrust of institutions and religious leaders, the organized Jewish community will be scaling a mountain to get its messages out to the world. But we must, as individuals and organizations, join the fray and use the tools available, to communicate quickly and consistently. Because by tomorrow there will already by another story everyone is talking and blogging about.