TAMPA, Fla.—When the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in Fort Worth in 2008, Twitter was still a bit of a novelty. Some dismissed it as a fad.
But at General Conference in Tampa in 2012, Twitter emerged as a power to be reckoned with.
“This was the first General conference where Twitter and social media became a big force,” said the Rev. Jay Voorhees, a pastor and founder of Methoblog.com, who has attended every General Conference but one since 1988.
Live streaming of the plenary proceedings was available in 2008, but this year the technology was more reliable and accessible. That, combined with Facebook, blogs and round-the-clock online news updates, brought the General Conference to virtually anyone, anywhere, with a heart for the church and a mobile device.
And Twitter gave them a way to talk back.
A Twitter stream devoted to General Conference, #GC2012, generated an ongoing, fast-paced and sometime snarky side conversation—over 4,500 tweets on one day, May 1, alone—from attendees in Tampa as well as observers around the world.
And in at least one instance, Twitter mobilized delegates and directly affected the proceedings on the floor at General Conference.
“I don’t think there is even really a comparison to past General Conferences,” said the Rev. Kevin Watson, who followed from his home in Seattle. “This one is very different, and in that sense, things will never be the same.”
The world watches
Created in 2006, Twitter is an online service that enables users to send and read text messages of up to 140 characters, known as “tweets.” The social media tool has been widely cited as an important factor in the Arab Spring—which came to mind for Mr. Voorhees on the morning of May 1.
General Conference delegates had just agreed to end guaranteed appointment for ordained elders as part of the consent calendar, without debate.
However, many delegates didn’t realize what they’d just approved. Once that became apparent, a Twitter rebellion broke out.
“The Twitterverse started going crazy,” said the Rev. Becca Clark, a delegate from New England and popular tweeter. “People were asking, ‘Wait, wait, wait, what just happened?’ They were feeling very disenfranchised.”
Some expressed their dismay with tweeted riffs of multimedia humor—like a video clip of a deer running roughshod through a restaurant, billed as “a metaphor for what just happened re: security of appointments.”
Delegates also started to strategize—with help from the Twitter stream.
“People were asking: ‘Who knows Robert’s Rules? What can we do about this?” recalls the Rev. Melissa Meyers, a pastor whose Twitter feed has more than 700 followers.
Ms. Clark convinced a fellow New England delegate, the Rev. We Chang, to introduce a motion to bring the measure back up.
Speaking for the motion, another delegate, Dawn Elizabeth Taylor-Storm from Eastern Pennsylvania, noted the Twitter response.
“Friends, not that I mind Twitter or Facebook during these sessions but the reality is the world is watching and my sisters and brothers, all across the connection, are in disbelief,” she said.
After a brief debate, the motion failed, with 373 voting for reconsideration and 564 against. Still, Ms. Clark says, the motion brought some attention to a matter that, as she sees it, should have been considered by the entire General Conference.
And, while she doesn’t believe anyone intentionally attempted to “pull a fast one” with the guaranteed appointments legislation, the episode does demonstrate how Twitter affects the dynamics of General Conference.
“If your strategy is based on keeping people in the dark, then you’re in trouble,” Ms. Clark said.
“By getting this information out, Twitter allowed a grassroots group to say, ‘Wait a minute,’” Mr. Voorhees said. “It’s a crowd empowerment tool.”
Twitter also played a key role at several points as General Conference delegates considered different plans put forward to restructure the denomination.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton’s April 25 plenary presentation on the Call to Action plan sparked a firestorm of negative tweets, many from young clergy and delegates. Mr. Hamilton met with a group of young delegates the next morning to address their concerns.
Ms. Clark thinks that, without Twitter, that might not have happened.
“Twitter has given so much more voice to young people at this General Conference,” she said. “Normally, our voices are discouraged or silenced. Here, they’re privileged, because young people have better access to technology.”
On the night of April 28, as the General Administration committee unsuccessfully attempted to hammer out an agreement on restructuring, the Rev. Andy Oliver pulled out his iPhone and began “TwitCasting” a live-stream video of the meeting, using Twitter to alert anyone who cared to watch.
“It felt like it was important enough that people on the outside needed to see it,” said Mr. Oliver, a Florida pastor currently on voluntary leave who was at General Conference as an observer. “We needed more transparency in that meeting. There were power plays going on.”
Some 200 people tuned in, and Mr. Oliver believes, that spurred later efforts to hammer out a compromise plan.
“More transparency equals more accountability,” said Mr. Oliver. “When people saw how bad it was, how chaotic it was, and how there were power plays from people from each of the plans, I think that’s what pressured the group to work to get together on Plan UMC, or that at least contributed to it.”
(At presstime, General Conference had just approved “Plan UMC,” a compromise plan for restructure, pending review by the General Council on Finance and Administration.)
Giveth, taketh away
Media and culture guru Neil Postman once famously observed that “Technology giveth and technology taketh away . . . for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.”
Ms. Meyers saw both at this first highly-tweeted General Conference.
“Twitter showed us both the best and the worst of the church,” said Ms. Meyers.
One big positive: Twitter linked people who couldn’t be in Tampa to General Conference, like the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, who participated from his hometown in Portland, Maine.
“I didn’t have to wait for someone else to provide a third-hand account,” he said. “I was watching and commenting in real time.”
“To me, that’s a spirit of connectionalism that’s being birthed, and it’s not bound by conferences or nations,” Ms. Meyers said.
Many who followed the Twitter conversation said that, at times, it wasn’t clear who was in Tampa and who was watching from afar.
“I made the mistake several times of assuming someone was an elected delegate in Tampa based on the frequency of their tweets and the way that they seemed to be a part of the action,” said the Rev. Kevin Watson, who observed from Seattle. “This is good because it means more people are taking ownership for the future of their church.”
The Rev. Matt Miofsky, pastor of The Gathering in St. Louis, Mo., believes Twitter also gave voice to more people who were actually at General Conference.
“Traditionally, you only have one person at the mike speaking at a time,” he said. “Twitter allows many people to have a conversation about what’s happening at the same time.”
Twitter also offered a little much-needed levity at times when meetings grew tense. (Example: @RandallHodgkins: Q: How many Methodists does it take to screw in light bulb? A: I’d like to propose an amendment to the joke.)
The Rev. Andrew Conard, associate pastor of Church of the Resurrection West in Overland Park, Kan., followed the #GC2012 Twitter stream and created daily “Twitter Cloud” images depicting the topics and words that trended each day.
Even though he wasn’t in Tampa, he could sense the role Twitter was playing. As he said in a tweet: “One clear outcome of #gc2012: A flock of United Methodists with previously no Twitter accounts have now activated an account.”
So given its growing adoption, what might Twitter taketh away?
Some deplored the snarky tone of many Twitter posts, particularly the seemingly ad hominem reactions to the Rev. Adam Hamilton’s presentation.
Ms. Clark confessed to having made offhand, emotional comments that were misinterpreted as facts, but noted that that’s partly the nature of the Twitter beast.
“You can’t do justice to the issues that are at stake in 140 characters,” said Mr. Watson. “Twitter is better at creating sound bites than providing nuance or mutual understanding.”
At times, he added, Twitter seemed to exacerbate divisions among groups at General Conference.
And the whole Twitter conversation was probably lost on the African delegation, according to Forbes Matonga, a reserve delegate from West Zimbabwe. He estimates that less than 5 percent of African delegates had constant Internet access or cellphones that worked in Tampa.
“I doubt most of the people from Africa are aware of it,” he said.
Still, it’s clear that Twitter is here to stay, and likely to remain a force with which General Conference leaders will need to contend in the future.
“You can’t shut it off,” said Mr. Voorhees. “That genie is out of the bottle.”