The last time the Diocese of Buffalo embarked on a complete revamp of its website - along with many of the departments that work in the Catholic Center - was 2009. That is a generation ago in Internet timelines.
Since then, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and others have become a regular part of the lives of millions of people, as they check in daily on their mobile devices like Droid phones and iPad tablets. The idea that someone, even those not literate in tech-speak and gadgets from age 8 to 80, could create an individual online identity and life filled with friends, families, opinions, photos, places, fans, followers, likes and dislikes, was something we never even considered when we designed the current website.
A familiar refrain in evangelization circles is to "go to where the people are," and with people spending so much of their time online, whether it's a computer, phone or something in-between, the diocese is beginning to take steps to make what we do online as important as television, print or radio.
One of their first moves was to appoint me as the New Media Coordinator for the newspaper. I have worked on the Western New York Catholic website for over a decade as part of my duties. Now my primary job is to develop content and monitor the website and social media platforms, including the main diocesan site. In the future, we're looking at ways to improve our online presence, building a destination site that will be compatible with all the ways we use the web in 2014 and beyond.
I was recently invited to talk about online communication and ministry on "Western New York Catholic Weekly," a radio show (and podcast) hosted by Gregg Prince. I was joined by Kevin Keenan, who serves as spokesman for the diocese and monitors several social media accounts, and Deacon Don Weigel, who has used blogs and social media to broadcast his message of ministry and social justice.
The following is a partial transcript of that conversation:
Gregg Prince: The Catholic Communication Campaign is centered around the World Communications Day, which is set out by the Vatican every year. The Holy Father releases a statement on social communications, and it's probably no surprise to everybody that the concern for the past several messages has been social media and the Internet.
Mark, you brought up an interesting point as we were getting ready. This is a new position for you, so you had to do some research as we're putting this together so the folks upstairs could know exactly what it is you were going to do. It sounds like you kinda found that ... there's not a lot of basis for this.
Mark Ciemcioch: I went on some of the local college websites to see what majors they were offering in terms of digital content, and it doesn't appear that there's a lot out there. Maybe there's a class or two that speaks to it exclusively.
As far as social media, a lot of us are using our past experience in other fields and trying to adapt to this new technology and new culture to see what works best for us.
GP: The interesting thing from your end (Deacon Weigel) is I read your blog. That's a whole other animal than Facebook and Twitter.
Deacon Don Weigel: Absolutely. For me, it's been a progression. What I do on Twitter is to try to do something that's more current and very precise, something pithy that might spark somebody's interest, as opposed to Facebook. Most of what I do in terms of evangelizing on Facebook has to do with linking to somebody else, or making a comment, to drive people to think about other things.
The blog I find is the opportunity to take a thought that may not be pithy anymore, but something I can develop into a longer thought and a longer monologue.
GP: Do we have favorite sites that we like online?
Kevin Keenan: I'm a big fan of Twitter, just because it's so immediate. Just a couple of Church-related (Twitter handles): Pontifex, which is Pope Francis. They do a real good job of getting his messages out. They don't overdo it, and that's one of the things that a lot of people who are on social media get too much out there. I'm a fan of less is more.
A couple of others Vatican-related: John Allen is a Vatican expert. He's now a columnist for the Boston Globe. He really understands the Church and his reporting is very unbiased. And then, Greg Burke is the senior advisor of communications for the Vatican. It's not an official Vatican Twitter feed, but it gives you an inside look at what's going on.
GP: What do you say to the folks who are maybe still nervous about it?
MC: Social media is what you make of it. You don't have to go online everyday to post what you had for lunch, which is the common complaint I've heard.
DW: I love to use my dad as an example. He's 85, and the reason he's on Facebook is because he has kids (and grandkids) that live across the country and he gets to see pictures of family a lot easier than he could before. He keeps in touch with other people and friends that he has. It's not all very serious stuff; there's a great keeping-in-touch factor that does a great service to people.
KK: And you can be a lurker. A lurker is those who are on social media who never post but just take a look to see what's going on. You don't have to post at all.