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Quakers, Participatory Culture, and Our Mission in the World

A few weeks ago, I went to a really interesting talk by Wess Daniels on Quakers and mission at the lovely Friends Church of Berkeley. Wess is a doctoral student and a released minister from Camas Friends Church in Washington. I really had not idea what to expect, other than the fact that a cross-section of Friends from a number of different Quaker Meetings and Churches would likely be there.

Wess made a number of interesting points that I'm sure other Quakers who were there will be recounting on their blogs.  I wanted to focus on the part that was most relevant to me, his comparison of "participatory culture" and Quakerism.

Wess's thesis is that participatory culture can help us to better understand the role of Quakers in the role, our "mission" as seekers of the Light.  As a Quaker who has spent a good part of his career focusing on participatory culture, and seeking personal direction, it was like Wess was speaking directly to my condition.

I won't try to summarize Wess's points in detail, which I won't do justice to. Wess explained some of the basic attributes of participatory culture, as described by folks like Henry Jenkins and Pierre Levy, including "remix," "collective intelligence," and "alternative social community."  He then went through these attributes to explain how much these aligns with Quaker spirituality and community.

I think that Wess has many valid points and compelling arguments about how Quakers have been a countercultural force for much of our history, and how that informs how we see our own role in the world today.  I found a lot of sense in his argument that Quakers have always challenged heirarchical religious authorities of the day, in a similar sense that creators of online media challenge the more centralized channels of mass media. And our communities are formed through the practice of Quakerism, which can be seen as analagous to how fanfic, machinima, or 8-bit music communities are formed through the process of media production.

That said, I think it is much less clear what lesson participatory culture teaches to Quakers about how to impact the world.  Much of the new kinds of civic engagement that emerges from digital culture has to do with remixing popular tropes and products and remixing them in ways that entertain, inform and spur to action.  For example, check out what happens when environmentalists produce their own videos about the Chevy Tahoe SUV using the Chevrolet company's own video creation tools! Or witness Harry Potter fans taking their love of this popular escapist fantasy and using it to spur action on real world crises like in Haiti and Darfur.

By contrast, my experience of Quakers has been of a people who are largely, and proudly, divorced from popular culture.  I know many Quakers, myself included, who don't own televisions, Quakers who don't listen to current popular music, don't go to the movies except to see documentaries, don't spend much time online except to get emails from FCNL.  A good example you could see among the many Quakers at Wess's talk who didn't know what fanfic, zines, or mashups were.

While these sorts of disconnections from common culture might make us smarter, perhaps even wiser, I don't know if they do much to connect us to others in our larger communities we live in. Are we literally  speaking a different language that will not speak to the condition of those around us?  As many of the new forms of activism and political discourse move online to FaceBook, Twitter, and the blogosphere, are we still just picketing for peace in the town square?

From my perspective as a blogger and a virtual world educator, I of course am convinced that Quakers can useful engage the world with their message through participatory culture. If anything, the current environment of participatory online culture is a much better environment for Quakers to spread their message to the world than the mass media channels of broadcast television, cinema or long-form print publications.  So the question for myself becomes, how can I as a Friend help other Quakers usefully contribute to the larger online culture in ways that express our values and invite others into our radical community?

For more Quaker commentary and discussion around Wess Daniel's talk on Quakers and mission, see Wess's website, Robin Mohr's blog, and Lisa H's two posts about Quakers and remix (one and two).

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