National Catholic Register


Thoughts on the USCCB Guide to Social Media

BY Matthew Warner

| Posted 7/22/10 at 1:45 PM


Earlier this month the USCCB officially released a guide on Social Media for American Catholics.

Overall, I think it’s a great step for the USCCB and will prove very helpful in educating and introducing Social Media to so many in the Church who are just starting to use it. The guide also offers a lot of sound advice for all of us who use Social Media. It should be required reading for every church employee. And it can be read in about 10 minutes.

One of the most important points I think they hit on was this:

“Users of social media expect site administrators to allow dialogue, to provide information, and to acknowledge mistakes. [...]

Social media’s emphasis is on the word “social,” with a general blurring of the distinction between creators of content and consumers of content. Many communication experts are describing the adaption of social media as a paradigm shift in how humans communicate.”

This is such an important point. I know a lot of diocesan officials who are very hesitant to jump into using Social Media because they are looking at it through the lens of the old paradigm of traditional media. It’s a different world with different uses and different expectations. And the longer we refuse to adapt, the longer we are being left out of the conversation.

Here’s another really excellent point that the USCCB makes in the document:

“The key question that faces each church organization that decides to engage social media is, How will we engage? Careful consideration should be made to determine the particular strengths of each form of social media (blogs, social networks, text messaging, etc.) and the needs of a ministry, parish, or organization.”

So many parishes and ministries just have a Facebook page. Or they have a Twitter account. They have a website. Just because it’s the cool thing to do. Twitter is an amazing tool.  It might be the absolute wrong answer for your ministry. You can’t build a house by simply having a bunch of tools. You’ve got to know which tool to use and when and how to use it.

There were also a few things that I think could be improved in the document.

For instance, I wasn’t sure what to make of this paragraph:

“Topics that are in current debate will generate more comments/responses. These include issues in which the Church’s teachings are often in contrast to some popular positions (gay rights, abortion, immigration reform, health care reform). In other words, the Church’s social justice teachings, including the pro-life aspects of those teachings, often elicit unfavorable comments. Some people determine that those topics will not be engaged with on official sites. Others provide guidance on how to engage in dialogue around these topics.”

The line “Some people determine that those topics will not be engaged with on official sites” is what bothers me. I don’t think the USCCB is discouraging discussion on hot topics, but it seems like they are okay if you don’t. Maybe I am misreading that. But in my opinion, we need to be encouraging such discussion, in general. The document does go on to provide some “rules to the road” when doing so - which is very positive and helpful. 

This goes back to my point above regarding the paradigm shift in how we communicate and engage the culture. Just as the faithful expect to hear a priest preach on important issues from the pulpit, they even more so expect to hear the Church discussing these issues and engaging people online. If we are afraid (i.e. choose not) to discuss these topics, then what are we doing? We’re the Church, not a self-interested political campaign scared we might accidentally let the truth slip out. We have nothing to be afraid of. People expect us to be willing to engage on the most important issues. Let’s equip the Church to do that. And let’s go do it.

And then this statement I thought was a bit too strict and could be more helpful:

“Don’t cite others, post photos or videos of them, link to their material, etc., without their approval.”

In the Social Media world, citing and linking to others without their explicit approval is not only fair game, it’s encouraged and understood as part of the common language. It always catches me off guard when I have people ask me permission to simply link to one of my articles or resources. This is not necessary. The answer is Yes. And even if I didn’t want you to, there really isn’t anything I could do about it. It would be like telling the man on the corner he isn’t allowed to talk to others about your lemonade stand.

Videos and photos are slightly different. If they are photos and videos you made, it’s a good idea to make sure any people in the video are okay with you posting them online. And if it involves minors, there may be diocesan restrictions you need to be careful of.

What the USCCB document needs here is an explanation on what is called “fair use.” “Fair use” is what allows us to legally use a lot of great content on the web without having to ask for permission first. It’s not that we don’t want to ask permission, it’s that it is too prohibitive to the conversation to constantly do so. “Fair use” has made our experience on the web orders of magnitude richer. This is, for example, what allows anyone to copy and use a “quote” from some other work in a work of their own. If you follow some fairly easy guidelines while doing so, you can do this without ever needing to ask permission.  The same applies to images and videos.  But you need to know the rules, first, so you don’t get into any copyright infringement issues.  Also, a lot of media (photos, audio, video, etc.) are released under various licenses made to make their use even easier. Learn about these licenses.

The answer to this particular challenge is to learn about licensing and “fair use”.  Respect everyone’s original work.  Then go out and use the web to its fullest potential.

All in all, I was excited to see this document posted by the USCCB. I hope everyone reads it.  And I hope it is just a first step of many more things to come from the USCCB and its leadership on this very important aspect of the New Evangelization.