Written by:
Carl Gladstone (NCJ & NEJ)

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From #PhoneTrees To @Signs

Part of the “Things That Were Not a Thing Like 10 Years Ago” Series


By Carl Gladstone

I was the child of a youth worker in the 1990s. So, when it came time to get the word out about an upcoming event I remember…the Phone Tree!

This elaborate pyramid scheme of calls, started with my mom contacting three key leaders. Then they called their short list of families, and that list called their list, until each household had received one phone call via copper land-line about who was bringing Jell-O(tm) and when the Christmas party would commence.

Estimates suggest that Snapchat will overtake Facebook as the primary social media platform used by persons 12-17 years old.

I couldn’t have imagined how ancient this system for communicating would look to today’s teenagers.

Ten years ago personal cell phones had become commonplace among young people and the idea of “one family one phone” was already outdated. By 2006 Twitter had launched and @ signs and usernames were soon to replace the personal phone number as a primary connection point for messages. Youth ministers were entering a new decade in which they’d have to navigate between old and new methods for getting the word out. It was a transition from a static family-based structure to a more fluid, individual and networked one.

By five years ago this expectation of constant personal connection to the Internet led us to the amazing Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake sendup of the hashtag. In this 2013 sketch every sentence was categorized by an increasingly absurd series of tags commenting on what was just said. Youth leaders now were being asked to transition their conversations with young people online into co-op #memecreating sessions.

And our communications with young people keep changing. Over the past year, estimates suggest that Snapchat will overtake Facebook as the primary social media platform used by persons 12-17 years old. Have those old audio phone conversations been replaced by a well-designed gif?

For adults, all this change may seem confusing or even dangerous. Healthy practices that keep communications with youth safe and transparent are good to remember in an era of “just DM me.” But we should also remember a few other things:

  1. For young people, these methods of communication are what they’ve grown up with. They aren’t a new digital language, it’s just the way things are. Youth workers may just need to take some social-media-as-a-second-language classes and remember how to help these new systems operate in healthy and holy ways.
  2. Parents are just as much participants in this digital media transition as their youth are, and we need to recognize that it isn’t just young people asking us to reform our communications. To communicate with “the family” today we might need to find ways to reach each member at any account/number/username/platform they may use most.
  3. This change requires that we now reimagine our communications as an inherently co-creative act. Every post can be shared and each recipient is also an agent of what our ministries are trying to tell the world. There’s something Great Commission-y about that, don’t you think?

Every post can be shared and each recipient is also an agent of what our ministries are trying to tell the world.

So, does the #phonetree still have any value today? Well, the next time someone asks you to direct message them, figure out a way to break through the digital noise and have a personal conversation. It’ll be a good reminder that while DM-ing and @ replying weren’t things a few years ago, we can still build deep relationships even in new eras of communication technology.