The URJ on blogging: “Yay blogging! We almost get it!”

3,000-some-odd URJ Jews are in Toronto this weekend for the URJ Biennial. I’m following along on twitter (#urjbiennial).

Every biennial, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union, make his “State of the Union” sermon from atop the mega-pulpit erected for the convention on Shabbat morning. In this sermon, Yoffie announces the Union’s newest biennial initiatives. Last time, he unveiled the “Shabbat” initiative–how creative, Jews celebrating Shabbat!–and this time he’s unveiled something called the Embracing Technology initiative.

Overall, I think it’ll be a good thing. We here in the Reformish corner of the jblogosphere have been straining to be heard for some time so it’s nice to find a new Union site basically devoted to how to get your congregation into the conversation going on out here.

Except, oh wait. It’s not about how to jump into the conversation. It’s about how to start a blog for your congregation. And how to moderate comments. How inspired. The fact that moderating comments is one of the chief concerns of the site is pretty tell-tale.

When stuffy corporations begin blogging or tweeting, it’s a huge change in the way they think, and it’s rarely as quick as you’d want it to be. From Sinai, marketing was a one-way conversation. You’d spread your message and if people liked it and the way your presented it, they’d buy your stuff (or do whatever it is your advertising wanted them to do).

The new way is two-way. You say what you have to say and a conversation starts. If you’re doing it right, it’s an open conversation and it happens in real time. When the blogger or the administrator is away from the computer, the conversation continues because at all times of day or night, people can continue to make their comments on your post. Or, in the case of twitter, they can continue to @reply to you or use #tags that refer to you.

If your blog is moderated, this process grinds to a halt. The open and real exchange of ideas that a blog done right promotes is over when your moderate. The openness can be scary.

You need no more proof of the fact that the Union doesn’t get what we’re doing out here than to check out RJ.org. With a few notable exceptions, the RJ.org blog has become more and more of a URJ cheerleader in it’s year and a half of existence.

So, congregations, if you’re listening, the way to get into the conversation out here on the internet fringe isn’t to do what the Union is telling you. The way to do it is to read some blogs. And when you feel like you get it, start your own. Don’t jump in based on URJ advice alone.

Shabbat Shalom to everyone out there in Biennial-land.

Update! Just found RJ Blogs, where they’ll create a blog for you. With WordPress. Very impressive. *eye roll*

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29 responses to “The URJ on blogging: “Yay blogging! We almost get it!”

  1. i’m not sure moderating has to be in the form of holding comments. i think the point of that section of the URJ stuff (which, by the way, i wrote) was to allow people the freedom to control the conversation. i think you and i are well aware that a good blog requires *watching* – we have to pay attention to the comments made so that we can respond to them or, sometimes, delete if necessary.

    i think my biggest disappointment with it is calling it a “technology” initiative but focusing only on blogging seems to miss the point of technology as a broad element. what about using powerpoint in services and voicemail blast services – these are technology, too, that may be underutilized.

    {{{sigh}}}

  2. The thing about blogging is that you have to have stuff to say that people want to read.

    Reminds me of this story: The president of a dying shul had just set up a shul website. He was thrilled. Now the shul was On The Internet, the site was going to receive thousands of visits from all over the world. Shul membership would rise. People would move to the area. The shul would be transformed. All from getting a website. I didn’t like to tell him that a website is a tool, not a magic wand.

    Sounds like Shul Blogs are the new magic wand. Having a blog will magically generate lots of stimulating, engaging content! Suddenly the rabbi will have time to write lots of blog posts! People will care more about Jewish issues! Discussions will start happening! Membership will rise!

    If you’ve got a shul where lots of people are writing lots of good stuff, a blog is an ace way of collating and disseminating that, but misguided enthusiasm makes people think it works the other way round too. It doesn’t.

  3. Tip of the kippah to the URJ for encouraging congregations to open new channels of communication to their membership.

    More importantly, I’m happy to see they have learned from past experiences (the ill-fated website service back in 2003) in focusing on WHY to build a blog, and how to use existing free tools (I’m talking about the webinars).

    If congregations use those guides and really act thoughtfully, everyone will benefit.

  4. Having been at Biennial, I’m just beginning to work through the variety of ideas that were engendered and the materials that were distributed, and I wondered as I read the piece on moderation on the URJ web site who had written it, especially since I had discussed this very issue in Toronto with one of my previously virtual friends — he being for totally open discussion, I as an institutional creature being, shall we say, more prudent. (David will of course spell prudent c-h-i-c-k-e-n, possibly with a suffix I will not inscribe.)

    Thus, with two days to brood about the issue, I framed my thoughts in the following, which I have submitted the following as an addendum to Rabbi Sommer’s drash on the URJ web site:

    As an instinctive if not congenital liberal, my gut would lead me to totally un-moderated blogs, and I would still hope that a blog in my congregation would allow the widest possible expression of opinion. But especially using a program that allows anybody to read, I think the congregation should moderate to assure that the writers are in fact members of the community, that the language should be, as Rabbi Yoffie put it, suitable to be read from the bimah on Shabbat, and that no personal invective be allowed.

    I am opposed to moderation aimed at stifling dissent or criticism, but in favor of that which recognizes the specific responsibility of the synagogue as an institution to model appropriate Jewish behavior.

    In framing these comments, I thought about proposing that the blog policy call for signed comments only — but recognized that as a roadblock to free expression. (It would also be hypocritical since I post comments on various blogs under noms de web.) But I do think that the member should be able to post anonymously, subject to the moderator verifying that the writer is eligible to post. (End of post.)

    Note that the URJ list-servs, since their inception, have been un-moderated, largely self-policed, but monitored by 633 staff — on more than one occasion I got off-line notes, as I’m sure others did, asking that I cool it. But list-servs, unlike blogs, reach a controllable audience.

  5. To clarify a few points, I don’t think that this initiative is bad. Rather, I think parts of it are unfortunately mis-focused, and yes, Larry, c-h-i-c-k-e-n.

    And to be clear and up front about how it works here at The Shuckle, I suppose I can delete comments, but I’ve just never needed to. And I certainly don’t ever hold comments in limbo awaiting my approval as RJ.org does with every single comment and as my friends at Jewschool do with comments by someone who has never commented at Jewschool before.

    Perhaps the URJ might look to Jewschool as an example here–a sort of happy medium. Jewschool is home to raging and lively debates and discussions, and notes its policy under the comments box on each post:

    “I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God.” —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik

    • My own blog doesn’t get too much traffic (cbatampa.blogspot.com), but I just had to delete a comment, for the first time ever – someone (somebot, probably) posted a viagra ad in my comments. That’s now gone.

      I’d happily delete any comment which was far over the line, in terms of civility, but more than that seems, well, dumb. It’s a bit like those of us (our synagogue currently included) who think that an on-line Bulletin is a PDF of the paper thing. If we’re going to blog, then blog!

  6. Pingback: Rabbi Yoffie endorses flexitarianism, the “kashrut establishment” | Jewschool

  7. David,

    While I agree with much of what you write here, I have to say that moderating comments is not a sin. Many of us have been the victims of comment spam; I would not want my community’s public face to be defaced by automated porno ads or, what’s much worse, by humanated antisemitic rants – these things have happened, on real blogs. Though you may be too young and urbane to have experienced physical anti-semitic violence, you should not poo poo the emotional reactions of the generations that pay your bills. People don’t want moderation in order to stifle dissent, though they may end up doing that. They just don’t want an electronic intifada cropping up on their cherished website.

    • First, I’ll address spam.

      There is no harm in having a spam filter. I have one and I check it regularly to make sure nothing real is getting caught in it. That’s not moderation. It’s spam-control.

      Now, to iAntisemitism.

      The mere existence of a Jewish website does not mean that antisemitic comments will appear on it. If they do, perhaps instating moderation is necessary. Or perhaps beefing up your spam filter with specific words and phrases is.

      Either way, my point is that blogs with moderation should not be the default.

  8. I wanna re-address Jason’s comment, because he gets to the heart of what worries me here.

    People say dumb shit in synagogues all the time. They say it to the Rabbi after services. They say it in board of trustee meeting (yeah, Simcha, I know I’m too young to get jack shit, but I did serve on a synagogue board of trustees for two years and never missed a meeting, unlike some of the trustees, one of whom showed up to a mtg once to bitch us all out and we were like who’s this lady? and she was like I’m a trustee *facepalm* and she’s right, she was on the damn roster!) But I digress. And they say it in Torah Study.

    But we don’t censor them. Who are we to say their comment is dumb?

    In your comment, Jason, you say that you’d “happily delete any comment which was far over the line, in terms of civility, but more than that seems, well, dumb.” Civility, fine, but dumb?

  9. When people say something stupid to the rabbi, or at a committee meeting, or wherever, the range of auditors is small, the comment is ephemeral, and those who hear it can consider the source.

    When something stupid is said on the web, the range of readers is large, the comment is quasi-permanent, and the casual reader will consider that the owner of the blog — the synagogue — is the source.

    I’ve noticed the Soloveitchik quote on Jewschool, but frankly, I like better the similar message on Donnie’s blog — Be nice. If only we could count on everybody to be nice — but in that case, we wouldn’t even have to issue the reminder.

    • That’s all well and good, but can you answer me when I ask who gets to decide what dumb is? What “sermon-ready” is?

      • That’s an easy answer, David. *I* do, because it’s my blog. Just like you do on yours. If you don’t mind the risk of trolls and little black rainclouds, you leave comments unmoderated until you are forced to do otherwise. Just like I leave them moderated so that I don’t have to delete my own cross-post ping-backs and somesuch. it’s preference.

        Of course, that’s because we have personal blogs which make up (total SWAG here) 90+% of the blogosphere. So it’s all good.

        But an organizational blog? That’s very different. Now we’re talking about the ClueTrain Manifesto, which organizations have a really hard time reading, let alone understanding, never mind following.

        While I know you already know this, it’s worth stating plainly that organizations are usually painfully (sometimes unproductively) careful about their “message”. If they aren’t, they usually aren’t successful organizations for long because nobody is clear on what they do, or other people/groups/competitors tell the public what they do and that is NEVER a good idea.

        So what to do about comments on the synagogue blog? (is syna-blog a word yet? Can I claim credit for it? Drat. I just checked. Those Synagogue 3000 yahoos grabbed it.)

        If I were king of the forest, I’d leave comments open until proven otherwise. I’d also make sure that all staff associated with the blog (writers, moderators and marketing/membership) had an agreement about usage and limits before the blog was launched.

        Because I’m the kind of guy who believes a strong shul can stand up to open criticism, I’d probably tag a disclaimer on the blog page that said something like “this is not a forum to set policy. While we invite discussion and even criticism, and will do our best to address concerns, we make no guarantee that issues will be addressed here, nor that every complaint will be resolved to the satisfaction of the complainer. Which is the same guarantee we all got when the doctor slapped our newborn bottom on our birthday.”

        OK, I might not include the butt-slap part, but you get the idea.

        But seriously guys – your comment page is just a smaller version of what’s already happening on twitter, facebook, and other blogs. People are already talking about you. Might as well invite them “inside” and count yourself REALLY lucky too. Because worse than getting some irresponsible comments is getting none at all.

        But is the comments feature REALLY the most compelling issue we have to discuss with regard to social media?!? (yes David, I do realize it was the subject of the original blog. But I think we’ve beaten that horse such that it is unrecognizable from the ground around it)

        How about discussions on whether or not to mirror your the shul’s twitter output on the facebook page? For that matter, what should a synagogue twitter output include, besides snowday notices to Hebrew school families? Where’s the style guide to cover whether a shul should have a facebook page, or just a fan page, and whether you should add synagogue events there or leave them on the synagogue web calendar?

        • Word, to most of that.

          As for me getting to decide what’s dumb because this if my blog, let me replace a couple of words an re-phrase.

          I say something in public. A conversation starts. Other people begin to chime in. Some people say stuff that I think is kind of dumb. I might call them out on it, but can I smack them upside the head and say, “This is my conversation! I started it and you’re dumb, so shut up! I own this conversation as well as everything everyone here has said as a follow up to my initial thought.”?

          No. That’s absurd.

          • meh. I think some of us (myself included) are internally translating “dumb” for “abusive” or perhaps “so stupid as to permanently injure the reputation of the speaker”.

            I think we can all agree that someone who makes a blog comment that is openly and personally abusive, uses language which is socially unacceptable, etc etc blah blah – something like that is going to get deleted. We can also agree that comments that are completely off topic, contain links to personal websites or those that feature anatomical enhancement products, etc etc will get deleted (if not caught by spam tools.)

            AND IF, for whatever reason, your blog gets a lot of the above, you turn on moderation. But (IMHO) your blog hasn’t gotten them yet, you ought to leave moderation off until you have sufficient cause to enable it.

            So we are left with comments that are from people who want to be part of the conversation, but are – for whatever reason – stupid. Ill informed. Missing the point. Poorly worded and/or typed.

            What do you do when one of your Sunday school teachers makes a comment that displays poor keyboard skills, so he “sounds” like a moron? Or the Israeli congregant whose poor English skills make it impossible to follow their thinking. Or the revered octogenarian founding member who isn’t as sharp as he used to be, and clearly misses the point.

            What do you do with those posts? Let those people hang in the wind of public embarrassment? Delete it and say nothing? Delete it and tell them to get an editor and re-post? Edit it yourself?

            All are valid options.

            My gut says that these same people are posting elsewhere so let it ride. But “elsewhere” they probably won’t meet the other community members face to face. I toyed with the idea that people KNOW that what is posted online carries a certain “YMMV” element, but then I remembered the shock and surprise when Dove ran those “real beauty” adds showing how much physical and digital manipulation whent into 99% of all print photography. People BELIEVE what they see in magazines. They BELIEVE what they read in email and online. Whether they should or not.

            So I can understand the urge staff would feel that their synagogue blog system has to ensure that it is a forum for discussion but NOT one for lashon hora – meaning it doesn’t allow lashon hora to be posted, and it doesn’t provide opportunity for others to engage in it by saying “did you SEE what he wrote?!?”.

            The simplest – albeit conversation-stunting – method is moderation. It isn’t a panacea, but depending on the goals of the blog (we’re back to my previous comment that the staff involved in the blog MUST understand those goals and guidelines) it may be necessary at the outset, or it must be present in the staff’s minds as something they need to turn to when they see how the conversation is progressing.

            • What if your Rabbi has been creating embarrassingly designed flyers for years with eight different fonts at work and clipart sprinkled all over? What do you do about that?

              These are not new issues. People say dumb stuff in person, they say it on paper and they’re gonna keep saying it online.

              Is the internet going to be a place only for people who are bright enough to edit their own works or carefully figure out clever things to say?

              I certainly hope not.

              But as to your point about turning on moderation only when it’s necessary, WORD.

  10. PS- does anyone realize how delightfully meta this is?

  11. I have to say, I agree with Simcha here. While I think, David, that you are correct in many ways—that there is a challenge in moderating comments and that the delays it might cause could stifle the potential dialogue that the blog is meant to create to begin with—there is a true risk of antisemitism, and for some Jews (myself included) homophobia as well. At Social Jewstice, I write about GLB/Trans issues and their intersection with Judaism frequently, and I don’t get much traffic, and I’m working on strategies to more widely distribute content etc, but when I occasionally do get comments, at least half of them are intended to trash me or the topics I am writing about, not to provide thoughtful, intellectually stimulating criticism.

    This ‘meta’ discussion is quite interesting, and it certainly is causing me to reconsider—perhaps I open up comments and simply allow myself to delete homophobic and/or anti-semitic personal insults. But Edible Torah has a good point—there is an important distinction between personal and organizational blogs and the kind of annoyance/insult that they are willing to handle.

    • This is an unfortunate thing that happens to some, but by no means most blogs.

      I believe each blog and blogger should cross this bridge only if it they come to it. There’s no sense in the default position of a brand new blog with no readers as yet setting itself up for moderated comments only.

  12. This just hit my radar from my geek persona (vs EdibleTorah, my “Jewish Geek” persona). It comes to us from Gizmodo, a blog that has thousands of subscribers who make comments on almost a realtime basis. And they have LOTS of trolls (disrespectful commentors), as well as lots of people who make comments that are just plain dumb. Which, in turn, get the trolls all excited because they have a dumb person to bash publicly and make themselves feel better.

    How do they handle it? With interns. Here’s their “help wanted” ad:

    “We are looking for someone who can handle our comment management system, which usually takes an hour or less a day. You will be reading through all new member comments, determining if the commenter has what it takes to be approved for Gizmodo.

    The work isn’t necessarily hard but it is extremely important. We need a responsible person that is able to manage this every day and will not flake out on the responsibility.

    Doesn’t matter where you’re located, how old you are, or what you look like, we just need a level-headed, dependable person who enjoys reading Gizmodo and would be able to determine a good comment.”

    So I propose that the URJ consider this for their guidelines: If an organization feels they simply MUST have a level of control over comments, begin with NEW MEMBER moderation, rather than full-on moderation. that means comments made by people who have never commented before go into a queue rather than being posted. After a period of time (and you can determine whether that’s one post, 5 posts, or 500) they become an “approved” commentor and their subsequent posts go up immediately.

    Just a thought based on how the big boys do it, and they deal with a lot more abuse (both potential and real) than any synagogue is ever going to see.

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