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About a week ago, I participated in a conference, the venue – and most participants – being about 9000km away. Nothing new, one might rightfully say. Of course, I participated through electronic means. Welcome to the future, Alexander G. Bell, you might say.

The uniqueness, at least from my perspective, was the medium through which I participated – twitter.* To my delightful surprise, I could follow a lot of what was happening. I am no expert on the subject – the conference was that of the Southern African Missiological Society – but I could gauge pretty well what everyone was arguing. This, even though what I received where pretty much only short bursts of information. True, someone with almost no knowledge of the subject would probably have lost the thread; but this will be the case in “real-life” participation too.

Some of the speakers had put their papers online, and links to these papers were passed around on twitter. This meant that

a) one could read up on the matters later on, and

b) people attending the conference could probably follow the speaker even better, if they had internet access.

To illustrate another useful aspect of twitter’s ability to share links quickly: a few links to speakers’ blogs made the rounds. The audience (even those abroad) could get a general background perspective on the speaker – and these links and blogs are, of course, useful for the future too. Not only the blogs, but also simply other twitter users participating came to my attention. I will hardly go looking for twitter users; let’s face it: the 140 characters biography say almost nothing. But a shared interest, in this case identified by the hashtag #SAMS2011, did point to some interesting voices that I will listen to from now on.

Among other things, the usefulness of twitter for missiology was discussed (in a report back paper, worth the read!). I would like to emphasize here that twitter is a relatively cheap and accessible means of communication. Added to this, Africa has rather good cellphone reception (contrary to what some may think). The SAMS conference set up a screen with incoming tweets in the background – meaning just about everyone could make themselves “heard”.

I’m not hailing twitter as THE solution, or as the new way of holding conferences. In fact, I think a lot got lost in summary, so to speak. Some questions were left unanswered; some themes dropped, as is the twitter way. Obviously a lot of non-verbal communication went flying. And although meeting new people electronically was great, it’s no substitute for meeting someone in the flesh.

A lot of useful academic discussion (most useful academic discussion?) occurs after the day is done; over lunch; over dinner; over coffee. I’m sad that I’ve missed it – this time. Nevertheless, I at least got SOME input.

By the way, I’m sure some of the papers will make their way into Missioniala, SAMS’s journal.

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FOOTNOTES

* Members of the Society of Biblical Literature have been using twitter as a medium dating at least as far back as 2009, through the hashtags #SBL2009, #SBL10, etc. My hashtag search for the International meeting – I’m assuming it will be #SBL11 – is already on. I’ve also participated in other such experiments, where I’ve had a similar experience.

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I start this post with shame. No, not a mistranslation of humility from Afrikaans – downright shame.

I wanted to spew forth critique on the #ifoundjesus hash tag. In my selfrighteous attitude towards religion. But, like a Balaam of old, I am unable to do so.

My critique would have gone something along this line (which might make sense to the reader):

One can find Jesus everywhere. In fact, the #ifoundjesus hash tag that has been making its rounds on Twitter is a running commentary on this fact. The problem is, some people, the present writer included, listen between the lines. Thus, a tweet sounding something like this (extreme example):

#ifoundjesus in that He gave me a house and a farm and a huge bank account and lots of friends and … stuff #praiseyethelord

is immediately converted (and rightly so, I still maintain) into:

Jesus loves me more than other folks. Like poor sinful people sitting in the rain without a house and a farm and a bank account. #awesomeme #thelordismyshepherd

Yes, one finds Jesus everywhere. Which means every profane thing is sacred – or the other way round, depending on one’s religious tastes. (For this is a question which hinges between agnosticism and mysticism.) Consequently, the embarrassing situation above is pointed out in even greater contrast.

I could continue along these lines. My arguments have some merit, I would say – at least philosophically. However, the #ifoundjesus #thelordismyshepherd tweeter above would find him/herself a very #lonelysheep in the “real” world of Twitter.

I refer the reader to the #ifoundjesus hash tag on Twitter to defeat my own thesis above.

For, #ifoundjesus in the witness of others.

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