22 August 2009

Baha'i Activities and the Use of the Internet

Since the mid-1990’s, the development of the internet has opened onto the world a series of innovations that have radically altered many aspects of its ordered life. Search engines like Google or Yahoo have ushered in a new era in the way information is gathered and disseminated. Napster turned the music industry up-side down. Blogging now presents an unprecedented challenge to the hegemony of the mainstream media. Twitter has been cited as a key tool for Iranians protesting the recent election. Online fundraising allows political candidates to rely on a broad base of small donors rather than a small set of wealthy special interests. And this is to say nothing of such contemporary giants as Facebook or YouTube. The established order of things existing at the end of the twentieth century has been shaken up and, a decade into the twenty-first, is increasingly being restructured using web-based tools.

Simultaneously, the Baha’i world has undergone dramatic changes in the way it organizes itself and inter-relates the three participants of its plans: the individual, the institutions, and the community. Though the spirit and mission of the Cause remains the same, the outward forms by which it surges forward are unlike those that have been seen in the past. Baha’i activities are increasingly open to the public. And more often than not, only a portion of their participants are enrolled members of the community. Whereas the Faith was once dominated by and directed towards adults, now young people are playing a more central role in the conduct of its affairs. A culture of learning, experimentation, and ceaseless endeavor has imbued the Baha’i world with a dynamism that rivals or surpasses even the proudest moments of Baha’i history. However, there is one easily overlooked aspect of this framework of action: its stalwart indifference to the internet. Sure, participants can consult more frequently over email. Nowadays, individuals are more likely to read the guidance of Baha’i Institutions on websites than through paper copies mailed to their homes. Certainly, Facebook has opened up new ways of connecting people and organizing activities. But for the most part, the current framework of action operates the same way if one has an internet connection or not.

So why is this?

At this moment, I see three main reasons. The second and third suggest, against the prevailing mood in the world today, that use of web-based tools is not necessarily a mark of social progress. Perhaps, the reader will approach this issue from other directions.

Firstly, the backbone of the current framework, the sequence of courses developed by the Ruhi Institute, was developed before the advent of personal computing. And its entire purpose was for reaching out to the isolated rural communities where large numbers were entering the Baha’i Faith. If this is the Baha’i world’s primary model, then clearly the internet would not become a conspicuous instrument within its activities.

Secondly, and this is related to the first point, a high degree of replicability from community to community is essential to the mode of systematic learning at the heart of the current framework. Participants in different parts of the world can learn from each other very easily because everybody is laboring to achieve the same goals, through the same sorts of activities, with more or less the same set of materials. Junior Youth animators use "Breezes of Confirmation" in all corners of the world. And the basic aims of these groups, regardless of location, are all spelled out in "Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth," the fifth book in the Ruhi sequence. What is learned in one community can be transmitted through Baha’i Institutions (and certainly directly over the internet as well) to Baha’is across oceans and continents laboring along similar lines. At this juncture, there is still an enormous gap in technology between the global north and the global south, and within the global south between urban and rural communities. If Baha’i activities for this age group were conducted primarily over the internet in one part of the world and face-to-face in other parts of the world then it would be difficult for either set to learn from the other. They would be doing entirely different activities, and most likely, towards very different ends. Not only would communities be limited to their own process of trial-and-error, this could endanger the unity and cohesion of the global Baha’i community.

Thirdly, the reality Baha’is seek to transform is still best dealt with through face-to-face interactions. This isn’t a question of authenticity, as if face-to-face interactions are more real than those over the internet. Both just as easily concern an engagement with the real conditions of our collective existence. But rather, a great many of the issues facing the world today are best dealt with, not by connecting people across nations and hemispheres, but rather down hallways and across streets. Individuals might spend less time seeking social or spiritual change over the internet if their immediate surroundings were not so barren in that regard. A like-minded friend in Denmark may be a good person to chat with online. It’s easier at first to strike up a conversation with him than with the cranky neighbors next door. But he can’t look after your kids in an emergency. He can’t drive you to the airport, or help you round up kids for a neighborhood children’s class. But the cranky neighbors next door can do these things; perhaps they won’t at first. But with perseverance, the current framework of action facilitates activities that can rapidly transform neighborhoods from places of isolation and mutual indifference to vibrant sites of personal devotion and collaborative action. These activities have ripple effects that can transform the life of a given locality beyond the immediate confines of its core activities. This is because, first and foremost, this framework advances by people developing interpersonal relationships. But this is done by focusing on people who are already close-by, rather than searching the corners of the earth for new contacts. For that reason, web-based tools are likely to play little more than a marginal role in the development of such activities.

These are some of my thoughts on the question. I’d like to hear those of other people. In closing, I’ll offer a second question: What future role might the internet play in the current framework of action, or those that may come after?


  1. It is interesting that the Baha'i Faith, a religion which aims to unite the world, is so focused on decentralized neighborhood activities. The notion of "unity in diversity" seems to embody a creative tension between unity on one hand, and diversity on the other. Likewise, we seek to develop a unique cultural space within every neighborhood, while maintaining a coherent and systematic framework on the international scale. This requires some kind of feedback loop, in which web based tools are essential for the latter, but irrelevant to the former

  2. The last post was from Jason, not his lovely wife

  3. You mention your second point as an example of how web based tools don't necessarily mark social progress due to their unequal distribution and the problems of replicability. But how is that an argument against the value of web based tools for social progress generally?

  4. The other side of the coin here is Baha'i Communities, or bahaigroups.org. One can't view it without joining, by invitation. Three years old this month, this week we got our 6000th member. Baha'is from nearly every country where the Faith is have joined this lively Ning social network. While language barriers slow down the process of getting acquainted, countless warm friendships and even romances have sprung up on BC.

    There’s live chat, scores of groups on subjects ranging from memories of Hands of the Cause, to herbalists, IT, people who take part in IPGs, doing Ruhi study online via Skype, writers, bloggers, musicians, photographers, translators and re-translators, quick and easy cooking for the masses, elegant cooking for fireside dinners, BIHE, people who live in Tehran, Africa, people who live in West Texas and New Mexico -- you get the picture. It is a great success in terms of variety of contributions and points of view.

    Nonetheless the number of active participants at any given moment is low. Some of the things said above no doubt cause this. We keep talking about ways to spike activity, and what you've said here is great.

    But also factors affecting nearly all organized online groups affect BC. I've been in online groups since the early 1990s, and have seen for myself that these have "life cycles." People lose interest, life demands spring up, computers break down. Yet in Baha'i Communities a lot of people come back even after months away. The place has become a spiritual refuge, a solace, a home of the spirit. The community has eased some members and their families through the process of leaving this life for the next, among other very real forms of support.

    It's not under the auspices of any institution, though administrators consult frequently with the World Centre, Counsellors, board members, NSAs and so on. We have a couple thousand members from Iran, for instance, and validating their standing in the Faith can be tricky. This is the big reason behind the "invitation only" nature of seeing Baha'i Communities online.

    Lots to contemplate here!

  5. Think of the internet as a media. Imagine the time when printing become widespread. Initially few could read because it made little difference in their lives. But as print became widespread reading spread too - abetted by printing the BIble in language available to all (translating the Word of God into the new media.) But how much of the transformative action of the Spirit of Jesus came to the masses because there was now printing and people reading? People still spent most of their time away from the media. We improved the qualities of our neighborhoods. We are physical beings - we can reach the stars and far flung shores of imagination - and be affected by stories shared from afar. But then we get up and cook and bathe and hug. We can communicate -giving and taking - some of the virtues of a good meal and cleanliness and the warmth of friendship through any media, but we must also do so through the physical media itself we are born into. We must not only be kind and heartfelt in blog entries and email, although we often fail even at that, we must succeed in our skin in sight of others in their skin.

    But that doesn't mean the age wont be changed by the unrolling of this media just as it was in the past.

  6. Jason wrote: "You mention your second point as an example of how web based tools don't necessarily mark social progress due to their unequal distribution and the problems of replicability. But how is that an argument against the value of web based tools for social progress generally?"

    Web-based tools are of course very useful in the progress of any initiative. emilylee19 has described some things that, given favorable circumstances, can do amazing things for the Cause. But in this case, what I was thinking is that since not all can use them, right now, it's better to leave these sorts of tools to the side. My main intention, though, was to get away from the knee-jerk response of assuming that just because new things are being done using the internet that that represents an improvement over how it might have been done before.

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  8. True, a lot of Baha'is don't use the web or use it much at present. But when that number reaches critical mass, watch out, world!

  9. This is a gradual process of individuals and Baha'i communities learning how to use the Internet. For background material on how individuals might undertake initiatives see: bcca.org/bia