Do We Still Need Websites?

Recently I conducted a review of all the monastery websites (nun-speak for groaning about the daunting task of updating and remaking them) and came to the conclusion that more was needed than mere revision. We need to think through from first principles what we are trying to achieve, and what might be the best means of doing so.

In the beginning, a website was really the only way of announcing one’s existence to all and sundry. It was cheap, effective and universal. One posted one’s wares, so to say, and let others make of it what they would. Then we began to titivate. We added podacsts, videos, interactive elements like forums, a mobile site for small-screen devices, and sometimes ended up with huge and complicated structures, resource-rich but unwieldy. Then we began to separate functions. Here at Howton Grove Priory we moved the blog and forum to standalone addresses and made a Facebook page for prayer intentions and general announcements. We added email newsletters, Twitter streams, Instagram, and very soon realised that our online presence was fragmented, difficult for a small community to keep on top of, and generating its own problems in terms of cross-referencing and accuracy.

Our fundamental re-think uses as its starting-point the small screen of the mobile. For a long time I have argued that thinking of online engagement in terms of desktops and laptops leads to a static and essentially ‘inside out’ approach. We address the questions that matter to us, and can be incredibly self-indulgent as well as self-referential. An ‘outside in’ approach is much more demanding. For a monastery it means ditching quite a lot of the verbiage we use to reassure ourselves that we are what we say we are, and instead attempting to translate our monastic life into a ‘language’ that makes sense to those who may have little or no formal contact with Catholic Christianity. That requires more than a jargon-buster, because we have to convey something, at least, of the inner reality of our lives, not just the superficial elements many are interested in.

We shall still have a website here at Howton Grove, but we are redesigning it to act as a kind of key to all the other places where you will find us on the web. Because it is being put together with mobile in mind, some of the purely decorative elements are being consigned to a secondary layer of interaction. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but it will be an attempt to allow that many-windowed fourth wall of the monastery (which is how we think of our online presence) to be what Benedict asks of all monastic hospitality: a welcoming of Christ in the person of the guest.

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16 thoughts on “Do We Still Need Websites?”

  1. I believe that we’re now into the era of shared resources, with very quick and accurate links, using platforms such as Word Press or Facebook, Twitter, Linkelin and Tumblr with a presence on youtube and other upload sites all married together through a primary souce, which might or not be WordPress or Facebook or even blogger.

    All that I need to do now is to convince my parish that our standalone website should be part of a wider, linked presence to the wider church universal (so to speak) to demonstrate our Unity in Christ. Perhaps I’ll succeed eventually, but don’t wait up for the decision 🙁

  2. May I read this again when I am properly awake? I am not the smartest cookie in the tin when it comes to computers and computer terminology; a cup of tea is required to lubricate the cerebral regions first before I can engage. Up to speed though with the last sentence, and it sounds lovely to me.

    • Thanks for saying it so well, Molly. I got to ‘small screen of the mobile’, thought of it as people who are on the go and only after another long think, realised ‘mobile’ meant a phone. But it’s not only technophobes like me who are challenged. Many of us in rural areas have extremely slow broadband and no other options and as to mobile phones, live in black spots with no coverage. If I did ever purchase one, I’ d have to walk to the very top of the field to get any signal at all ! Would I walk that extra mile?

      • We live in a very rural area, too, Patricia. Although I do access websites etc on a mobile telephone, I have to use the house broadband via wifi as mobile telephone coverage is erratic — even when our neighbours the SAS are not blocking it! So, I don’t think we’ll be asking you to walk to the end of the garden to use your telephone data plan . . . 🙂

  3. This is fascinating. Please please do share the steps of your process and the decisions you make at each point.

    I don’t wish to add influence to your process but this seems to be what the GDS have adopted with the gov.uk redesign. I look forward to seeing how your conclusions compare to their 10 design principles.

  4. What an insightful post.
    We in our family have moved away from using laptops and desktops to tablets and phones for almost all activity.
    I look forward with much anticipation to your thinking and what it produces.

  5. Great decision! With social media and mobile now the norm, websites have now become one of the puzzle pieces to one’s entire online presence. in fact, web, social, mobile are all puzzle pieces.

    The website now has the important function of being your base. A good rule of thumb is to send your social audience back to your website (if appropriate).

  6. I’m glad you’re not deserting laptops and desktops completely. I have neither a smartphone nor a tablet, so all my web access is via my laptop and I know I’m not alone in this. Good luck with the rethink.

  7. Oops, my comment got eaten. I wish you all the best with your rethink. I have neither a smartphone nor a tablet, so look forward to seeing what difference your redesign makes to my laptop browsing of your website.

  8. It’s an excellent point made. It may depend on your demographic targets (it feels silly to say it that way) For myself in my mid 50’s i am still more comfortable getting info from websites (I know how to navigate) I can use mobile sites but find myself frustrated sometimes. For younger users mobile is much more readily in their skill set and websites are hopelessly outdated. Technology is changing platforms at light speed, while mere mortals attempt to keep up. The older I am the slower I go. I’m just so grateful that you are here sharing wisdom and faith.

  9. Reading this on my smartphone, wifi’d in to rural broadband. But then, I think I count as part of the demographic who otherwise would never have any contact with a monestary. I did first find you by stumbling across the website while researching nuns (I was writing a story about young people making decisions about their lives and careers, and wanted one to choose to be a nun…)

    Agree that using the website as a portal to the social presence is valid, especially in light of your stated mission, but think its important to keep some of the factual pages outlining your day to day life, and some pictures.

  10. I enjoyed your article and plan to share it with the webmaster for my college. It is so true how the language we use must be attuned to those we serve rather than to ourselves and our internal language.

  11. Some of us have not moved over to mobiles/tablets/et al so please keep your website! It worries me that the produces of computer ‘hardware’ continually update, thus forcing us all to spend money, and learn new skills – and forcing those who can’t afford these things to become left behind in the information and communication stakes. We shd all think about this. Are we in the hands of those who are simply pushing the envelope to vie with one another for customers? Is a screen-based life what we really love best? Thanks for your comments though: nice to know what goes on in the monastery area of life today :- )

    • I’m sorry, you seem to have misunderstood me. I explicitly state that we shall still have a website, but it will not be constructed along the same lines nor serve exactly the same purpose as hitherto. The two existing websites, for desktops and mobile, will be merged together and rebuilt: the new site (which should work equally well on both desktops and small screen devices, such as mobile phones and tablets) will function as a hub for all the resources and different kinds of material we currently make available, plus some new ones. It has little to do with hardware development: it is mainly about responding to the different kinds of questions people are asking, and the best way of supplying such answers as we can.

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