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.