Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What groups like Humanists of Utah can do to thrive

[Cross-posted from Salt City Skeptics]

Note, though I'm talking about a particular group here in Utah, my thoughts apply to any similar organization...

Last week, I attended a picnic for the Humanists of Utah. HoU is a great organization. Their events and guest speakers are always insightful, and the people are warm, welcoming, positive and just generally awesome.

I've been to two or three HoU events over the years. Each time, one issue has been very apparent. And it's an issue they readily admit: they're aging out. Other than myself, a few members of SHIFT (which was invited to attend), and a few children of long-time members, I don't believe there was anyone under fifty in attendance. And most were older than that. Nearly everyone I spoke with was ecstatic that there were just a few younger people there.

I had a discussion with one member of the HoU who wondered why humanism didn't appeal to younger people, whether it even applied to our lives at all.

My answer: an unequivocal yes. The ideals of humanism are very much the ideals of vast, vast numbers of younger people openly embrace.

So, what's going on then? Why are there so few 20- and 30-somethings attending HoU events?

One piece of the puzzle is shifting labels. The ideals of humanism and the ideals of organized skepticism are very similar and entirely compatible. Yet organized skepticism has grown tremendously over the past few years. Events like The Amaz!ng Meeting have grown from a sort of boutique conference for a few people to become huge social events for skeptics of all stripes. And in the case of TAM, it's been getting younger and more diverse every year.

The "New Atheist" phenomenon has also had a huge impact in the last few years, particularly on younger people. Whether they consider themselves atheists or not, the nonreligious have been emboldened to more readily -- and proudly -- embrace their identity openly.

Not ervey last person who labels themselves a skeptic or an atheist is going to have ideals that line up perfectly with humanism, but for the vast majority of them (including myself), it's the Enlightenment ideals that these labels stand for that are important, not the labels themselves.

But what has changed to make it seem like groups like Humanists of Utah are no longer applicable?

Quite simply, the internet.

The internet has enabled people to form communities with like-minded individuals in ways that weren't possible twenty years ago, or even ten.

Each week, I download vast amount of content to my iPod. Podcasts like Little Atoms (<3), Point of Inquiry, SGU, Irreligiosophy (on which I will be a guest on an upcoming episode!), and Skeptically Speaking keep thoughtful insight into secularism, rationalism, non-theism and other Enlightenment ideals in my ears all week long.

I subscribe to countless blogs in my RSS reader. I've become friends -- both online and IRL -- with some of those bloggers, I keep up with people both locally and far-flung through social media. The people on these blogs and podcasts are real people, and I can get to know them, in some small way, through Twitter or Facebook. I mean, I know more about Rebecca Watson's stuffed animals than I do my neighbors two houses down. Never has it been easier to find a group of like-minded people, regardless of the topic.

This is awesome. I get to be a part of a community of like-minded people all around the world. Whether you love drinking beet root juice or want to find others who love to go bowling in full animal costumes, chances are there's a Facebook or Meetup group for you.

Does it come at a cost? Maybe. The fact is that I don't know much about my neighbor two houses down. My "neighborhood" is definitely more the place I live than a community of which I'm a part. But the internet allows me to find community locally as well. It's precisely because of the internet that I was able to form Salt City Skeptics, and indeed is how I know of Humanists of Utah.

But HoU has yet to jump in to these newer internet media. I've no idea whether this is by choice or just because it hasn't yet been done, but the fact of the matter is that younger people today just do not respond as readily to a static website or monthly physical newsletters. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying there is anything wrong with these things or that they should go away. Maintaining a blog or podcast takes a lot a time and effort. And to some people, a printed newsletter may be totally indispensable.But the fact of the matter is that most people under 35 and a huge number of those over are likely to use (and I hate this term, but it here goes...) Web 2.0 media like blogs, podcasts and social networking sites.

Let's look at my group, Salt City Skeptics. I started the group a little under a year ago, more or less on a whim, and between the presences on Facebook, Meetup and subscribers to the SCS blog, we have nearly 250 unique "members."

Now, very few of those members are as devoted to the group as members of HoU are to theirs.
SCS has a rotating group of ten to twenty people who actively attend our events, plus occasionally more people at special events. For most, Salt City Skeptics "membership" mostly consists of adding it to one's Facebook profile in a list right next to "Fans of Lady GaGa" and "People who don't enjoy being on fire." Most "members" have never come to an event.

HoU members, conversely, have thirty or forty devoted members who come to every event (and probably countless more who don't) and are likely much more invested in the group, viewing it more as a unique community.

The Humanists of Utah certainly have more to offer in terms of content than SCS. I'm just one person and have to balance my time with the group with all the other stuff that comes up in life. HoU is, you know, and actual incorporated nonprofit group with clout and a board and a chair and a budget in excess of $70 a year. The programing schedule put together by HoU is impressive and insightful. SCS mostly gets together to share a few drinks and gripe about pseudoscience and the excesses of religion. I always promise to have more guest speakers, etc., but it takes work getting the ball rolling on these things.

So, what's my point here.

I, for one, want to see HoU continue. But that means they need to invest now in social media and a next-gen web presence. I'd like to help the group survive. I'm going to start posting HoU events here, and I'm going to make my best effort to attend them. I'd hope that HoU can start getting a presence on these newer platforms. A Twitter feed or Facebook group takes just a few minutes to set up, and it instantly allows people to discover these groups and their events. Let's all help this phenomenal group with 20 years of history survive.


Flo Wineriter said...

Pat, thanks for your support of Humanists of Utah. I am one of the founding members and appreciate your comments regarding our need to communicate in todays media. I hope you can support us in moving in this direction. Flo Wineriter

Elaine said...

Yes, thank you for this post! I consider myself a Humanist ... and a Unitarian ... both 'organizations' of which I have not officially joined, like I have the ACLU of Utah and Center for Inquiry. But I plan to, and I am continually attending more and more of their events. I also link them to my U of U Student Group's site, and would love to see someone step up to make the Humanists of Utah's website a more inviting color scheme with more inviting graphics ... as well as to form a Facebook and Twitter account that is regularly updated .... I wish I could take this on!!! And once I join the organization 'officially' in the fall, perhaps I will, if no one else has yet :)