Internet Masonry (or better called eMasonry) has grown in epic proportions in contrast to its brick and mortar real world counterpart of lodge Masonry. Why is this one may wonder outside of the usual distractions of modern life? One answer could be in the virtual life Masonic, the online world where grand lodge boundaries blur and disappear while social interaction takes place between flashing pixels hastily entered keystrokes. Is this online collective the future of Freemasonry? In this installment of the Sojourners, I talk to Blake Bowden who is the Founder and Site Administrator of the online community MyFreemasonry, one of the up-and coming online forums for Masons to discuss all things Freemasonry. The forum is a Mecca of discussion on current and past events and a safe forum for discussing new ideas about the ancient fraternity. Formerly the Masons of Texas forum, the Lone Star state site has grown beyond its already broad borders to encompass a bigger landscape of Masonic study and interactivity, much of which stemming from the keyboard and computer of Brother Blake Bowden.
Greg Stewart (GS) –Tell me about yourself, who is Blake Bowden?
Blake Bowden (BB) – It all started back in June 20, 1975, in a dusty west Texas town called Odessa. After enjoying the picturesque scenery of dust and tumbleweeds for five years, my family decided to relocate us to Gonzales, Texas, where I spent most of my time during my adolescence. There weren’t many activities for young kids in Gonzales, so I spent much of my time tinkering with computers and electronics. I remember the excitement I experienced the very first time I logged online. This wasn’t the Internet, but a dial-up BBS. My cutting edge 300 Kbps modem beeped squealed and even though call-waiting would kill the connection, it provided me a link to another world. Since then I’ve joined the Craft and now have the privilege of being the Administrator of My Freemasonry.
GS – How long have you been in Masonry, what bodies, groups or orgs do you belong to within the craft? Which do you spend the most time in?
BB – I was initiated December 2007 and recently finished up my term as Worshipful Master of Gonzales Masonic Lodge No. 30 A.F. & A.M. I’m also a member of the York Rite and Scottish Rite, however Blue Lodge is where I spend the majority of my “Masonic” time.
GS – What first drew you to Masonry?
BB – Growing up I remember my Mother describing what a wonderful man my Great Grandfather was. One day I was going through a little chest and ran across a funny looking coin. When I asked her what it was, she replied that it was his “Masons” coin. As time progressed, movies such as National Treasure caught my eye, but Masonry was still on the back-burner. It wasn’t until 2007 that I decided to take the first step in becoming a Mason.
GS – Did your first impression prove to be true or did it change? How so?
BB – The teachings of Freemasonry have not only met my expectations, but also surpassed them. What did change is my opinion of Grand Lodge. For some members, especially those in the hierarchy, Freemasonry is nothing more than a political game.
GS – How did you find your way into eMasonry and what led to the creation of the original Masons of Texas forum?
BB – Before I petitioned for the degrees of Masonry, I scoured message boards and watched YouTube channels for hours on end but the problem I discovered was that most of the information was anti-Masonic. I had to filter through the usual nonsense like Freemasons are devil worshipers or members of the Illuminati so I decided to do something about it. We started as a YouTube video promoting Freemasonry in Texas, then a district wide discussion forum using phpbb. After that I launched Masons of Texas and went statewide.
GS – So, the forum originally starting as Texas Mason, how did it evolve?
BB – One of the biggest issues I’ve encountered has been with the Grand Lodge of Texas A.F. & A.M. Back in 2007, their website was archaic, hard to use and offered next to nothing for those seeking to become a Mason. That’s where we stepped in. If you had a question about a particular law we had someone available to answer it. If you needed assistance finding a Lodge in your area, someone would be there for you as well. We were an independent website – not a mouthpiece which made the Grand Lodge nervous. For the first time Texas Masons were discussing taboo topics such as extending relations with Prince Hall Masons, dealing with racism within a Lodge or if it were possible for a homosexual to become a Mason, etc.
I’ll never forget being forwarded an email from our Grand Secretary who labeled our site “Anti-Grand Lodge”. I won’t detail my response, but I did receive an apology directly from Grand Lodge.
GS – Was that the reason to change to My Freemasonry?
BB – I wanted to bring the success we had with the Masons of Texas website to more Masons. I also felt that we’d hit a cap in both participation and membership so Masons of Texas was retired. My Freemasonry will continue to grow, but keep a lookout for Masons of Texas to be reborn later this year.
GS – Forum participants can be hotly protective about their home on the web, was there any internal discussion in the forum about the change?
BB – We actually changed our name a couple of years ago to “Freemason Connect” and it flopped. Most of our members were from Texas and preferred that it remained a site focused on Texas Masonry. Since then our membership has become more diverse so last year I decided to re-launch as My Freemasonry and so far the response has been phenomenal.
GS – With the forum in mind, do you think eMasonry has changed the landscape of how we view fraternal interactions? Was it for the better or the worse?
BB – Absolutely! For example I have numerous Prince Hall Masons with whom I interact with on a daily basis. Chances are that wouldn’t happen without Freemasonry being on the Internet. Bridges are being built, misconceptions are being addressed, and thoughts and ideas are being shared across all spectrums of the Craft.
GS – As the forum founder, administrator and moderator in chief for one of the larger Masonic messages boards on the web, what are your observations about eMasonry? How has evolved?
BB – I’ve noticed that Lodges and Grand Lodges are finally moving away from their circa 1999 GeoCities-class websites and developing quality ones.
GS – One of the trends with forums has always been freshness. What do you do to keep things fresh for returning visitors?
BB – This is the number one issue facing Masonic sites. If you don’t offer your visitors fresh content, they won’t come back. That’s why many of the early Masonic websites are stagnant in both content and membership. To keep things fresh I solicit articles from our members and once approved, they are promoted to our homepage. I also have our site pull RSS feeds from other Masonic websites, which not only brings new content to ours, but also sends traffic to theirs. Another is making the site personal. Whether you’re looking for a recipe, seeking family advice, discussing the latest movie, or even requesting a simple prayer for something you’re going through, we’re there.
My Freemasonry isn’t just about Masonry, but the Mason.
GS – This may get into the speculative realm, but how do you see the online world of eMasonry juxtaposed to the real world of lodge masonry? Do you think the former can operate or function in the same capacity as the latter? Why or why not?
BB – When it comes to Masonic Education, nothing beats eMasonry. I’ve learned more about the Craft being online than I ever would in Lodge. So many Masons are content with the business as usual mentality, which is why many Jurisdictions continue to see a decline in membership. Lodge meetings shouldn’t be just about paying bills or passing out fundraiser signup sheets and until Lodges start teaching Freemasonry and not going for the record of having the shortest meeting times, their memberships will continue to decline. That being said, nothing beats a handshake and a friendly smile that you receive when attending a Lodge meeting.
GS – Would it be to the fraternity’s advantage if it did embrace eMasonry?
BB – Yes, as they should compliment each other.
GS – Given your proximity to so many web-masons, do you get any feeling of a common theme or resonance from them by way of trends, questions, or movements?
BB – I believe that many Masonic websites and those who administrate them have become burned out. One could spend years building up a website yet gain just as many users in two weeks with a Facebook page. Is Facebook the same as a full-blown website? Of course not, however people are already checking on their Facebook and/or Google + so why not take advantage of it? I consider social networking an essential tool for our site, not a replacement. For example, every post on our site can be “Liked” and visitors can skip the registration process using their Facebook accounts. If something doesn’t drive traffic to our site, I kill it and move on.
As far as trends, I see eMasons branching out and utilizing social media more vs. launching full websites.
Most users don’t realize the time and effort required to run a successful website. Not only do you have to provide fresh content but fight off spam bots, update software, deal with hosting providers, communicate with developers, install plug-ins, test mobile app compatibility, pay developer fees, sign app certificates, fix broken links, copy articles across social media, admin social media comments not to mention the hundreds of emails we receive each week. I wouldn’t trade it for anything though.
GS – Do you see the interactions of eMasonry as building blocks to more lodge interaction or another distraction/detractor to an active lodge life? Is there a point of balance between the two or an enhancement that you think could be made out both?
BB – I believe it’s possible that the younger generation could become distracted as they may get more out of Masonry online than what their Lodge offers. The younger generation is hungry for knowledge and Masonic education but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a Lodge that provides it. I recommend using eMasonry as a tool to improve your Lodge. For example, I encourage all of our members to find an article, essay, poem or even some trivia and share it at their stated meetings.
GS – With the booming social media trends, how do you see My Freemasonry in that mix? Does it have much interaction beyond the occasional mention or link?
BB – My Freemasonry has a Facebook, Google +, Newsstand, Twitter and YouTube channel and their sole purpose is to drive traffic to the site. If I have an article, I post an excerpt with a link back. We also have mobile apps that keep our users connected while on the go. The key to a successful site, namely a Masonic one, is content and utilizing numerous methods to deliver it.
GS – Who or what gives you the inspiration to do what you do? What is the driving force behind your work?
BB – Making a difference. It brings a smile to my face when I receive an email from someone needing help to petition a Lodge and months later they’re sharing their initiation date. Just a couple of years ago the communication between Prince Hall and “Mainstream” Masons in Texas was virtually non-existent, now the floodgates are wide open. My Freemasonry isn’t successful because of me, but the thousands of blogs and posts created by our members.
Blake, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and share your thoughts. I definitely appreciate it and I know many reading it will appreciate the resources you’ve created for them on the web.
You can join the conversation on the web by visiting MyFreemasonry and interacting with the many conversations taking place about all aspects of the the life Masonic.