Last week, one man unwittingly found himself in the middle of an online firestorm, his name trending worldwide on Twitter for two days. He was called a heretic, a hero, a brilliant marketer, and a danger to the Church…and he had absolutely no idea why. In spite of all the craziness, he graciously agreed to an interview.
Q: I’m just going to get right down to the question everyone’s asking. Rob Bell, are you a universalist?
A: Not entirely. I'm a web designer/marketer (@robbell). You must have me mistaken for the “real” Rob Bell (@realrobbell), the US preacher.
Oh. So if you’re not the “real” Rob Bell, then who are you?
I'm the unreal one, obviously! Having taken solid form to prove my “realness,” I live in the North of England where I help businesses grow through better use of the Internet. I do web design, cloud computing, mobile computing - all that nerdy exciting stuff that's changing the physical world around us. I'm a real technophile, and I pretty much live online after I broke my back some years ago.
Rob the Preacher made big news last week by releasing a video trailer for his new book, and as a result, people mistakenly responded to you on Twitter with thousands of @ replies and direct messages. How long have you been on Twitter? Has this mistake happened in the past?
I've been on Twitter for a long time - relatively - since Summer 2008. I even wrote a book about it! Part of my job is keeping abreast of the latest online technologies to see how they can help businesses work better online, so I'm always signing up to the latest and greatest sites. Some take off, some don't. Twitter did!
Prior to the last two weeks, it was a rare thing for someone to mix me up with “Other Rob.” I'd maybe get one every two weeks or so. I think the fact that we don't look at all alike helps some people not mistake us. I have a beard, he doesn't. He wears glasses, I don't. Think of us as the Twitter equivalent of Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Over the last couple of weeks, it's been a little crazy, with multiple people mistaking us every day... but it's only because they don't look before they @ !!! Look before you @, people!
So you have written a book…just not one about heaven and hell. What did you think when you first saw your name show up as a trending topic worldwide?
I actually got a phone call from a friend, letting me know. My first thought was “Oh no, what have I done!?” Then I looked.... “phew, not me after all!”
You were a great sport about the whole thing, often kindly informing people that they’d found the wrong guy. What sort of messages and mentions did you receive the weekend your name was trending? What was the meanest, the post perplexing, or the kindest?
The weirdest, before I knew what was going on, was the multiple "Farewell @robbell" messages. “I'm not going anywhere,” thought I! Christians are a fairly respectful bunch, I’ve found - no personal insults, just a few cries of “heretic” and some denouncements. I took it all in good humour though. It was just a bit surreal...very Monty Phython's "Life of Brian" - "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!"
Did you see a sudden increase in followers? Did you Web site get a bump in traffic?
Unfortunately, my account suffers under a Twitter bug. In November last year, 5,000 of my followers just vanished, and Twitter don't consider it a priority fix, so I have problems telling when people sign up and leave. Watching the numbers live, I saw a small increase at first, no more than usual really, but over the last few days I've seen more people leave than join, which is new for my Twitter account. I'm usually always rising. My web design site saw a small spike on Sunday, February 26 and Monday, February 27, but apart from that the numbers have been consistent.
I haven't seen any great rises in traffic on any of my web estate as a result of the mix-up. But that's no surprise to me. There are a few well-known Rob Bells, it seems - the Religious Rob, Nascar Driver Rob, Web Rob (me), Doctor Rob, President's Nuclear Adviser Rob and many more. We'd make a great TV show if anyone fancies picking it up. "The Worlds of Rob Bell" would be amazing!
There’s a Nascar Driver Rob? Awesome! Do you know much about Religious Rob? What’s your impression of him?
I've read things he's written and watched a couple of his Nooma videos. He seems like a great guy with a lot of interesting things to say. I'm not devoutly religious by any means. I support the theory that it doesn't matter what you believe in, as long as you are nice to other people and do no harm…which I guess makes me something of a universalist myself.
Other Rob seems like a genuine guy teaching people to have good lives. You can't fault that approach, no matter what your beliefs. He seems to take a modern approach to many aspects of religion which is interesting. His comments about hell I found particularly daring yet considered. I'm sure if we met, we'd have fascinating chats. I hope it happens one day.
He steals the whole front page of Google for 'Rob Bell' searches these days, which stopped me telling people to 'Google Rob Bell' to get all my website details. Now I have to point them to top of page two, dash it!
Do you know much about John Piper?
I know he denounced me accidentally, intending it to be other Rob, but that's it. Someone asked me to fight him, but I'm non-violent, so I asked a UFC fighter to be my stand-in.
How do you feel about the fact that the other Rob Bell claims to be the “real” Rob Bell? Can you make the case that YOU are actually the real Rob Bell?
I don't think he's really claiming that he's the only real Rob Bell. He couldn't be robbell on most websites because I'm already that everywhere, so he had to choose a consistent name he could use everywhere. I bet someone advised him realrobbell would be best. He's realrobbell on Twitter and Facebook, which works fine for me. I get to be the Unreal Rob Bell, which sounds much cooler.
What is your religious affiliation? Do you have strong opinions about issues related to heaven and hell?
I'm confirmed CofE (Church of England), but am not a practising Christian. I read a lot of stuff on other religions and spirituality, but my own belief system is very complex and personal, challenging and ever-developing. I stick to the tenet "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you do good by people and do no harm.”
I believe in higher intelligences. I'm not sure about heaven and hell, though. I was 'lucky'(?) enough to die when I was 19 in a waterskiing accident, albeit only for a couple of minutes. No lights or tunnels, just blackness. That was my experience.
What, if anything, have you've learned about American evangelicalism through all of this?
They don't look at Twitter profiles before sending out @ messages, and they come in droves... :)
Rob’s Story – In Tweets
Oh dear, my namesake is now a Trending Topic worldwide on Twitter, best get ready for fresh lunacy! What else is gonna go mad today?!
@theonetruemyles who is this @johnpiper and why is he denouncing me? Did he not like a website I designed?
@reverendjohnson … Why would an entire religion want to bash a simple Englishman like myself? I'm quite concerned..
Wondrous Web Design from a Very Nice Man, who may as well take advantage of his name trending -http://www.robbellwebdesign.com
Dear Christians, I am not @realrobbell although I hear he does really great things. Please at least look before you 'quote' me as him
@sethtowerhurd Do I have to fight @johnpiper or something? I'm not really into fighting, can I get @joelauzon to stand in for me?
I look forward to the day when my namesake has to deal with all the Geeks, Marketers & SMB Folk trending my name for something I said, lol
@laureeashcom nothing too bad, altho tweets like "The end of @robbell" did worry me at the start, til I knew what was going on
@progressivepie Farewell..... but where am I going?
Tomorrow on mistaken identities we'll be talking to plumber Osama Bin Laden, dinner lady Kim Kardashian, and bricklayer Lany Gaga
I got a DM from God earlier, well one of them anyway... he/she thought I was the other Rob Bell too...
@amberviolin I was on the homepage of CNN.com today? What was I doing? I don't remember anything of the whole event... weird!
@toddphillipy I'm not a heretic, I'm just a cheeky boy from the North
@debbiebrink I haven't given ANY thought to Gandhi's actions after his death, I think he believed in reincarnation so that would be nice
@stonestreet How have I hurt the gospel? I try to write good HTML. Oh hang on are we talking about same gospel? The Gospel of Web Design?
@jakecollier So, 3 words for everyone - liberal or conservative - on this whole @robbell saga: Everybody. Calm. Down.
@Robbell @jakecollier 3 more words for everyone - I'm Not Him lol :D