Facebook, the social networking juggernaut created by Mark Zuckerburg at Harvard in 2004, is now a much-documented cultural phenomenon. Currently, it is the second most popular Web site on earth after Google. Facebook has 500 million users—400 million of whom spend more than an hour on the site per day—and the company continues to grow at a rapid pace, having doubled in size since 2009. This particular online forum is increasingly the place where Americans share their views, from the mundane to the exotic.
Facebook began on Ivy League campuses as a way for students to flirt, join clubs and share information. It has since become available to anyone, anywhere, and it is still free. The site allows users to create profile pages where they can post articles, play games, share photos and music and chat with friends and acquaintances using status updates. In return, the company allows targeted ads to appear on the site and has attempted to share user information with corporations. The last move caused an uproar from users, who threatened to leave.
Despite the recent controversy, Facebook remains the worldwide leader in social networking. Part of its success derives from the fact that it is many things to many people, from a way to advertise one’s business to a diversion from work to a more interactive form of e-mail.
As people live farther away from one another and are increasingly connected to mobile devices, they seem to take pleasure in creating blogs and profiles that allow loved ones to view a fit-for-public-consumption version of their lives. In that way, Facebook is not unlike family Christmas letters; no loving parent posts pictures of their kids fighting, but most share pictures of birthday parties and backyard barbeques. Only this Christmas letter is available every day of the year and around the clock.
In a recent column for The Wall Street Journal (5/21), Peggy Noonan claimed that in the Facebook age, people will share anything about themselves and as a result most of what is shared is fabricated or only half-true. “An odd thing is that when privacy is done away with,” she writes, “people don’t become more authentic, they become less so. What replaces what used not to be said is something that must be said and is usually a lie.”
Is it possible to live an authentic life in a digital room crowded with people from every part of one’s life? Probably not, and most certainly not unless one is willing to confound or even offend by saying things that one’s old college roommate may be surprised to hear—for example, that the formerly free-spirited and unattached college version of yourself has since gotten married, had kids and become an Episcopal priest.
Profiling With Courage
In one lifetime a person inhabits a vast number of worlds, of selves even. Our 16-year-old selves will likely have little in common with the 57-year-old versions. Likewise, the way we speak necessarily changes depending on whom we are speaking with, the ability to code-switch being integral to fluency. So, how to act when people from one’s childhood, adolescence and adulthood all inhabit the same virtual space? What parts of one’s life are fit for public scrutiny and which should be kept private? And what role should one’s spiritual commitments play in the virtual world?
Facebook users are given the option of listing their religious views on the site. Most decline to do so; some choose from a drop-down menu of traditional religious categories such as Roman Catholic or Protestant Christian; and others fill in the box for themselves with a wide range of answers. Here’s a sampling of religious views from my friends’ profiles: atheist, Jedi, Cubs fan, “Yes, I have religious views,” “none of your business,” Calvinist, “be still and know,” “not all who wander are lost,” vegan, Catholic Worker, mixed media, “I swim in the many rivers that lead to the same ocean of Love and Being,” homo empathicas, Stormin’ Mormon, Buddhist–Mahayana, Seventh Day Adventist, spiritual, “it’s all good,” Uber-Catholic, agnostic, lapsed Catholic and Roman Catholic Tridentine rite.
In this instance Peggy Noonan’s suspicions appear well-founded. A lot of people are not honest about their beliefs online, religious or otherwise, but some are—usually those on the fringes. When it comes to religion, I have noticed that many of my conservative religious friends and my nonreligious friends, people who feel less ambivalence about their religious or antireligious status, are comfortable sharing their real spiritual perspectives online. When one says that the closest he comes to having religious views is being a “Cubs fan,” I think he means it. Likewise the woman who writes “Roman Catholic Tridentine rite” is clearly putting her cards on the table.
More surprising are the friends who fall somewhere in the middle, who actively practice their faith—which means, in the case of my Catholic friends, going to Mass—but who choose not to identify themselves online as Catholic or otherwise for fear of what others may think. Some with developing religious views often can-not relate them in a few words and so essentially put something unintelligible up for display.
Still others are concerned about what co-workers might think. One liberal Catholic woman told me, “I don’t list my religious views because I don’t normally tell anybody my religious views. I guess I just don’t want it to change anybody’s perception of me. They would think I was weird, archconservative, hated gay people, or wasn’t open-minded. Once they know me, it’s harder to write me off.”
Another young person, this one a libertarian, expressed similar reservations about being “out” as Catholic online. He told me, “My actual friends know I’m Catholic and are willing to have that conversation with me, but I think it’s better to have an in-person conversation about that kind of thing.”
Perhaps their reticence is understandable, since many of the loudest religious voices on the Internet often come across as belonging to people who are not always the most careful of thinkers. It also seems this reticence reflects, at least in part, the politicization of religion. According to a 2009 survey by LifeWay Christian Resources in 2009, 72 percent of millennials (ages 18 to 29) consider themselves spiritual but not religious and feel that none of the traditional religious categories are a good fit for them. Indeed, “spiritual but not religious” has its own Facebook page.
Andrew Sullivan writes on his Atlantic magazine blog, “The Daily Dish,” about the fast-growing, spiritual-but-not-religious crowd: “The politicization of organized religion... has caused so many who are interested in the spiritual to abandon it. Because that politicization is mainly on the right, many of the SBNRs come off as liberal or libertarian in their views.”
Many of my friends perhaps feel that declaring themselves Roman Catholic online means being erroneously associated with the Republican Party or the religious right. Ironically, when they do not acknowledge their faith they may be contributing to the very misperception that they are concerned about. Likewise, by not claiming any tradition at all they may play into a perception that religious belief is foolish, that smart people don’t believe in God.
Others fear their religious views will be misinterpreted on the Internet or are cowed into believing that religion should be a private matter, thus entirely removing their religious identity from their public life. As a result, fundamentalist voices fill the void and those on the fringes take over the conversation.
Perhaps if ordinary people were publicly Catholic or Christian in their daily lives and online, that would dispel some of the stereotypes and make the civic discourse on faith more fruitful, more authentic, more varied or nuanced. I spoke to one Catholic woman who told me she viewed her Facebook profile as an “apostolate.” She shares musings about her love of the church right alongside her love of kickboxing. The transition, for her, was seamless. She is not aggressive in her posts, but it’s clear that she is deeply committed to her local parish.
If you find my page on Facebook, it will not take you long to discover that I am Catholic, but I do sympathize with friends who are reluctant to make such electronic declarations of faith. Surely it is not ideal to “discuss” religion or politics in the decidedly anti-Socratic setting that is Facebook. Still, when religion is one of the few things that remain private in our carefully constructed, very public, online universe, then religious voices at the extremes will profile us all.