Editorial – Pagans and Facebook

Facebook has become the preferred method to keep in touch for millions of people. It has surpassed MySpace and other networking projects and is very popular with Pagans. It has great features for promoting events, and connecting with those of similar beliefs locally and around the country. It is easy to use and appeals to our need to feel community. It is especially great for staying in touch with those people we see only a few times a year and helps us to keep in contact and updated with friends who we may not see as much as we would like. I especially like sharing snippets, little thoughts, quotes, or events that mean something to me, and enjoy when they resonate with my friends.

Facebook users, and the new applications for it, are blossoming everyday. Many of the original problems associated with online activity are still there just with this new “face”. There are now countless building and gaming applications to draw you away from your real life. These new applications are particularly insidious because besides sucking up all your free time, many reward getting your friends involved. They give the illusion you are building something real, including a deeper relationship with your friends and co-players.

Parody of Facebook for Addicts

To me, the largest problem with Facebook, is the very thing that makes it so popular. It gives us the illusion that relationships, and the feelings we gain from them are easy. The ‘Like’ button is how we offer support or solidarity with a click. It becomes an informal poll to track who agrees with us. A sentence in response to a friends joy, pain, triumphs, or sadness becomes equated with a phone call or a face to face meeting. In a world where we are all too busy to really be friends, this is a cheap substitute to deepening those relationships. We can publicly declare our care on a friend’s “Wall” and meet our need to both support someone, and get the side benefit of demonstrating our character to our world of friends. Don’t get me wrong, our lives need as much emotional support and the daily demonstration of existing in a caring world of friends as we can get. Living in the isolation of rural America, the sense of staying connected has become vital. Facebook is a great tool for that. It is just that Facebook makes it so easy it lessens the meaningfulness, and may make us less dedicated to be there in person when we are really needed.

What about Facebook as a tool to invite your world of friends and fans to an event? My experience is less than half respond, and of those that confirm attendance on Facebook, usually less than half follow through.  The danger is that it is so easy to invite, using Facebook,  why bother with those not on your Facebook list?

I consulted the greatest on-line networker Minnesota has ever seen, JRob of Twin Cities Pagans. He has taken the combination of MySpace, Facebook, and Yahoo groups, and built them into a network that reaches literally thousands of people. Using his method of cross group invitation most online groups have swelled in numbers, with Facebook showing the largest percentage of gains.

The results of JRob’s analysis is that;

It is so easy to promote on-line, that many people are forgetting the basics of how to promote events. Despite the random people who show up because they see something on-line, for most people the on-line component is just one part of what gets them there. For most people, they show up at an event because someone they know says to them, “Hey, you should go to this. It will be great!” A phone call will always be far more effective than a Facebook event invitation.”

There is a social pressure for someone to look at another person and say, “I’m having this event. I want you to come” which just isn’t there in an email, and is completely not there in a Facebook event invite.”

Event organizers should appreciate the fact that the guy who has developed the most influential on-line Pagan network in the Twin Cities is advocating off-line promotion techniques.

Communication with Facebook, as a way to find clarity, can be worse than plain old email. Many of us have struggled to manage the perception we express with our tone, language, assumptions, and intent using the written word. At least with email, we can save it for another day, re-read it over time, and more thoroughly imagine what we are inadvertently communicating to another. With Facebook you start typing and since you can’t save it, you tend to do it quickly,  and then hit the comment button. Sure you can work off-line and paste, but how many really do that? It is certainly not a good place to resolve personal, emotional, community, or ethical issues. I often see snippets of emotion posted, completely unclear or in any context. We either ignore them and look callous, or are moved to try to draw the person out, or make personal contact. Why not just say, “Today. I need a hug.” ? At best you can just air out your frustration, pain, anger, or disapproval. As those feelings ripple outward they rarely inspire further or better communication or any real support. Why would I want all my friends to listen to what needs to be intimately sincere to be really heard?

We naturally begin to think of our Facebook “Wall” as a pulpit, and in a sense it is ours, but a very selective one. We embrace the illusion we speak to the world when we are only talking to a few, those on Facebook, and fewer yet those friends who will see our post. The effort to attend meetings and talk takes time, and that time investment seems such a waste. Physical meetings are an investment, that pays off in the long-term with real, valuable relationships. It is worth the time and the commitment to the intimacy that personal relationships require.  If we rely on Facebook to build a Pagan community and the cultural institutions that celebrate it, will we just end up with the Farmville version?

Facebook can also be personally dangerous. We have all heard stories of compromised accounts used to spam our friends.  Employers are increasingly cross-checking job applicant’s resume information and personal life to assess suitability for employmentCourts are accepting as evidence Facebook captures, information, and photos  in such important issues as child endangerment and custody issues, in divorce proceedings, and even parole violations. The current judicial interpretation is that once information is available on-line, it is public information. Just as protected documents like medical records are subject to discovery in lawsuits,  so also your  “restricted access” Facebook information can be properly demanded in legal proceedings. If it is in your desk drawer, it is no different from on being on your profile.  If being a Pagan, or dressing in wild costumes, or extreme partying is a threat if revealed to your employer, your community, or relations with others, you best not include it on Facebook!

Parody of Facebook as Hatebook

The real danger specifically for Pagans, as I see it, is in the use of Facebook  for  a substitute forum for discussion and debate of the real issues facing us as we grow into a community. That has to happen face to face to be productive. As with email, Facebook can be used to inspire people to action, both positive and negative. There is often a fine perceptual line between inspire, and incite or manipulate, between debating or addressing issues and questioning personal character or ethics. While Facebook serves us well to keep in touch, it negates the importance of the process we choose in finding solutions. It is easy to distort the relative importance, significance, and breadth of distribution of information and events. We can ‘poster’ a small neighborhood of our on-line community, publish our feelings without taking any responsibility to communicate with those involved, or being accountable for imposing these feelings on our world of Facebook friends.

Recently a member of our community created a fake Facebook profile. They were found out, and when confronted with the commercial stock image photos used to create it, the creator shut the profile down. It was used to covertly speak to inflame, using made up experience. The real danger in this was as an attempt to incite, empower,  and manipulate others to speak with incivility in other forums. Whatever the larger goal of this provocateur was, it failed. It was an eye-opening action that any person would  invest such time in an anonymous pulpit to spread discord, within a community of trust. It caught a few people up in it, and offered them opportunity to vent or appear reasonable. It also provided the illusion of license for those who in real life would not speak with such disregard. It did demonstrate our vulnerability to presume that what we see and experience on Facebook;   feelings, testimony, experiences, conclusions, … actually represents the truth.   A recent study has shown the longer users stay on Facebook, the more likely they are to perceive others as being deceptive. On Facebook we will never know the same truth we know when we look in each others’ eyes and discuss our issues in person.

You can call this community deception a prank, but it may foretell an increasingly cynical vision of the future. In reality this deception had about the same power as a Facebook ‘Unlike” button would have. The next instance may cause real harm to individuals or our fragile community in general.  Real life experience seems to be the best guide in navigating these waters. Save Facebook for cheering our victories and insights, offering support, and drying our tears.