March 1, 2009 Volume 22, Number 24
Social networking sites foster relationship-building, evangelism
By Joanne Brokaw |
PHOTO: DESIGN PICS
More than 30 years ago, when he was a teenager, Mike Parker met Mark Henderson while on an 800-mile road trip to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimmeron, N.M. The two became fast friends.
"We spent a couple of weeks hiking the wilderness trails, shared a tent, lived off the land and in general had a great time doing 'guy stuff' in the great outdoors," says Parker, author of the Christian sci-fi series The Scavengers and host of BuddyHollywood.com. The two friends kept in contact for a while, but eventually lost touch in 1973.
But recently, out of the blue, Parker got a friend request from Henderson on the social networking site Facebook.
"We've had a delightful time catching up," Parker says of the blast from his past, adding that the two still have much in common, even 35 years later.
Parker's story highlights America's growing fascination with social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter and ShoutLife, where strangers meet and old friends reconnect.
These social Websites operate as global networks where users connect with people who share common interests or activities for the purpose of building relationships. People create their own online page where they establish a public profile, listing their interests and personal information, and then ask other like-minded people--even strangers--to be their "friends."
Users stay in contact by writing short notes or comments on each other's sites, posting videos and pictures and updating their profile status, letting friends know where they are and what they're doing at any given moment.
According to Nielson Co., MySpace is the most popular social networking site, with Facebook right behind. MySpace has almost become an industry unto itself; the company launched MySpace Records in 2005, is active in promoting social causes through its Impact site and partnered with the Commission on Presidential Debates for the 2008 election.
Yet the primary purpose of social networking is still for people to communicate with each other.
On the surface, it might seem quite trivial: hundreds of millions of people logging on daily to chat aimlessly or purposefully with friends and strangers about what they're reading, who they're dating or who's the better quarterback or guitarist, and posting personal videos and photos. But that desire for gossip might just be part of our human nature.
University of Liverpool psychology professor Robin Dunbar has suggested that social exchanges meant to keep track of other individuals in a community have, since the dawn of language, helped humans form bonds and develop trusting relationships. Dunbar broadly defines these social exchanges as gossip, and says they help people not only spread information, but also understand how that information affects their own lives.
Social networking is a powerful tool in that exchange.
As one person writes about her political or religious beliefs, for example, her friends can join in the conversation. When one teen writes about a recent break-up, friends chime in to offer support.
The concern, however, is how much information is too much information, and what are the real life consequences of all that public chatter?
Last year MSNBC reported the results of a survey by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy think tank which found that "35 per cent of hiring managers use Google to do online background checks on job candidates and 23 per cent look people up on social networking sites. About one third of those web searches lead to rejections, according to the survey."
While there is a debate about the ethics of using information from an applicant's MySpace or Facebook profile in the hiring process, there's no question that what's on a user's profile, from photos of drunken escapades to the admission of substance abuse, can come back to haunt him someday, because it's all there for the world to see.
Concerns about being exposed to objectionable content have Christian parents worried about their kids and teens getting involved in social networking sites. Almost all social networking sites have privacy polices that, if followed, can help users navigate safely. And users are encouraged to only approve friend requests from people they actually know.
Christian social networking sites have begun popping up all over the Internet.
Whatever your age, McLellan says, "You will feel right at home with us."
Many Christians use both Christian and mainstream social networking communities.
Chris Giovagnoni, who is the Internet sponsor and donor engagement program manager for Compassion International, says that by using social networking sites and blogs, the ministry can better communicate with its sponsors and donors and educate the public about what makes Compassion different from other child-sponsorship programs. As a result, the ministry can better help those in need.
Compassion has a MySpace page, for example, and in January 2008 won the MySpace Impact Award and along with it, prominent placement on the site and a $10,000 prize. Since it was online votes from their MySpace friends that led to the win, Compassion let them help pick how the money was used. The ministry's MySpace friends voted to use the prize money to help fund Compassion's Child Survival Program.
And it isn't just large ministries that benefit from social networking. When Christian author Caron Guillo entered the debut international Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition last year, she met several other contestants through the Amazon discussion boards. The writers continued to communicate regularly through Facebook and email, critiquing each other's work, encouraging one another and engaging in each other's lives on a personal level. "When one of my local friends recently lost his home in a fire," Guillo says, two of her online friends "pitched in to help with funds and wish list items."
But using social networking tools doesn't just help connect Christians with other Christians, which is why many use mainstream sites. While the majority of Compassion's 20,000-plus MySpace friends are Christians, Giovagnoni said that the ministry is contacted by people who are atheists or agnostics or belong to other religions. These friends want to connect with Compassion because they see the ministry's bigger picture of helping children rise above their impoverished situations. All of those encounters offer opportunities to talk about Jesus.
In the end, whether users are looking to rekindle old friendships, promote a social cause or find other like-minded strangers to start a conversation, the options to connect on a social networking site are unlimited. Missionaries can keep in touch with supporters back home, Christian music artists can compete with mainstream bands and small ministries can reach out to the four corners of the globe.
And as Mike Parker found out, reconnecting on Facebook can help old friends pick up where they left off, even decades later.