Is Facebook the new religion?

You might have heard stories which suggested that, a few weeks ago, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook was like a church.  Thinking it something like John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” comments, I added to my to-do list that I should “write a catholicTalk piece tearing Zuckerberg a new one” (even though, with two billion adherents, and a common sacred text, the Face-Book, he could just be right.)

But it turns out that the media gets it wrong, even when talking about one of its favourite sons!

The comments were made during a speech given by Mark Zuckerberg  at the first ever “Facebook Community Summit.”  The summit was open to administrators of Facebook pages, who had to apply or be nominated to attend and were chosen after being put through a selection process.  The aim was to gather the leaders of what Zuckerberg called “meaningful communities.”

Zuckerberg’s actual address, I think, has a lot to teach us as Catholics.  And we shouldn’t be surprised by that.  The man does have two billion in his church.

He said that the initial mission of Facebook, “connecting the world,” while not over, is less important now.  He announced the mission for the next ten years of Facebook, which is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” 

Zuckerberg told those gathered that this can’t be something imposed from the top-down, because change starts locally.  He said that people are generally good and genuinely want to help others, but it is hard for them to do that when they don’t feel supported, when they don’t feel good about themselves, and when they are afraid. 

For this, they need community. 

This is where the comments about religion came in.  Zuckerberg said that with church and other community belonging declining, Facebook is seeking to fill that space.  He didn’t suggest that it has, indeed he noted that of the 2 billion Facebook members, only about 5% are part of a “meaningful community” where they are able to obtain real support and real community. 

But for those who do, it is vitally important.  Think about people diagnosed with a disease which affects one in a million people.  They would possibly never meet someone similarly affected, but with two billion users, there are likely 2000 people on Facebook who share the same condition.  Even if a Facebook group for sufferers only attracted a fraction of those, it would be an extraordinary thing!

Zuckerberg surmised that the reason the numbers in meaningful communities are so small on Facebook is the same as it is in real life: people rarely seek out community.  His aim is to direct Facebook’s technologies to build and perfect the artificial intelligence to invite people to communities which would be meaningful to them, and provide places of support and belonging.

But Zuckerberg acknowledged that while the Facebook technology has been able to connect these people and even lead them to relevant groups, it could not provide the community within them.  He knows what we know; artificial intelligence only goes so far.  In the end, you need real people who care about others to be able to welcome them into the communities they look to join.

If successful, Mark Zuckerberg will create what the Church, at its best, does best.

Sometimes, we think that Facebook is taking over the world, and that we can never compete with what its creators have been able to achieve when it comes to captivating the attention of the young and the not-so-young.

But what Zuckerberg is saying should be an affirmation for us.  Despite their Facebook and other social media addictions, people still desire community. 

If Facebook is putting its weight behind making it easier for people to find communities, let’s recommit ourselves to having the communities for them to join.

Lord knows we have 2,000 years more experience than Facebook does on building communities. 

Monica Doumit, catholicTalk contributor

Wednesday, 26 July 2017 07:18 Written by 
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in CathTalk blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all members of that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

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