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When Religion And Social Networking Sites Collide

Everyone's had the skeevy friend request on a social networking site from someone they don't know well. But what about a request from someone you know very well, but prefer not to hang out with in a given digital realm?

USA Today (via Howard Rheingold's SmartMobs) points to the case of Deb Levine, executive director at Internet Sexuality Information Services in Oakland, who faced a tough decision when her rabbi's wife added her on LinkedIn:

Then the wife of Levine's rabbi asked to "friend" her on the site, and Levine felt compelled to say yes.

Now Levine has mixed her religious life with her work life online, something she never intended to do. And she worries that having a personal contact listed among business associates will make her look less professional.

"I'm using LinkedIn to further my professional projects," Levine says. "There's just no way (the rabbi's wife) could be helpful in that. I don't talk about my religion and religious affiliations" while at work.


Levine's quandary raises some important issues about where religion fits into the scheme of social networking, including sites like Friendster, Facebook, or that other one that Darth Murdoch. Social networking norms also complicate how users interact with smaller, more specialized sites that are accessible to the public, including sites built around cultural spheres — such as religion — that tend to be volatile. (At least one such site for riffraff comes to mind.)

In addition to Jewcy, so far I've toyed with a professional network for my career, a private blog for family and friends, started a new social networking account, lapsed with an old one and tried out social bookmarking.

In the process, I've grown less concerned with my digital footprint. But I've grown more concerned about which footprints I allow my different friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues to follow. Users might not always consider it kosher to let all of their friends into a specialized social networking space. I'm sure that if Levine was also a member of a social networking site for say, single Jews, she might think twice about importing all of her LinkedIn contacts.

Online social networking seems to work best at its two extremes. Facebook and the rest work splendidly as general spaces. And the most advanced, forward-thinking online magazines — sites I like to call digital magazine communities — make the most of their readerships by capturing their activity online, beyond the mere consumption of content. In other words, the larger platforms are trying to specify their features while the smaller platforms are trying to broaden them. After all, every social networking site wants to be profitable, and profits depend on two things: audience and activity.

In the grand tradition of technology causing problems that only technology creates, this doesn't make things easier.

Call it networking creep: if online social networking works best at its two extremes, does that mean we all need X number of specialized digital magazine communities in order to satisfy our particular digital craves? There's obviously a terminal limit, if for no other reason than there are only so many hours in a week to maintain one's spot in every community.

Of course none of this solves Levine's quandary. Then again, I'm a little bit less concerned with users who worry about religious friends and acquaintances — oh, that pesky rabbi's wife! — creeping into other social networking sites, and much more interested by the opposite scenario. Should religious networking sites make an effort to blockade non-religious users?

Put differently, who owns the right to define the community?



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