“What are your religious beliefs?”

Events of April 2011 sparked much controversy as the French government declared the public wearing of niqabs and burqas illegal for the first time. The response to this was defiance by many in France who define themselves as Muslim (and also many who do not), with immediate protests taking to the streets in the capital and beyond. The story progressed this week with the first fines being handed out to those found continuing to wear the burqa in public. One such protestor called her actions as “freely expressing their religious beliefs”. This event displays that within the realms of the largely secular streets of Europe, the enactment of people’s personal religious identity is still vital and is sometimes played out in a very public way.

While religious identity is played out on the streets of France, every day, in a small box hidden away in ‘philosophy’, Facebook users are requested to make the decision whether to publicly state their ‘religion’ in their Facebook profile. This is a pertinent question as we live in an age where there is increasing “secularity…in terms of public spaces…(which)…have been allegedly emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality” (Taylor 2007:4). This is interesting as the religion box represents a very public space where people are asked to make a deep and essential decision of how to define their religious and spiritual beliefs.

Debate surrounding the role the spiritual plays in public life within new media forms is far from new. The controversy is rooted in the fears people feel about the shallow and disruptive nature of new technology forms before they are normalised within a society. Enzenberger stated that “The new media are oriented towards action, not contemplation; towards the present, not tradition.” (2003:265). The fast, responsive rather than reflective nature of online discourse has been criticised for not naturally lending itself for many to the deep, spiritual nature of the traditional notion of religious contemplation. This is displayed in debate surrounding the option to receive communion online or the questions surrounding the authenticity of taking a ‘cyberpilgramage’ (Hill-Smith, 2011), succinctly discussed below by Connie Hill-Smith. Indeed, the questions are raised by religious figureheads around the world. Mark Oestricter, an evangelical Christian leader, sees connections online as ‘superficial’, while “unplugging” was seen as a necessary “spiritual journey” for US pastor Anne Jackson.

Peter Berger, a well know Austrian sociologist, claimed in his study The Homeless Mind that modernity has lead to the ‘privatisation’ of religion where ‘religion…has become largely privatised, with its…structure from society as a whole to much smaller groups of confirmatory individuals’ (1973:186). Berger has since claimed that this is not wholly possible, however more recent studies applied to the media have echoed this statement.

“All forms of mass media are theorized to reflect the move toward greater secularization, presenting a predominantly secular image of the world we live within. Subsequently, strong religious affiliation will be negatively related to all forms of mass media use because a vast majority of media content does not reflect traditional religious values” (Armfield & Holbert, 2003:130)

This study was, however, conducted in 2003 and since then there has been a rise of cross-platform religious Internet use as the Internet is ‘normalised’ as a communication tool in society. What I would like to ask is are people using Facebook and social networking platforms to reconnect with ‘society as a whole’ or is religion being left out of this public space and therefore reserved for private, ‘smaller groups’? I feel by studying how the ‘public’ is being enacted, initially looking at the ‘religion’ field and then extending it to specialist, religious social networking, one can draw conclusions about whether the Internet is seeing to be a forum which ‘reflect(s) traditional religious values’.

To do this I want to initially be able to look at if people are openly identifying their ‘religious beliefs’ on their Facebook profile, the central marker of ones identity on the platform. I hope to be able to draw conclusions about the compatibility people see with generic social networking sites and what they see as their most private beliefs. The originality of this research method was to try and use this one aspect of Facebook to tackle larger ideas of the public role the Internet plays in religious communities. I then wish to look at where religion is being enacted in the public realm on Facebook by studying the uptake and use of social pages and whether these are active forums or not. Finally, I wish to investigate what other religious platforms people are using in the social networking realm and whether these are being seen as attractive alternatives as offering the ‘private’ in the ‘public’ realm of the internet.

To begin looking at how it is possible to address studying the ‘religion’ box quantitatively, I attempted to use Gephi to analyse how my 429 Facebook friends have represented themselves in their ‘religion’ field on Facebook. This proved instantly problematic as Gephi could not access this information due to the restrictive privacy settings put in place by Facebook. In response to this I sampled the first 100 Facebook users in my friends list alphabetically, looking at how they respond to the religion field. In this survey I found 75 left the section empty, 12 filled in disruptive answers such as ‘pineapple’ and ‘jedi’, 6 called themselves an ‘Athiest’, amongst the remaining responses only 2 Christians, 1 Catholic and 1 Hindu represented themselves.

This small sample suggests that the enactment of religious identity is not generally considered worthy of such a small, limited and public space and is rather something that should be reserved for more serious, human or face-to-face enactment. It could also be argued that many see it as too personal and should be information only shared with their most intimate of friends. This fits in the model of the UK secular society where religion is generally left to the ‘personal’. It is, however, important to understand the limitations of this small, manual sampling method. The sample is restricted to only my 429 friends, a set of data which is limited in being largely consisting of Facebook users aged between 18 and 27, educated and located mainly in southern England and around Europe (stats gathered using Socialistics Facebook app).The method was also very time consuming and lends itself to human error.

While people in one student’s network reveals little about religious enactment and identity online in a broader sense, studying such a focused element such as the responses in the one ‘religion’ box does offer interesting information on particular social groups in the way that section of society view religion’s compatibility with this public space. In order to be able to draw wider conclusions on people’s reactions in presenting their religion, it is necessary to sample a much larger cross section of society. Due to the global nature of Facebook discourse, it would be desirable to sample from a range of international states. Indeed, in secular Europe, religion is reserved for the private whilst in many countries around the world, religion is tied in much more closely with the state and public life and hence plays out in a much more public way. It would be illuminating to see if this enacts itself online. Indeed, this could be achieved by looking into nationality, age and gender and to study see how these factors influence the use of the religion box. I feel an option would be to use Facebook pages of the major religions such as ‘The Bible’ and ‘ILoveAllah’ to leave questions to its members over their use of the Facebook box.

There has been some previous research of religion on Facebook which may offer some insight into the subject and shows the relevance of studying this aspect of the Facebook profile in more detail. There is indeed no lack of public online discourse surrounding religion on Facebook. Firstly a study in 2009 showed that of the 250 million users on Facebook, 150 million did choose to disclose a ‘religion’ in their profile, contradicting my restrictive sample and showing the worth of sampling the religion box on an international basis. Furthermore, a second, more recent study, has shown that while religious pages on Facebook are not the most populous in users, they do top the global charts in terms of the most interactions happening within a given page on a daily basis. The most pages which contained the most daily interactions between users were ‘Jesus Daily’ and ‘The Bible’, suggesting that serious religious debate and interaction is actually happening on Facebook. This is not restricted to Christian debate, indeed, the page ILoveAllah.com involved over 373 000 interaction in April 2011 and has over 6 000 000 users and a this is a rising number. On these pages, participants, amongst other actions, share photos, make religious statements and discuss videos and media. So this shows that there are many on Facebook who are engaged in their religion and happy to display the debate publicly. This suggests complexity of the way religion is enacted on Facebook, as the Internet is demystified and normalised in society, it becomes a more public space for religious enactment.

To move this study away from the much debated Facebook platform, it is important to study where else religion is being enacted in social networking and what implications this has. Indeed, some see the Facebook platform as lacking the critical and religious focus that is required to enact ones religious identity online and so turn to contained religious focus social networking sites such as Xianz.com. The popularity of such services confirmed through the plethora of options available to people wishing to use social networking within a range of religions. Indeed, the rise of Ikhwanbook.com has been studied by Karim Tartoussieh who sees this Muslim social networking platform set up by the Muslim Brotherhood as being seen by its users as a space away from the ‘Islamaphobic prejudice on the part of the management of Facebook’ and a space for Islam related ‘ideas’ to circulate freely (2011:202). An interesting development of Ikhwanabook was to create a page on Facebook and so interrelating the ‘publicness’ of Facebook with the segmented nature of Ikhwanabook. This begins to ask questions about the sustainability of the ‘publicness’ of Facebook and a study of the uptake of these sites would be useful. If sites such as Ikwhwanabook raise in popularity then it may suggest that the private is being reinacted within the social networking sphere. They are creating ‘individual’ networks, reserved only for those who practice the specific religion. If one was to compare the public enactment of religion on profiles within these closed networks in relation to the trends in profiles on Facebook conclusions could be drawn about the publicness of Facebook as a platform.

An initial study, after setting up a profile on the Ikhwanabook platform, if that there is less emphasis on the ‘personal’ profile. You are not asked to disclose ‘unworthy’ likes and dislikes of films and music, photos are hidden away in a tab at the back of the profile and the emphasis is placed on the ‘shared’ thoughts with a personal blog being set as the first tab. Furthermore, all updates are placed in the shared central platform when you sign in. This shows that the space being created to encourage ‘public’ thoughts and developed discussion rather than ‘private’ inane and shallow conversations. This suggests that maybe instead of viewing that the communication online is in someway naturally ‘impoverished’, it can be structure in such a way to encourage worthy debate. While Guardian writer Mohamed El Dahshan criticises Ikhwanabook and other muslim social network platforms such as Muxlim for relatively low numbers and limited ‘regional’ scope, I ask is he missing the point and indeed is this the future of social networking? Will there be one central ‘general’ network and then many specialist sites offering small moderated ‘villages’ within the global city?

Now that I have displayed, albeit briefly, the complexity of the use of Facebook within religious beliefs, I return to the proposed methodology of the wider investigation. By showing the plethora of users that are actually choosing to leave the religion profile box empty but still enacting their religion, it confirms that many do not see the space as a worthy vehicle for defining their beliefs. To study this in more depth I propose a more qualitative research method, using each large Facebook religious page for each major religion to pose the question of whether the participants of that group do or do not display their religious preference on their Facebook profile page and why they make this decision. In returning the data with their religion (if any) and their area of residence, then one could start to investigate trends in how public their religious beliefs are online and be able to map trends within borders and religion.

This should be a vital research pool in answering questions of if people view religion as being a shared, public experience in the online social sphere or if it more closely reflects the ‘private’, segregated nature of how religion is enacted in Europe today. Similarly will nations that have a more public religious life, such as the USA and, for instance, Malaysia, share the same publicness on their profiles? Finally, by mapping the uptake of religious specialist social networking sites and investigating the ‘publicness’ of their sites, one can draw conclusions over the general wish to keep religion out of the socially diverse zone of Facebook and how it may exist more pervasively as social communication is being articulated in the ‘private’ specialist social networks.


Armfield, G. & Holbert, R. L. (2003). The Relationship between Religiosity and Internet Use. Journal of Media and Religion, 2(3), 129-144.

Berger, Peter (1973) ‘The Homeless Mind’ Vintage Books: New York

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus, ‘Constituents of a Theory of the Media’, in The New Media Theory Reader, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Monfort (MIT Press:USA 2003), pp. 259- 276.

Hill-Smith, Connie (2011) ‘Cyberpilgrimage: The (Virtual) Reality of Online Pilgrimage Experience’ in Religion Compass, Volume 5, Issue 6 (Blackwell Publishing:UK , June 2011) pp. 271–275

Tartoussieh, Karim (2011): Virtual citizenship: Islam, culture, and politics in the digital age, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 17:2, 198-208

Taylor, Charles (2007) A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, USA


Review of Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age

It is often the narcissistic tendencies of academics which alienates a much wider potential readership of their work. A use of language and content that predicates a certain level of cultural capital renders many articles inaccessible to a number of those who may of found their work illuminating. A second tendency that can turn people off academic work is a continual blind belief in the ‘truth’ of what they are writing. Unable to see beyond their findings, they take much joy in deriding the opinions of others, and hammering home their views.

While these qualities are often required in academic work, it is in continually avoiding both of these pitfalls that makes Nancy Baym’s study of human connections in the modern digital sphere such a joy to read. Baym diverts from both painting an apocalyptic image of the end of ‘real’ communication and conversely avoids presenting digital communications as a new democratising, world changing force, as many academics have done. Instead, this book is thoughtful, moderate and draws sensible conclusions about the state of personal communication in the modern day. She stays in the ‘everyday’ in her book, not addressing questions of politics and business but instead roots her study in ‘personal relationships’ and the changes digital media has offered to ‘relational life’ (2010:2).

‘Digital media aren’t saving us or ruining us. They aren’t reinventing us. But they are changing the ways we relate to others and ourselves in countless, pervasive ways’ (2010:153)

This quote neatly sums up Baym’s attitude to digital media and the content of this study. From chapter to chapter Baym myth busts many claims made by academics and digital commentators since the advent of the Internet while offering developed conclusions as to how she feels interaction has developed in the ‘digital age’.

In the opening chapter she argues strongly not to see digital communications as a single homogenous mass and feels to accurately study media one must place it strongly in context of what device one is using to communicate and to look at who is using it.  This section proved particularly useful for those studying the concept of the ‘digital divide’. She goes beyond addressing this much-discussed concept in terms of political participation and career advancement and instead looks at it in terms of ‘interpersonal connections’ (2010:18). She pushes the study of the digital divide beyond those that do or do not have access to the Internet and instead looks at how use of the Internet varies immensely within each given region and social group. She also shows that digital technology is appropriated and facilitated in varying ways, especially within nations who are traditionally seen to be on the right side of the ‘digital divide’.

She continues to address many anxieties humans have over the way ‘machines changes us’ (2010:24). Baym investigates a range of claims made by technological determinism theorists that digital communication is damaging humans by (amongst other affects) making us dumber, making conversation shallow, ruining home life and corrupting and endangering our children. She attacks these claims by ‘demystifying’ new media and placing the debate in the context of developing technologies over the years, showing how anxieties about ‘new media’ on society is nothing ‘new’ at all. She makes a strong case for the perspective of ‘social shaping’ in this debate and fixes many of her arguments in this school of thought. She argues that both technology and society shape the use of communication tools as they shift from being ‘fringe’ to ‘everyday objects’, a process which Baym calls ‘domestication’ (2010:45). In this context she believes that while a section of society adapts to the use of a given technology it is most visible and abrasive for some and hence widely debated. This section could prove a useful framework for anyone wishing to study a more social aspect of digital communication over the coming year.

Chapter 3 affords an insight into the claims that quality of communication online is a much lower than face-to-face communication. Instead of blindly comparing the two, Baym studies online mediated communication as fixed in society and richly steeped in ‘cultural forces’ (2010:71). She shows how gender, nationality, culture and the actual technology in use mix together as the user finds creative ways to interact online. She believes that there is richness and complexity in the way communication is performed in the digital sphere. While her views were entirely sensible, she derides the fact that ‘cultural identity’ has not been discussed in depth by academics in relation to new media. I found the short following section frustrating as I felt she missed the opportunity to improve upon this supposed paucity in academia.

The second half of this book looks at identity formation and the ability of the Internet to work as a base to forge meaningful relationships, both one-to-one and in groups. The most appealing feature of this section and also the study in general was the personal nature of it. At times verging on autobiographical, she talks about her own experiences and encounters to introduce the way relationships develop using digital media. She often uses her pupils and their experiences as examples through the book and the description of how her pupil, Tom, managed to forge a marriage from online communication formed a useful starting block for this section. Furthermore, one cannot avoid being enchanted by Baym’s relationship with a Swedish musician she met online. By using these encounters as an anchor to discuss the ability of digital communication to forge meaningful and long lasting relationships, Baym made the section relevant and absorbing. While many academics deride the Internet’s ability to build relationships, Baym uses new studies to show the positive potential of the Internet in that 70-75% of online relationships still exist after two years in the ‘real world’ (2010:133). Despite this unusual approach, Baym always manages to remain relevant and academic.

This book may not be suitable for a researcher looking to delve into the details of a particular nuance of digital communication but it does offer a wonderful overview of the subject, especially in the focus on the ‘everyday’. It is indeed a valuable starting point for someone seeking to learn about the range of arguments concerning the subject and the major academics who have lead these debates over the last forty years. It definitely is an asset that her conclusions generally fall somewhere in the middle of an academic debate on a given issue. Any media student, especially those looking to ignite an interest in the subject, could make a much worse decision than beginning here.


Reference: Baym, Nancy (2010) Personal Connections in a Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press

‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.’ (Barlow, 1996)

David Cameron’s reaction to the popular uprising that took place across the United Kingdom through August 2011 has further damaged his nations claim to moral authority on the international circus.

Through calling for tougher than usual sentences for rioters, the British Prime Minister instigated a policy which not only interferes with the British judicial system but has also resulted in unusually long jail sentences for petty crimes committed during the riots. Much discussed cases include a university student being jailed for six months for stealing a pack of bottled water and a pair of youths facing four years in jail for setting up a fake ‘riot’ as an event on Facebook. Sentences such as these are unprecedented in recent British history.

Such a severe backlash has cut Cameron into the mould of the very world leaders he denounced and helped topple during the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa over the preceding months. While Gaddafi passed off the revolutionaries in Libya as “rats and mercenaries“, Cameron similarly described those who took to the streets in anger at the state of government, available opportunities and social exclusion (amongst a complex web of other reasons) as merely thieves and vandals. These are surely the words and actions of a leader under pressure choosing to assert authority over his people.

While the British PM crushed those who dared to ‘loot’ against him in the British courts, his scramble to assert power also crossed into the digital sphere, adding himself to a long queue of world leaders in announcing an ambition to censor internet use.

“When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.” (David Cameron, 11/08/2011)

As a British citizen with a blind belief in the notion of ‘freedom of speech’ I immediately reacted with horror at any attempt to censor online debate. It is not so much the idea that one can use censorship to stop ‘violence…and criminality’, which may have sympathies amongst many in the UK, but more specifically ‘disorder’. How does one define ‘plotting’ disorder? This raises questions about how far this could be abused by the government. Will people be able to use the Internet for anti-government debate or to organise peaceful protest without worrying about the loss of social media privileges? There has already been a plethora of argument surrounding power abuse of the terror laws since 9/11. Much discourse has appeared online which has echoes these concerns. Indeed, Axel Bruns refered to Cameron’s statement as a moment of ‘headdesking’ which he defines as:

‘what you do when somebody says or does something so stupid that your instant reaction is to smack your head on the surface of your desk, repeatedly.’ (Bruns, 13/08/2011)

While Bruns articulately describes the contradictory and thoughtless nature of Cameron’s statement through his article, on further analysis one cannot restrict a call to restrict Internet usage to an act of thoughtless ‘headdesking’. Instead one has to read the speech as deeply rooted in political history and being a part of a current trend in global governance. The reaction of the ruling elite to technologies which they cannot control has always been severe. Indeed, Deibert and Rohozinski’s statement highlights a reason for this:

‘Throughout much of modern history, governments have wrestled with the tensions of the relentless drive to build new technologies and the unpredictable and often counterproductive consequences that flow from them for their power and authority’. (2010:3)

Indeed, new communication technologies have often resulted in leaders attempting to try and reassert control over the given sphere. While Stalin dismissed the instillation of the telephone system, describing it as the greatest “instrument of counterrevolution in our time” (Dizard, 1986:157), China have long adopted a policy of restricting and monitoring access to the internet and was indeed a policy used by many Middle-Eastern and North African governments to attempt to control the uprisings over the last year. Indeed, Libya and Egypt blocked Facebook and Twitter and since 2007 Syria has attempted to restrict online activism by banning access to Facebook. A policy they lifted but then reinforced to attempt to tackle protests that still rumble on in Syria’s cities.

While the countries mentioned above are not considered ‘western democracies’, the similarities between these examples and Cameron’s intentions when he called for a social media crackdown cannot be ignored. A recent event that took place in in San Francisco offers a useful snapshot of what could happen when communication censorship does takes place in a ‘western democracy’. In a similar scenario to the one which sparked the riots in north London, protesters took to the transport system in July 2011 to protest the shooting of a commuter by transport police in 2009. The decision was taken by the authorities to shut down wireless signals at stations where protests were taking place. This resulted in angry reprisals by some of those at the riots, both through the organisation of a second protest and a damaging hacking of the transport system’s website. This underlines that any attempt by the British Government to censor the online public sphere could realistically result in further uprisings both on the streets of Britain and through citizens aggressively reclaiming powers online.

After seeking advice and witnessing the angry backlash that Cameron’s comments created, it has been decided by the British home office that they will not seek extra powers to clampdown on social media for the time being. While the debate is far from over, this saga has displayed how digital freedom is becoming a basic ‘right’ in the opinion of global citizens. It is becoming as deeply rooted in the minds of the people that they should enjoy freedom of communication online as much as it is also in the minds of governments that these new technologies are posing a threat to their control.

Instead of trying to censor discourse within the digital public sphere and aligning himself with leaders in the world that he should not, Cameron should think positively and creatively towards modern communication and facilitate it to connect with those who took to the streets. The protesters used Twitter in a utopian democratic model to organise demonstrations and mobilise their political message. It is a shame that Cameron was unable to do the same in return. Maybe if Cameron adopted a revised ideological stand towards modern communication technology, he may go some way in avoiding alienating the very youth that will one day vote him out of number 10.


Barlow, John Perry. 1996. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. http://homes.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html

Bruns, Axel. 13 August 2011. Don’t Shoot the Instant Messenger http://theconversation.edu.au/dont-shoot-the-instant-messenger-david-camerons-social-media-shutdown-plan-wont-stop-uk-riots-2854

Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski. 2010. Beyong Denial: Introducing Next-Generation Information Access Controls in Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power Rights and Rule in Cyberspace. MIT Press

Dizard, Wilson. 1986. Mikhail Gorbachev’s Computer Challenge in The Washington Quaterly (Volume 9, Issue 2)

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