The Challenging Intersection Of Facebook And Religion - And The Blurring of Public and Private Lives

Facebook religionFacebook creates a challenge when it comes to religion (and politics) for many of us who also use Facebook in a professional / work environment. I fervently believe that a person's religious views are their own private matter. Each of us should have the right, in my opinion, to hold whatever beliefs we want and to practice (or not) our religious views in whatever manner we wish.

For us to work together in a business setting, our religious views shouldn't come into play. In an ideal world, your choice of religion (including "none") shouldn't bother me - and mine shouldn't bother you. In the real world, of course, where we are imperfect humans, these choices, when known, do very often have impacts.

The reality is that there isn't really any reason for us to know the religious views of the other people around us in a professional setting.

Of the hundreds of people I've worked with in the corporate world over the past 20 years, before the world of social media I probably knew the religious views of only a very few. Usually it only maybe came up in a side conversation - or it was someone who was very open, or who was very involved in church fundraisers, mission work or other public activities. In a few cases I have worked with people who were also ministers and were public about that.

But for probably 99% of the people, I have had no idea - and that's perfectly fine.

Facebook, though, makes this complicated.

The Twin Taboos

Way back in 2007, I wrote about how the twin taboos of politics and religion were entering the workplace because of the many people who were then signing up on Facebook and "friending" other people at work... and filling out the various form fields on their Facebook profile with their politicial and religious views. I wrote in part:

A strong "born again" Christian may see that the problems of the world are because people have not accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior and need to do so. A strong atheist may see that the problems of the world are because of the very existence of religion and that it is the root of all evil. These are deeply-ingrained views:

Politics and religion are part of our core identity that helps form who we define ourselves to be.

When that part of our identity is confronted by a polar opposite, we naturally react. Conservative Christians will have second thoughts about atheists, and atheists will have second thoughts about conservative Christians.

Five years later I still see that article as on target. You can substitute, of course, any religious affiliations in that part I quoted. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists... pick your religion. Even within a "religion", different sects may have widely divergent viewpoints and deep emotional attachments. (Ex. Protestants/Catholics in Northern Ireland or Sunnis/Shiites in the Middle East)

With the emergence of the TimeLine replacing the "Wall", Facebook moved those religion/politics fields a bit. You have to click an extra link to actually find them, so their prominence is much less... but the TimeLine also created new challenges I'll mention below.

The Blurring Of Our Lives

The underlying issue is that we are engaged in a grand experiment of blurring all the various facets of our lives together, something I wrote about in 2009, asking whether this improved co-worker connections or just felt creepy. We all have many different contexts in which we interact with people. We maintain various different personas for each of those contexts. How we interact with our co-workers in the office may be very different from how we interact with our friends at a local bar which may yet again be very different from how we interact with people at a church or in a community group. As I said then:

This is particularly true with the divide between our "work" and "personal" lives. Sure, we've always shared some parts of our personal life inside the walls of our "work" environment. We've talked to our co-workers... gathered at water coolers or in break rooms or cafeterias. Some people have shared very openly about what they are doing and we've learned much about their overall personality. Others have remained very private and shared virtually nothing. To some degree, we all have a facade that we construct that is how we appear to our co-workers.

Yet the fundamental problem is this:

We have ONE Facebook profile.

All of those different people see one common Facebook profile. (Similarly they see one common Twitter stream.) And so when we write about religious issues or our religious views, or when we "share" images or content from our church into our NewsFeed, all our "friends" see the info.

There are more subtle, ways, too. When a friend posts a set of photos from a recent church service, I now learn of his affiliation. Or when another friend "checks in" at their church, I learn of her religious views.

Interestingly, the Google+ social network tries to solve this by letting you set up many different "circles" and then sharing information only out with certain circles. While a great idea in theory, choosing the circles with which you wants to share info adds time to a posting that most people don't seem to have... pretty much everything I see posted to Google+ seems to go to all of someone's circles and often even is posted as "Public" for all to see.

I asked in that 2009 post these questions:

What if the person sharing the "revealing" information is a co-worker? Do we understand yet how (or if) this changes our relationships? Do I gain more respect learning of a serious childhood illness now overcome? Do I lose respect for that co-worker when I learn of the drunken binges they go on each month? What if I don't like their politics or religion? Does any of this change the way I interact with the person? On one level, how can it not change my views of that person? - but can I/we move beyond that?

Have our "culture" and "conventions" caught up with the degree of information our tools now let us share?

Where is the line between information we share with co-workers and our "personal" lives? Is there even a line? Or is the very concept of such a line just a quaint anachronism of another era?

Three years later I'm not sure we're any farther along in answering those questions. Perhaps we will not be for many years to come.

"Frictionless Sharing"

In fact, in the last couple of years Facebook has made this even more complicated by removing the "friction" from sharing information... in other words, they have started sharing information about you without you being involved.

The classic case of this is sharing when you "Like" a page. Click the "Like" button on a page, such as that of your church, and... ta da... that will show up in the NewsFeed of many of your friends - or the "Ticker" running in the upper right corner of their Facebook window in a regular web browser.

Similarly, if you "Like" or comment on an item on your church's web page, that action, too, goes out into your newsfeed.

And if you've linked any location-based applications into Facebook, like FourSquare, that activity goes out into your NewsFeed:

Foursquare

The end result is that from all sorts of angles you wind up passing information about your religious views and activities out into your Facebook friends - sometimes consciously through postings, check-ins, etc.; and sometimes more inadvertently "leaking" through likes, comments, etc.

The Professional Challenge

The challenge, as noted earlier, is that if you use Facebook and connect with people from your work, sharing your religious (or political) views can potentially impact those relationships. We certainly saw this in the most recent U.S. election, where many people posted (or shared info/images) very passionately related to either the Obama or Romney campaigns. Those posts, at least the more venomous of them, may have caused some people to block others... or to unfriend them... or to simply lose some degree of respect for others.

This is particularly a challenge, too, if you are a "public" face of a company or organization. Whether you are an executive, a spokesperson or even just someone writing online for a company or organization, you become connected to that entity. Now if you are also sharing your religious views in ways that are easy to find, it could become problematic - do you wish to potentially alienate some % of your potential customers?

Moving it to a global scale, there are many parts of the world where religion plays a much larger role than others. Given the current conflict in Gaza, how well will parties from the other religion be received? If you interact with people on a global scale, you may need to have an even more heightened awareness of cultural sensitivities around religion.

Now let's be honest, though, and note that MANY (most?) work connections on Facebook may not even notice or remotely care about your religious views. "Meh, whatever..." is a commmon enough view. Particularly here in North America or in western Europe where the strength of religious concerns in society is nowhere near what it once was.

But what if someone who does care about your religious viewpoint happens to be your company's largest customer? Or your manager? Or your employee? Or CEO? Are you willing to take that risk?

Splitting Your Personality

In reaction to all of this, some people use multiple Facebook accounts. I have friends who have one Facebook account that they use for all their professional/work "friends" - and a completely separate Facebook account that they use for their close friends and perhaps family. One Facebook account is their "work persona" while the other is their more open and candid persona.

While this works, it does require a rigorous degree of discipline. You have to make sure you are in the right account before posting. On a mobile device, where I'm often posting to Facebook, this may require using separate apps for each account. For instance, one friend uses the Facebook app on an iPhone for his "work" account and the Hootsuite app for his "personal" account.

It can be done... but my worry, and the reason I don't do it myself (yet, anyway), is that it seems FAR too easy to mess up. Forget which window or app you are in and... BOOM... that more private post gets seen by all your work colleagues.

Oops.

The Counterpoint

The counter-argument to what I made above is that by being open and talking about your religious views (or at least not suppressing them) is that you may find new opportunities and connections. Rather than finding a percentage of people alienated by your views (or perhaps in addition to that %) you may find a % of people who actually embrace your religious views. Work connections may come forward with the information that they, too, share your views. Or they may be curious and want to know more. A learning experience may emerge that may lead to greater understanding.

Others with whom I've had discussions along these lines in the past have pointed out that by sharing, even if only through Likes or comments (i.e. nothing direct like posts), you are allowing yourself to be "whole" and true - that you are thereby giving yourself the permission to be who you really are both online and offline. Others have argued that if someone is not willing to work with you due to your religion, do you really want to be working with them?

Another group contends that the "Millenials" and others entering the work force today just expect that sharing of this kind of information will occur... and they are just going ahead and sharing it all, while we of the older crowd are writing over-analyzing articles like this one.

All good points, certainly, although I would note that in work contexts we don't often get the luxury to choose who we will work with as customers, co-workers, partners or vendors. Sometimes we do - often we don't.

What To Do?

I don't know.

I struggle with this myself. I've been online for over 25 years, since the mid-1980's, and have been writing prolifically since around 2000. Yet in all those many years of writing, tweeting, podcasting, etc., I don't know that you could find many, if any, references to my religious views in any of my writing. Ditto with political views, although I will admit to being a bit more forthcoming on that front in this past election within the walls of Facebook.

I don't believe either of those viewpoints should have any role in my current professional and work personas.

Yet I'm a pretty hardcore political news junkie (living in New Hampshire it is hard NOT to be!) and have had a lifelong passionate interest in religion and spirituality. Offline, I'm active in my local church, yet I don't bring any of that activity online - and I do struggle with that.  On a simple level, I would like to "Like" my church's Facebook page... but in doing so I start crossing that divide and blurring my own lines.

I have had any number of colleagues who are very open about what they believe and what their religious views are.  I've had many, many more who have kept that information to themselves.

As we continue this experiment in merging our lives together, this kind of information sharing will become increasingly unavoidable. Unless, of course, you choose simply to not participate, but even that will become harder as more of more of our communication moves online and into "the cloud."

There is certainly the potential that this increased sharing can lead to more connectedness between people and better communication and understanding... yet the potential is also there for increased division and fragmentation.

In the words of Facebook, "It's Complicated."

If you've read this far, what do you do?

Do you keep your religious and/or political views offline and/or private? Or do you not worry about any of it and just let all of that information hang out there? Will this kind of sharing become more expected and "normal"?  How will it change how we interact with each other? Or will it not? How will our cultural norms evolve?


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