The kind of fame Facebook finds always brings its own surprising developments. For example: The Pope just joined. But elsewhere Muslim clerics are busy debating the merits and morals of the social 'net. Did Facebook just get religion?
As part of the Vatican's World Communications Day, the organization launched an app called "The Pope meets you on Facebook." Strictly speaking the Pope doesn't have a typical Facebook profile, and hence you can't poke him, or invite him to play Pirates vs Ninjas. But you can choose to send one of a number of "virtual postcards" with messages from the Pope and associated photos to one of your Facebook friends. Paul Tighe, secretary Vatican's Social Communications department—and who knew it had one of those?—notes, "We recognize that a church that does not communicate ceases to be a church." The Church also recently launched a new Web site www.pope2you.net.
Meanwhile it's precisely that issue of communication that's causing concerns for powerful Muslims in Iran and Indonesia. Last week a group of Indonesian imams met to discuss the issues they think Facebook, and social sites like it, are causing for its members: Specifically they think the ease of communication could encourage flirtation and extramarital affairs. As a result, they're considering a ruling to steer behavior on the site—the suggestion is that they'd still be allowed to be members, but should comport themselves according to relevant edicts. Since Facebook is the number one most popular Web site in Indonesia, above even Google, this is major news for the country.
Iran's Islamic rulers have taken an even more extreme step, and blocked access to Facebook totally, ahead of a June 12th's presidential election. "Moral" concerns may be at the top of the list, but it's easy to argue that Facebook is a forum for public and private debate that is outside of the government's control. Some more specific suggestions are that the moderate candidates in the election have a large bloc of younger followers—which is Facebook's main demographic. One of those candidates, Mehdi Karoubi, even called a press conference to complain about the blocking, and suggested that similar websites should be allowed during "such a sensitive political period," before noting specifically "filtering Facebook just days before the election was wrong."
So has Facebook gotten religion? Well, yes—kind of. What's happening is basically a high-speed version of the way religion has moved into each new medium, from the days of print onwards, and tried to leverage it to drive ethical, social and political agendas.
But today these moves leave room for amusement: The Vatican's Facebook app seems gently kitsch, and Indonesia's suggestion seems naive—after all, you can also use Facebook to check out any number of scantily-clad people, which is far beyond simple flirting. But that's exactly what's so interesting in this networked new-media revolution. Unlike examples from history, the churches actually aren't in a position to steer how their members use new media.