The New York Times has an interesting report on the brave new world Facebook is terraforming as we speak. After several years of exploring opportunities with faith communities around the world as an easy way to mobilize and organize church congregations, the world’s largest social media company went all in during the COVID-19 pandemic, smelling an opportunity among houses of worship that needed an easy way to connect digitally. Now, Facebook is ramping up their move into the religious sphere in a major way, and the NYT piece hints at some of the coming tensions. As the piece puts it, “Big Tech and religion are converging far beyond simply moving services to the internet. Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has done for political and social life.”
Reporter Elizabeth Dias spoke with Sam Collier, pastor of Hillsong Atlanta. He said that he and Facebook had met for months, working on a partnership that entailed things like exclusive service streaming rights and financial giving opportunities. The full details aren’t clear since Collier signed an NDA about the arrangement, but it’s clear that Facebook’s involvement with the church is aggressive. “They are teaching us, we are teaching them,” Collier told Dias. “Together we are discovering what the future of the church could be on Facebook.”
Earlier this summer, the company’s famed chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg hosted a faith summit with religious leaders to pitch them on working more closely with Facebook. “Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection,” she said. “Our hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well, or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith.”
The concerns are plenty. Privacy is a big one, since all social media companies sell private data to marketing firms and Facebook has been subject to numerous high profile data breaches. But there’s also issues of money and ownership. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) signed on to become a “faith partner” late last year, contractually agreeing that they would have no ownership of any tools they helped develop. Meanwhile, the Leaders of the Church of God in Christ are utilizing two Facebook tools: a feature where users can pay a monthly fee for exclusive perks like a message from the bishop, and a tool that allows people watching the service online to donate in real time. (The article notes that: “Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams.”)
The article astutely notes that there’s no involvement from Facebook that doesn’t shape faith communities at a fundamental level. We’ve already seen this with our friendships and human interactions, which have been warped in ways we’re still trying to understand by the digital age at large and social media in particular. Marshall McLuhan told us that “the medium is the message” — you can’t change the medium of a thing without fundamentally altering the message as well. So if the medium of the faith experience is shifting to Facebook, it’s worth asking what exactly would happen to the message in the transfer. That’s not a question Facebook is probably thinking about too hard, but faith leaders definitely should.
You can read the whole article here.