The other day I received a phone call from BBC Scotland - "have you read about FaceGloria - could you give us an interview?". Frantic googling and there I saw all the media hype about FaceGloria - a Brazilian Evangelical alternative to Facebook - Facebook without the sin. I checked on Google Trends to see if this was a major news story and noted a lot of press picking up the story first released by AFP and then by many other news agencies including most of the online newspapers, and the BBC:
My first reaction was that a sin free Facebook was probably a human-free Facebook. But this , site, set up by Atilla Barros in Brazil, really does seem to be suggesting that it wants to be like Facebook (same colour scheme, social interacting, friends, posts, photo folders, messaging) but without the nasty stuff on Facebook - no profanity (600 words are excluded), no nudity (no bikini shots), no homosexuality. The site has set up 20 morality guardians to patrol the site and remove anything they find that is inappropriate.
I joined. I was appalled at the technology. But I kind of see the idea. A simple way of connecting with like minded evangelical Christians. Perhaps not everyone's cup of tea but you can see how it works sociologically to bring together people with the same views, the same love for Jesus, the same desire to purify themselves from the world. It's a classic Christian holiness trait - separate yourself off from the unholy and you will be more holy yourself. I still have no friends, though.
As I stayed on the site, I was worried about a few things - where were the privacy settings? How could I exclude someone from viewing my profile? What if I was being pestered? You can see all the users and their profile pictures. But there is no CEOP button, nothing about guidelines, a FAQ for problems, nothing about an anti-bullying procedure. All those things that Facebook has set up to make Facebook a better place to be. In fact, if my kids asked whether I thought FaceGloria or Facebook was a better place to be, I'd go for Facebook any day.
That's not to say that Facebook doesn't have its problems. Someone in my friendship group decided to post an explicit picture the other day involving nudity and other content which I thought was obscene. I was rather shocked. I friend people who aren't Christians and so perhaps I am just a bit naive. But I complained to Facebook about the picture because I wouldn't have been happy for my kids to see it or to see it associated with my feed. Facebook replied to say that the picture did show nudity but it was within the Facebook guidelines. I unfriended the person who initially posted the picture - a slightly awkward thing to do but I saw no alternative.
But note that I was in control. I could adjust my feed, adjust my friendships, change what I saw from who. In other words, Facebook allows us to make our own safe space. And it has all the reporting we would want to see. It is not completely free of bullying, trolling, obscenity but you can control that pretty well. Well, I think you can.
So, I was asked in the interview, do you say don't go on FaceGloria? No, I replied. It's an interesting social media experiment, but it needs better technology, better funding, lots more security. At the moment, I think FaceGloria is a dangerous technology. To leave security to 20 moral guardians rather than to code and machines is crazy! Not to have proper safeguards against grooming, trolling and abuse is...well...bad. I daren't use the word I want to use there.
The bigger issue is whether we should be burying our heads in the digital sand in the first place. We are called not out of the world, but into the world, although remaining as resident aliens: not in the world but not of it (John 15:19, 1 Peter 2:11). But that idea of residents seems important. As does the idea of being salt and light to the world (Matt 5:13-16). Salt is only good if it engages with the world. Salt has no effect on other salt. Light is not needed in a bright room. Light shines in the darkness. So, as I suggest in the interview, evangelical Christians have long argued that engagement with the world is better than withdrawal from it.
I argued in the piece - let's make Facebook a better, richer, nicer place by our Christian presence rather than hiving off into niche worlds, sinless echo chambers, holy huddles.
Social media sites are places for interaction, friendships, all the busyness of everyday life to be shared and to bring joy to those reading, sharing, befriending. That means that social media is not just something we consume but a place for us to work at making it a better place for everyone else.
While researching I was also directed to look at UmmaLand - an Islamic social networking site which is seen as another, better, place to avoid gossiping, frivolousness, distraction from the core subject of being a better Muslim and a better citizen of the Islamic World (the Ummah). Now, Ummaland presents a pretty monolithic and conservative form of Islam which has no place for homosexuality, provides extra security options for women and promotes certain Imam who clearly don't present a liberal view of Islam.
The site's founder, Maruf Yusupov, originates from Uzbekistan but is now based in Denmark, however seems less concerned about doctrinal orthodoxy than he is on promoting a different perception of Muslim social action and concern. So, one of the first things you see on the site is the BE HELPFUL button - how can you help out with the project, how can you make your contribution. This is real social media which engages everyone in the task rather than doing it for you and allowing you to be a consumer of a product.
- Productivity: “It‘s not just about what we do; how we do it is important, too. We believe productivity enables the Ummah to live in a more efficient way, thereby permitting us to reclaim our dignity and integrity.”
- Charity: “While education and productivity relate to self-improvement, we’d also like to focus on charity, gathering donations for worthy local and global causes.”
- Action: “In contrast to other social networks that promote ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ only, we‘d like to change this attitude into something actionable. For example, if a masjid or local community needs support, we want to be able to visit and help out in person if we can.”
- Education: “We believe proper Islamic education is the solution to most of our daily challenges. That’s why we’re integrating Islamic education as the core feature of our network. We welcome all Islamic institutions to join us in this endeavor.”
I think there are some big issues with Ummaland as a social networking site and I am aware of the dangers of removing people from embedded, real-life teaching. But just as that removal can be part of a process of radicalisation, so too, a place like Ummaland which teaches Dawah (social action, mission, engagement) so powerfully can be a place of deradicalisation, a place to embed and enact the values of Islam in a really helpful and worldwide project.
If you asked me where the real example of positive social networking is taking place, in Facegloria or Ummaland, I'd have to say the latter any day.
What do you think? Leave a comment, please.