Social Media Privacy – new controls good news for churches

The arrival of Google + has been good news for churches who face a range of delicate issues presented by social media. Since Google announced the security features allowing selective broadcast of updates to defined groups, you can bet your bottom dollar that developers at Facebook were burning the midnight oil rushing out similar features to stem the hemorrhaging of users which began with the launching of Google+ which is just in its testing phase and still out of reach of the average user. Facebook have announced a dramatic overhaul of security options and the result is good for your average user and especially social media in the church context.

Facebook Rage

One of the key problems with Facebook from the start has been in the inability to distinguish different level of friends.  Your friends can include anyone from a random add on to your mother.  Therefore a status update doesn’t discriminate between people you are really close to or those whose friend request you approved simply because you didn’t want to offend. Another key frustration for users  has been the tendency of Facebook to wait until they are dragged kicking and screaming to the edge before they respond to privacy concerns and change something. If Facebook was a building that caught fire you would never survive, because once inside you cannot find the exit door.  Trying to change anything requires a diploma level understanding of how to navigate through layers of settings.  Whatever changes they make they hide behind a clunky interface.  It’s no wonder that there are so many viral hoax updates about the evils of Facebook.  They’ve brought much of the criticism and paranoia upon themselves by being poor corporate citizens.  Unless Facebook wake up and smell the coffee they may well be the next MySpace.

People are well versed in the use of social media primarily thanks to Facebook.  Now that they are conversant they will readily change to a better solution if enough others do.  It won;t take long to reach that tipping point for Google + if Facebook continues to be so cavalier and recalcitrant.  Now that the rant part of this post is over lets examine some changes and some benefits.

New Changes To Facebook Privacy Settings

Selective Posting – Instead of storing privacy options away in a corner, users will soon be able to know straight away who sees the content they put on the site. Additionally, users will be able to choose which friends view their posts and customise their audience by groups and lists of friends. This is a direct response to the Google + concept of ‘circles’, which is easy to understand and which attracted a lot of new users (testers).

‘Circles’ are the key element of Google+: a focus on targeted sharing within subsets of your social group, which are what Google calls Circles. Circles are simply small groups of people that you can share to, each with names like friends, family, classmates and co-workers.

We easily understand the people we know in differing circles of association and intimacy.  The new “profile as” option on Facebook will also let users preview what their profile looks like to other people. This provides some nifty new possibilities just in case you aren’t sure that you’ve covered all your bases in locking down your settings. By clicking the “view profile as” link and typing in the name of your boss for example, you will be able to see what your profile looks like to your employer.  This will save many careers!  This is especially helpful to youth leaders and other leaders within a church context when it comes to knowing what others can see.

Photo Sharing – In a worrying development for privacy you will no longer need to be friends with someone to tag them in photos. Users will be able to tag people, places, brands and bands without ever having to join a group or befriend them. This potential intrusion of privacy is offset by the ability of users to be given more control when they are tagged in a photo by someone else, and can approve or reject the tag before the photo is displayed on their profile. The sharing of photos in a church environment (particularly youth groups) raises a lot of prickly issues.  Every person should have the right to be able to accent to a picture of themselves being tagged (or even posted).

Existing Issues For Church Social Media

The biggest potential issue facing churches with social media is in the area of leaders connecting with youth or children on social media, mostly Facebook.  Nobody should be connecting with kids on Facebook anyway because there is a lower age limit of 13.  The safest policy for churches is not to allow youth leaders to have youth group members as ‘Facebook friends’.  Although the new privacy features of both Google + and Facebook allow more discretion with posting, it doesn’t change the fundamental problems associated with inappropriate contact. It is best for a youth group to set up a company style page rather than a normal Facebook account, or to create a closed or secret group within which group communication can happen without people being one each others friends list.

The legacy of abuse of minors within churches is so established now that the church faces a long period of time when we simply need to lock things down and try and create as safe an environment as possible where abusive people will find it hard to take advantage rather than the opposite which has been the case.  Abusive people cash in on the default position of churches to be overly trusting.

How Features Can Benefit Evangelistic Use Of Social Media

Christians face a number of key decisions which need to be made about how they interact on social media:

  • Who is my primary audience?
  • What will my typical content be?
  • What do I want to reflect?
  • Do I want to use this as an avenue of witness?
  • Is this a compartmentalized activity that has no relation to my faith?
  • Will my online persona contradict my faith values?
  • Will my online content draw people to the faith or confirm their non allegiance to Jesus?

A Christian’s online persona is an integral part of their witness to the world.  Never before in history have we have the powerful tools of communication and connection that we have now.  Some believers haven’t really made the intentional decision to use the way they interact online as a key part of their daily witness.  For those that have, they may well have known the frustration at the inability to target different content to a particular audience.  The new features make contextualization possible. For example, there may be content I wish to post of a distinctly Christian or ecclesiastical nature which would not interest (or even confuse) my friends who have no faith.  There may be content I wish to post of a political nature of interest to those friends of mine who bother about such matters – and now I don’t have to bore to tears all those (for the most part) who don’t. I may want to communicate something which has more meaning for people who do not have faith and choose to target them rather than everyone. (Sometimes its best to keep some of my Christian friends out of the comments section when I am engaged in a friendly debate with someone on an ethical or spiritual issue.  Some Christians can tend to barge into conversations of that nature and shut down the conversation by opening up from the hip in an undiscerning way. Some of my Christian mates are best kept away from my non Christian mates, and others are a helpful addition.

The new features (which will no doubt be even more enhanced in the months to come) simply allow a more targeted and intentional way of using social media in being a witness to the world around.  Hopefully our ‘friends’ will respond positively with the ongoing narrative which we are building up each day as we post more content and continue to be a ‘living letter’. For many people, the only meaningful contact they may have with a person of faith may well be on social media and it provides a glimpse inside a life of faith.

I trust that the things about my church and faith that I celebrate, provide a valuable insight which often may upset false perceptions and negative stereotypes.  My hope is that my online persona does not reinforce negative stereotypes and simply confirm to my friends that Christianity is not an option.