Monday, January 25, 2010

Social Networking

My website reviews for Intercom for February were based on my favourite hobby horse of the moment, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Bebo. Many people (Ryan Tubridy I'm looking at you) think that they're the the detriment of modern society and the root cause of all the world's problems from family breakdown to poor spelling. I managed to get most of the rant out in the 400 words allocated to the website reviews but I've reprinted a longer version here with the generous permission of my most wonderful editor, Francis.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph in August 2009, the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols voiced his concerns that social networking websites such as Facebook and Bebo encourage teenagers to build “transient relationships” that can leave them traumatised and even suicidal if they collapse. Nichols said that the sites encouraged young people to put too much emphasis on the number of friends they had rather than on the quality of their relationships. His comments follow an inquest into the death of 15-year-old Megan Gillan, from Macclesfield, England, who took a fatal overdose after being bullied on the social networking site Bebo. Nichols claimed that the Internet and mobile phones were “dehumanising” community life, and relationships had been weakened by the decline in face-to-face meetings.

“I think there's a worry that an excessive use or an almost exclusive use of text and emails means that as a society we're losing some of the ability to build interpersonal communication that's necessary for living together and building a community.”

Does the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales have a point or is his view of social networking sites outdated? A social network focuses on building online communities of people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others. The websites normally provide a variety of ways for users to interact, such as email and instant messaging. As a subscriber and regular user of several social networking websites, I have found that using them actually helps me keep in touch with friends both from the past and to keep in touch with new people I meet either through work or socially. At a recent party, my group of friends laughed as we realised we did not have to spend time catching up on what had happened to us since we had last met as we can easily keep tabs on each others lives through out Facebook accounts. Reaching out to a friend now can be done instantly and a short message can brighten up a day and remind someone that you are thinking of them. Naturally this system is open to abuse, especially in the perilous social world of a teenager. Bullying started in the real, not virtual world and just as we have to teach out children the social skills and self confidence to face the taunts that they might face in every day human interactions, we need to do the same with online activity.

At the moment social networking sites that cater to a majority of Catholic users are small in number, but growing daily in their users and the resources that each site offers. There are five clear leaders in this area:

Flocknote caters for two types of users. If you are a Church or community leader the site facilitates the sending notes to the entire congregation or just a specific group without the frustrating job of managing multiple mailing lists by email. As a member of the site, you can get the latest news and information from the groups (e.g. Liturgy, PPC, Readers of the Word) you wish to subscribe to; through the website, email, text messages, and more.
The Catholic Community website is helpful if you run a group, organization or parish as this community enables to promote your aims as well as your news and events. When people link to your group you can not only keep them up to date, but they can meet other people who share a passion for your work. One of the fastest growing elements of the site is the section on sharing your skills and opportunities for volunteer work.
While 4marks is still a small community, the website grows daily and if you run a group, organization or parish you can use this community to promote your aims or your news and events. The website has weekly trivia, daily lessons, information on the Saints, and other interactive features as well as the usual platform for establishing networking with other Catholics. The site is very family friendly and very heavily moderated so that you can be guaranteed that the content is suitable for all ages.
This website MyCatholicVillage is quite small in terms of the amount of registered users it has but it is relatively new and the number grows quite rapidly. The majority of registered users are based in the US but this is slowly expanding. One of the benefits about the site is that it follows the outline of social networking sites such as MySpace which mean that it is very user friendly and efficient.

Xt3 which stands for Christ in the third millennium was launched for World Youth Day in Australia in July 2008. Since then, more than 35,000 people from 170 countries have signed up to the site. I feel the jury is still out on the "coolness" of a site that has as it's tag line "So good even the Pope uses it". It has the functionalities of the most common social networks, but with a broad resource base of the latest media that relates to the Catholic faith. Xt3 is a site to help you connect with others interested in the Catholic faith. The site is open to everyone, not just Catholics and provides a good list of Internet resources, a prayer wall and daily updates on the Vatican. One negative about the site is that it makes quite a song and dance about inputting your religious “status” in order that your correct ecclesial title can be used. This leaves lay users as myself, feeling as if the site offers a hierarchical structure, perhaps in the virtual Catholic community such vestiges of formality should not be given such emphasis.

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