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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Faith on Facebook: In Search of the Killer Religion App

If any of you know me personally, you know that I am a borderline Facebook fanatic. A late adopter, I joined less than a year ago while reporting an article on the Virginia Tech massacre: The story was unfolding online, so I joined Facebook to look for sources. To my amazement, someone I knew friended me — it felt like voodoo: “How did they know I was on Facebook?” Then I discovered one of Facebook’s first and most vital utilities: its ability to trawl through your lists of contacts and connect you with people you know. I was soon messaging with long-lost friends, linking up with colleagues, republishing this blog, and browsing for stories ideas.

(Photo: One of these things is not like the other in Khan-el-Khalili market, Cairo, 1999)

When an editor at Knowledge@Wharton asked last month if I wanted to write an article about Scrabulous, the Facebook-based version of Scrabble, I was thrilled. Spending time on Facebook became part of my job. The first thing I learned was that all those cool features I saw on other people’s pages — the ability to compare book or movie tastes with friends; “walls” for posting videos — were not developed by Facebook at all, but by third-party developers, like the twenty-something brothers in Kolkata, India, who created Scrabulous and earn thousands every month from the advertising they host on the mega-popular game. Facebook opened the door to developers last May, about a month after I joined Facebook myself.

What I ended up writing about, then, was not so much the story of Scrabulous (which is facing a serious copyright challenge from Hasbro, the creator of Scrabble), but the story of how Facebook has spawned a new industry of applications. Because anyone with a modicum of web-development skills can launch an application, and the lucky few who create a hit — meaning their application goes viral and one or two million people use it through their Facebook pages — are sitting on an advertising-revenue gold mine.

One angle that interested me was how individual developers — clever, web-savvy folks with good ideas — were wiping the Facebook floor with established brands. For the article, for example, I spoke with Cliff Lerner, who a couple years earlier founded an online dating site. When Facebook opened up to third-party developers, Lerner and his team decided to spend a couple of weeks developing a Facebook dating application. On a recent day, one of their applications — Are you Interested? - had 600,000 daily active users (meaning, people who actually use the application), while applications from Match.com and eHarmony — two major players in the online dating world — had 48 users between them.

Now, if you want to read more about the Facebook economy, you can read my article, “Scrabulous and the New Social Operating System: How Facebook Gave Birth to an Industry.” But if you want the religion angle, stay here. Because as I browsed through application after application, I began to wonder: Where are the religion applications? Like online dating, religion is a social activity: a well-designed religion application could easily catch fire.

The first thought that came to mind is, “Why doesn’t Beliefnet have their Belief-O-Matic on Facebook?” If you don’t know it, Belief-O-Matic is Beliefnet.com’s trademarked quiz that lets you figure out what religion fits you best. I used to think the quiz was pretty hokey until one day, while reporting an article on Wicca rituals for the Washington Examiner, I met a woman who told me she discovered her faith after she took the quiz and learned her beliefs lined up most closely with Wiccanism. Quiz formats fit well into Facebook — I have a “What Kind of Dictator are you?” application on my page (my result: Muammar Qaddafi) — because you can compare your answers with those of your friends.

I did browse through the few religion applications that do exist (and none are mega-hits — yet). I added one to my page called “LDS Friends” (192 active users as of today) that lets you link up with fellow Mormons and share your faith through writing or videoing your own faith testimony, displaying your favorite scripture, or even noting which temple you were married in or belong to. One user, however, notes the potential dangers of the application:

Personal information on religious topics is NOT something you want to possibly have public. Not everyone knows how to navigate Facebook well.

In other words, just as many new Facebook users post their complete birthdays — making identify theft one step easier — so a new LDS Friend-user might unwittingly post something that attracts negative attention.

I also added the “I’ve been Saved!” application, which now broadcasts on my Facebook page:

Andrea Useem is proud to say that they is Christian and that they has been saved!

Yes, it’s kind of weird. After I added the application, a line appeared confirming my download: “Andrea, You have been saved.” Like most applications, this one asked me to invite friends to join: in this case, the invite-button read “Save your friends!”

The religion with the some of the best and most clever application is Judaism: I liked JewMeter, which allows you score your Jewishness via a quiz (Is David Schwimmer Jewish?) But an application like this would be even better if users could submit their own questions — I think the result would be even funnier than the New Yorker cartoon-caption contest (hey, another great application possibility.) The Muslim category has new entries every time I check — the most popular right now displays the 99 names of God on your page.

Is there an application that might bridge denomination-religious boundaries? Something beyond just “show-your-pride-in-your-own-religion?” Experts tell us that we are only beginning to see the uses of social networks, and I believe religion is one area with great potential and little exploration. See you on Facebook.

There Are 4 Responses So Far. »

  1. interesting, andrea! I, too, am rapidly becoming a facebook addict and find the social implications quite fascinating. I hadn’t considered the religious aspects (or lack thereof) but I will now! (and I’m going to add jewmeter, though I’m afraid I’ll score poorly and be “kicked out” out of my own group…

  2. “I met a woman who told me she discovered her faith after she took the quiz and learned her beliefs lined up most closely with Wiccanism”

    It’s just “Wicca”. Not “Wiccanism”. A person is a Wiccan, or they are an adherent of Wicca, there is no “ism”.

  3. Thanks Jason, I actually had it written that way, correctly, but then second-guessed it, feeling that those not acquainted with Wicca would think it was a grammatical error. I guess I should have stuck with that old SAT advice: go with your first gut instinct. Thanks for the correction.


  4. [...] assessments of online religion trends. (For my own earlier thoughts on Religion 2.0, see “Faith on Facebook: In Search of the Killer Religion App,” “Is your church ready to blog?” and interviews about blogging and online [...]

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