Washington Post: Soul-Searching on Facebook

The subhead is “For Many Users, Religion Question Is Not Easy to Answer,” and I found this passage on technical affordances striking:

The religious views box made its debut in 2006, two years after the launch of Facebook. Before that, users who talked about faith mostly did so in the “About Me” area.

The company had tried a political views box with a drop-down menu of limited choices. The religious views box, however, was created with one key difference: a free-text format that let users type in whatever they wanted. (It proved so popular that Facebook later made its political views box free-text as well.) By contrast, MySpace, another popular social networking site, also offers a religion box, but it’s a drop-down menu limited to 14 choices.

Since then, Facebook’s beliefs box has generated a staggering number of entries. So exactly how many users put down “beer” as their religion? How many “Catholic”? What correlations exist between religion and number of friends?

Or consider one user’s experience:

For Heim, who joined Facebook last year, the box posed a question with no easy answer.

With space limited to 100 characters, there was simply no room for Heim to go into his childhood experiences with faith — growing up with an agnostic father, an evangelical mother and a fundamentalist grandmother. There was no space to describe the terror he felt after learning of heaven and hell. Or how the hell part weighed especially heavily after he was caught breaking into a neighbor’s home at age 7.

He couldn’t convey the profound faith and forgiveness he found in junior high after hearing the tear-filled sermons of a charismatic Baptist minister. Or the eventual dulling of that faith in college by alcohol. And he couldn’t fully explain the slow reformation of that faith, now that he has abandoned the hollowness of his old party life.

“How the heck do you fit all of that into a box?” asked Heim, who sometimes attends a Lutheran church in Dale City.

So rather than type in a specific denomination or a pithy, amusing answer, Heim entered this non-sequitur: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

It is a phrase written by linguistic philosopher Noam Chomsky to demonstrate how a sentence can be grammatically logical and yet have no meaning — how things that seem so right at first can crumble under scrutiny.

“It represents my faith,” Heim said, “how it sometimes makes sense to me and sometimes doesn’t.”

The religion box, like the other elements of a Facebook profile, is simultaneously performative and constitutive.