Back in 2001 the British census was rocked by a massive Internet campaign/practical joke, where, for a variety of reasons, 400,000 people listed “Jedi” as their religious affiliation. The Pagan community, though ranking as the seventh-largest faith in Britain with a combined number of nearly 40,000, paled in comparison (Pagan groups, who feel they could actually number in the hundreds of thousands, are organizing to ensure a more accurate count in 2011). While I don’t doubt that there are sincere adherents to some sort of constructed Jedi-faith, it seems more likely that it became a haven for people who don’t like the idea of telling the government their religious affiliation, or even having to decide on a religious affiliation. I bring all this up because the Washington Post is doing a spotlight on faith within the popular social networking site Facebook, and it looks like the return of the Jedi.
“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? Company spokeswoman Meredith Chin declined to answer such questions, citing user privacy. But Chin agreed to compile a list of the most popular religious identities and offered some tantalizing hints at what a full readout might show. Not surprisingly, the most popular faith professed is “Christian” and the various denominations associated with it. The category is so dominant that for this list, Facebook’s statisticians insisted on combining such other designations as “Protestant,” “Catholic” and “Mormon” under the “Christian” label. As a result, the second most popular entry on the list is “Islam,” followed by “Atheist.” “Jedi,” interestingly enough, makes an appearance at No. 10.”
There are so many questions about Facebook’s religion data that aren’t asked or answered in William Wan’s breezy little article. For instance, Facebook statisticians “insisted” on combining all the Christian variations, but did they do the same for other religious groupings? Were all the various Pagan faiths combined as well? If not, why not? Is “spiritual” a catch-all category, or is it just people who listed themselves solely as “spiritual”, and why include a Washington DC top-ten but not one for the USA as a whole? Why only ten? If it isn’t a violation of user privacy to give us a top-ten list, why not a top twenty or fifty? Further, why did Wan classify “Seguidor del Wiccanismo” (follower of Wicca in Spanish, of which there are 2000 on Facebook) as “offbeat”, did he not bother to run it through a translator? Does the fact that this listing was given as an example of “offbeat” answers to the religion question (along with “Heavy Metal” and “Amish”) in fact prove that Facebook statisticians didn’t bother to gather the modern Pagans into an easy-to-count single grouping?
Instead of doing a real investigation of religion on Facebook, Wan focuses instead on how “hard” it is to fill in that text box, when all you want to do is hook up with some friends.
“It’s Facebook. The whole point is to keep it light and playful, you know?” said Heim, 27, a college student from Dumfries. “But a question like that kind of makes you think.”
Indeed, it does make you think, I just wish the Washington Post were similarly inspired. It’s “interesting” that Jedi came in tenth, but not interesting enough to probe a bit deeper into why it’s the tenth-most-popular faith category on Facebook. If only the The Force could spur some more in-depth journalism on these questions.