Social networking Web sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, have in the last five years become indispensable communication tools for large numbers of young people in the United States. Concurrently, scholars have been drawing attention to the important yet paradoxical position of religion in the lives of young people. In light of these two trends, this study examined whether Christian young adults accurately self-disclose their religious identities in their Facebook profiles, and the extent to which social desirability might shape such self-disclosures. Applying principles of grounded theory, the study relied on interviews with five undergraduate Facebook users who were members of a religious campus group affiliated with an Evangelical Christian denomination. Results suggest that religious young people tend not label themselves as “Christians” in their profiles, but that they self-disclose their religious identities in the context of their offline activities and relationships. Furthermore, their religious self-disclosures are guided by social desirability and a concern to present themselves as moderate Christians. These results align with existing knowledge about self-disclosure online and the place of religion in the lives of young people.
Online social networking Web sites have in the last five years become a primary means of communication among young people in the United States. According to a 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey, 55% of U.S. teenagers who used the Internet also maintained a profile on a social networking Web site (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). Although the establishment of the first social networking Web site can be traced back to 1997, it is the emergence of Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook—launched in 2002, 2003, and 2004, respectively—that marked the mainstreaming of these Web sites (Boyd & Ellison, 2008). Boyd and Ellison (2008) defined social network sites (SNSs) as Web-based services that enable their users to perform three activities: “(1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (p. 211). According to Alexa.com, a Web site that tracks Internet traffic, at the time of this writing (autumn 2008) MySpace was the third most visited Web site in the United States, while Facebook was the fifth most visited Web site. Globally, the two sites ranked sixth and eighth, respectively.
Religious faith and practice, meanwhile, hold considerable importance for many young people in the United States, although young people often lack the knowledge or vocabulary to cogently articulate their beliefs. According to survey results of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), 84% of teenagers believe in God and are affiliated with a religious tradition, and 82% of teenagers report that religious faith is at least somewhat important in shaping their daily lives (Smith, 2005). Somewhat paradoxically, according to NSYR’s qualitative results, teenagers’ articulation of beliefs, religious knowledge, and religiously based moral standards are often superficial and contradictory.
In order to better understand the place of religion in young people’s lives, and because of the significant communicative function that social networking Web sites play in their lives, it is worthwhile to examine the extent to which young people identify themselves as being religious in their social networking Web site profiles. To this end, the study reported here examined how five Evangelical Christian college students self-disclosed their religious identities in their Facebook profiles and what motivated their self-disclosure choices.
Religion in social networking Web sites
Scholarly examinations of religion and young people’s presence on the Internet are limited, but preliminary evidence has shown that religion is part of youth-produced online content. In a content analysis of Web pages authored by teenagers, Stern (2004) found that religion or God was mentioned in 19.9% of the pages, making it the most discussed “intimate” topic, above such issues as drugs and alcohol, sex, depression, loneliness, violence, and self-destructive behaviors.
Liu’s 2008 analysis of 127,477 MySpace profiles found that 45.3% contained a completed Religion field in the Interests section of the profile. In that sample, the largest proportion of MySpace users were identified as Christian-other (34%), followed by Catholic (21.4%), Other (13%), Agnostic (9.6%), and Atheist (7%). Profiles identifying their owners as being Jewish, Buddhist, Protestant, Scientologist, Wiccan, Taoist, Mormon, Muslim, and Hindu comprised the remaining 15%. Within the Books field in the Interests section of the profiles, The Bible was the second most-often mentioned book, appearing in 1.6% of the profiles.
Similarly, this author’s examination of the overall Facebook statistics at one large public university in southern United States in the spring of 2007 showed that The Bible was second only to Harry Potter as the most often mentioned book in the Web site’s “Favorite Books” category. This observation corresponds to the other findings summarized here, which together suggest that a number of young people include religion in the online content they produce.
Self-disclosure is the communication of information about oneself to another. Because of the key role that this concept plays in the initiation and development of close relationships, self-disclosure has stimulated a considerable research tradition (for a review, see Greene, Derlega, & Mathews, 2006). In recent years, it has been effectively applied in studies that investigate the role of identity online (e.g., Joinson & Paine, 2007). Because individuals participating in any type of self-disclosure can manipulate the truthfulness of what they say about themselves to others, accuracy has been one dimension along which self-disclosure has been investigated, both in interpersonal communication (e.g., Wheeless, 1978), and in computer-mediated communication (CMC) contexts.
The Internet, to a greater extent than many other communication venues, allows its users to interact with one another with little accountability for potential mistruths they might tell about themselves. Studies of self-disclosure in CMC have addressed the potential discrepancies in what Internet users say about themselves online. Walther’s (1996) hyperpersonal model of CMC identified two variables (reduced cues and asynchronicity) that allow CMC users more control over their self-disclosures than is possible in FtF communications. Walther argued that because online communicators have to monitor less presentational cues than FtF communicators, and because they usually have more time to construct their messages, online self-presentations may be more socially desirable (and less accurate) than in-person self-disclosures.
Research has confirmed that Internet users consciously engage in a process of negotiation when they select aspects of themselves for inclusion in their online self-disclosures. Based on interviews with 60 Australian users of an online dating Web site, Whitty (2008) suggested that those looking for romance online engage the BAR approach (Both Attractive and Real) as they construct their online personas. This negotiation is universal enough that Internet users readily admit to it. Lenhart and Madden’s (2007) national survey of teenage social network Web site users found that fewer than half (44%) of teenagers answered “that their profile is completely truthful and that none of the information on it is false” (p. 23). Of the remaining teens, about 31% reported that “‘a little’ of the information on their profile is false,” 17% said “some of the information,” and 8% said “that most or all of the information on the profile is fake” (p. 23). Self-disclosure accuracy and religion
Studies have suggested that the accuracy of self-disclosure about religion in survey settings may be compromised by social desirability. Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves (1993) compared survey-based estimates of weekly worship service attendance at Protestant churches in an Ohio county, and at Catholic churches in 18 dioceses across the country, with actual attendance counts in the respective churches. Presser and Stinson (1998) compared results of questions such as “How often do you attend religious services?” with results of a time-use survey question, “I would like to ask you about the things you did yesterday—from midnight Saturday to midnight last night… .” Both studies indicated that survey questions about religious attendance resulted in exaggerated attendance estimates.
Such findings suggest that the results of survey-based studies may not provide the most accurate reflections of the levels of people’s religious identities. It is not clear, however, to what extent social desirability may affect the accuracy of young people’s self-disclosure about religion in peer settings such as Facebook. Some young people may find expressing themselves as religious to be less desirable, while others may feel confident enough to say explicitly that religion constitutes an important component of their identity.
Three characteristics of young people’s religious systems suggest that religion will not figure prominently in their Facebook profiles. First, religion is not a topic of conversation for most young people. Smith (2005, p. 124) reported that “few U.S. teenagers today talk about religious matters with their friends.” Second, teenagers have difficulty verbalizing their religious beliefs. Smith wrote that he found “very few teens from any religious background … able to articulate well their religious beliefs and explain how those beliefs connect to the rest of their lives” (p. 131). In identifying themselves religiously, the teenagers in the NSYR qualitative interviews took pains to not come across as being too religious. According to Smith, “Many U.S. teens across all religious traditions seem to hold in their minds a negative image of people who are too religious, which they definitely seek to avoid by muting their own religiosity” (p. 141). These three attributes – lack of conversations about religion, inability to express personal religious beliefs, and disapproval of excessive religious identification – suggest that young people may not readily display their religious identities in their SNS profiles.
The possibility that young people mute their religious identity because they don’t want to be seen as “too religious” is supported by recent survey findings and in-depth interviews published by The Barna Group, a Christian ministry research and consulting firm (Kinnaman & Lyons, 2007). Findings indicated significant levels of anti-Christian sentiment among young people who do not identify as born-again Christians. In one survey, these young people said they perceived “a lot” or “some” of born-again Christians to be anti-homosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), too involved in politics (75%), out of touch with reality (72%), insensitive to others (70%), boring (64%), not accepting of other faiths (64%), and confusing (61%). Given these negative perceptions, we might expect that religious young people will shy away from fully disclosing their religious identities online.
An excerpt from a recent New York Times Magazine article (Jacobs, 2007) simultaneously illustrates the central role that social networking Web sites have come to play in young people’s self-presentation, and the inappropriateness that this age group attaches to an overly religious self-disclosure. Focusing on peer interactions among college students, the article quotes a Harvard undergraduate who describes, what she portrays to be, a typical peer encounter:
You might run into someone at a party, and then you Facebook them: what are their interests? Are they crazy-religious, is their favorite quote from the Bible? Everyone takes great pains over presenting themselves. It’s like an embodiment of your personality” (p. 48).
Given the importance of social networking Web sites to contemporary youth culture, and given the potentially complex relationship between religion’s significance in the lives of young people and the accuracy of their self-disclosures about religion, this study aimed to address the following two research questions: 1) How accurately do religious young people express their religious identities in their Facebook profiles? and 2) To what extent does social desirability shape these young people’s religious self-disclosures in these profiles?
The research questions were addressed by applying principles of grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) to an analysis of interviews conducted with five undergraduate students at a large public university in the southern United States. According to Strauss and Corbin (1998), an application of grounded theory entails that the researcher generate theoretical propositions from qualitative data, while using constant comparison to verify the findings with remaining data. As the researcher identifies categories or themes that contribute to the explanatory theory, validity of the findings is achieved through the inner-consistency of the explanatory theory.
The study relied on interviews with undergraduate students because, apart from the convenience of an undergraduate sample, the concept of emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000) suggests that 18-25-year-olds continue the work of self-discovery begun in adolescence. According to Arnett, emerging adulthood is now a unique phase of the life course in industrialized societies. He has argued that while emerging adults are distinct from adolescents, they generally do not yet consider themselves to be fully adult, and continue the work of identity exploration that has traditionally been characterized as the central task of adolescence (Erikson, 1968).
The students who participated in the interviews were recruited with the goal of providing enough homogeneity to the sample to conduct limited comparisons among subjects, while at the same time providing room for between-subject contrasts. The panel of respondents was assembled using snowball sampling and drawn from the membership of a campus organization affiliated with a conservative evangelical Christian denomination. It consisted of three females and two males, all of whom were Caucasian, and ranged in age from 21 to 23. They are here referred to as Crystal (female, 21, city and regional planning major), Jack (male, 23, political science major), Karen (female, 22, business major), Mike (male, 21, computer science major), and Rose (female, 22, foreign languages major). All but Karen were originally from southern United States. Rose and Jack were married to each other, while the others were single. All of the respondents attended religious services on Sundays, and all were involved in campus ministry organizations for which they met at least one other time during the week. All of the respondents used Facebook as their primary social networking Web site, and all of them were members of the Web site at least since their first year of university. The number of times that the respondents logged in to Facebook ranged from once every other week (Jack), to three-to-four times a day (Crystal). Each interview was conducted face-to-face. A laptop displaying the respondent’s Facebook profile was used as a reference for the interview questions. Three of the respondents were interviewed individually, while Rose and Jack were interviewed as a couple. Interview lengths ranged from 40 minutes to one hour. The author conducted, transcribed, and analyzed the interviews. The study was approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board.
The interviews focused on the students’ Facebook profiles. The profile is a user’s primary means for presenting him or herself to members of the online community. At the time of the interviews, a Facebook profile was composed of a profile photograph and two textual sections through which users communicated their identities. The first of these was the basic personal section, which contained the following fields: Sex, Interested In (gender), Relationship Status, Looking For (relationship type), Birthday, Hometown, Political Views, and Religious Views. Significantly, Religious Views, unlike Political Views, did not require users to select a response from a predetermined list of options. The second textual section allowed users to communicate their identity more freely in several fields: Activities, Interests, Favorite Music, Favorite TV Shows, Favorite Movies, Favorite Books, Favorite Quotes, and About Me. Users could leave any of the fields blank, which deactivated such fields. Other components of the profile contained information about the user’s education, the groups that he or she belonged to, a list of Facebook friends, and a wall on which friends left messages for the user. Users could further customize their profiles by creating photo albums, posting extended Notes, and placing links to online videos or music files. By adjusting their privacy settings, users could select what portions of the profile were visible to various segments of the Facebook community.
Addressing the first research question, which asked how accurately these young people self-disclosed about their religious identities in their profiles, interview results indicated that although the respondents did not use the “Christian” label to identify themselves explicitly, their religious self-disclosures accurately reflected the place of religion in their offline lives. In the profiles that did include indications of their owners’ religious identities, religion was presented in the context of activities and relationships in which these young people were involved.
The Christian label. One of the fields in the basic personal section at the top of the Facebook profile was labeled Religious Views. The field was accompanied by a blank space, as opposed to a pull-down menu. This meant that users were not limited to a choice of several religious identities, but were free to use whatever religious (or nonreligious) label to identify their religious views. None of the five students who participated in this study had this field filled out, which resulted in Religious Views being absent from the personal section of their profiles. These five young people, who attended a religious service every Sunday, participated in weekly meetings of a Christian organization on campus, and were involved in other religious activities, such as mission trips and Bible camps, would have scored high on any religiosity survey. None of them, however, labeled themselves as “Christian” in their Facebook profiles.
While the lack of explicit religious identification in these Christian respondents’ profiles may suggest inaccurate self-disclosure, the five respondents offered disparate reasons for not filling in the Religious Views field. No cohesive theme suggesting inaccuracy emerged. The respondents’ reasons ranged from not noticing the field, through wanting to maintain consistency with their offline religious presentations, to wanting to preserve a minimalist profile. Only one respondent suggested that she limited her religious self-disclosure in order to avert negative assessments by her profile viewers. Mike, Rose, and Jack were surprised when they had the field pointed out to them. Mike, the 21-year-old computer science major, initially assumed that the field was a drop-down menu with limited choices, but was stumped when he realized that he was free to fill it in however he chose:
I don’t think I liked the choices that were up there, I think they had just … let’s see … Religious Views … oh, it’s a blank box … ok, I don’t know to be honest … I guess, just ‘cause, like, I don’t consider myself like Baptist or like Church of Christ or Catholic or anything specific, I kind of … I don’t know … like, Christian would be just the basic overall thing … so I don’t know why I haven’t put that on there. I don’t think that I’ve ever really noticed the religious box.
Rose and Jack, the married couple, likewise said that they had not noticed the field before, but both then argued that the absence of overt identification in their profiles matched the way in which they did not overtly identify themselves as Christian in their offline lives. When asked why he did not fill out the field, Jack, the 23-year-old political science major, said, “I wouldn’t deny religion but I’m not the sort of person to wear like a sign … I just don’t feel the need to broadcast that sort of thing … I’m not typically the type of person to be like, ‘Hi I’m Jack, I’m a Christian.’” Consequently, Jack’s profile was the only one that not only contained no overt religious content, but also failed to contain any implicit mention of his religious activities or commitments. Within the context of self-disclosure accuracy, however, as Jack argued, the lack of religious content in his profile constituted an accurate representation of his offline life.
While Mike, Rose, and Jack were surprised to see the Religious Views field, and the latter two felt that the absence of overt religious self-disclosure matched their offline personas, Karen and Crystal were both aware of the Religious Views field and consciously chose to leave it blank. For Karen, a 22-year-old business major, this choice corresponded to the minimalist character of the rest of her profile. Her Interests section, for example, only contained three words: “.today.tenacity.tea.” Meanwhile, Crystal, 21-year-old planning major, was the only respondent who suggested that her choice to leave the Religious Views field blank may have been consciously inaccurate. Crystal said that she did not write anything in this field because she did not want her profile visitors to generate negative impressions of her based on this cue. She said that, for the same reason that she did not overtly identify herself as a Christian, she also changed the Political Views field on her profile from “Conservative” to “Moderate”:
People see “Conservative” and they judge everything else that’s on there … you know, I have certain friends who have “Very Conservative” and I would never put that, just ‘cause, even if you are, I just think that people judge you. ‘Cause so many people make judgments by you, like, a lot of it based on your Facebook profile.
Echoing the results of the research that the Barna Group conducted among young people who did not identify as born-again Christians (Kinnaman & Lyons, 2007), Crystal said that the “Christian” label carried with it a connotation of narrow-mindedness that she did not want people associating with her. Aware of the slightly inaccurate nature of her portrayal, she had clearly reasoned through the decision to leave the Religious Views field blank.
Religious identity in context. While none of the young people labeled themselves as Christian in the Religious Views field, all but Jack somehow referenced their religious identities in their Facebook profiles. The fact that religion manifested itself in the context of activities and relationships, even though mentions of religious identity were not explicit in all cases, suggests that these religious disclosures accurately reflected the role of religion in these respondents’ lives.
Karen’s and Mike’s Christian identities were subtly evident in their profiles. The religious lives of these two were couched within the context of service work. Karen, the business major, displayed a Favorite Quote that pointed to a religious identity. It read: “I’d like to play a video game where you’re helping people who are shot in all the other games.” Karen indicated, and her friends echoed this sentiment in their Facebook comments to her, that because of her altruism – an active manifestation of her faith – this would have been a perfect video game for her to play. Mike, the computer science major, displayed a profile picture that showed him painting an orphanage in Mexico during a church-sponsored mission trip he took every summer. He called the mission trip “the highlight of my year for the past five years.” So although Mike did not explicitly indicate that he was a Christian in his Religious Views field, the profile’s most identifiable element, his picture, showed him putting his faith into action. Mike positioned his profile against those belonging to some of his religious friends:
A lot of them will put, like, Bible verses and stuff in Favorite Quotes or in About Me. Their whole, their music section won’t include things that are like popular music at all, it’ll all be Christian … you can clearly tell that, hey they’re into God … they’ll say like “reading the Bible,” and stuff. I mean, it’s kind of implied in mine. But I don’t go out and specifically say that.
Neither Karen nor Mike explicitly self-disclosed being Christian in their profiles, but just as it did in their offline lives, religion manifested itself in their profiles as faith-in-action. These two Facebook users felt that the religious content in their profiles accurately reflected religion’s role in their offline lives.
Rose and Crystal self-disclosed their religious identities more overtly by including references to religious relationships and activities in their online profiles. In her About Me field, Rose, the married 22-year-old foreign language major, wrote, “Jesus is my homeboy and [Jack, my husband] is my lover.” She also listed a Bible summer camp that she attended among the groups she identified on the profile. Rose’s playful statement about the two main men in her life and her identification with the Bible camp group reflected her religious identity as being rooted in both relationships and action. In Crystal’s profile, religious identity was evident in the first three items she listed in her Activities section: “Loving Jesus, InterVarsity, Apples.” InterVarsity was a ministry group that Crystal was involved in, while Apples was a community service organization with which she volunteered. Although the latter two activities were less obviously religious than the overtly Christian relationship with Jesus, all three reflected religiously oriented activities that Crystal presented as being of central importance to her. More overtly than Karen and Mike, Rose and Crystal self-disclosed their religious identities in the context of relationships and activities. Like Karen and Mike, these two respondents’ online religious identifications appear to be accurate reflections of their offline lives.
Overall, although these religious Facebook users did not self-disclose their religious views explicitly by using the field designated for this purpose, almost all of them did communicate their religious identities through content that concerned action and relationships. Just as religion was an activity for these respondents, as opposed to simply a label, so too their profiles communicated their active engagement in their faiths, suggesting that their online self-disclosures were, in fact, accurate reflections of their offline lives.
The second research question asked about the potential role of social desirability in shaping these young people’s religious self-disclosures in their Facebook profiles. The interviews suggested that social desirability contributed to how these young people presented themselves with respect to religion. In particular, the five respondents were guided by an overarching concern to cast themselves in a moderate light. They negotiated presenting themselves in their profiles as moderate Christians by positioning themselves against people whom they perceived as being not Christian enough, and against those whom they thought of as being too Christian.
Not halfway Christians. Some of the respondents contrasted their religious self-disclosures against those whose Facebook content they perceived to be less authentically Christian. “Halfway Christians” was Crystal’s label for these people. As she explained, halfway Christians were students who were “raised Christian, but when they came to college … they just go wild, and the things they do I wouldn’t associate with Christianity.” Such halfway Christianity manifested itself in photos and textual mentions of partying and drinking posted on these users’ Facebook profiles.
Crystal and Karen actively took steps to prevent a mismatch between the ideal behavior they associated with Christianity and the activities they portrayed in their Facebook profiles. Both of them regularly removed hyperlinks from photos (“untagged photos,” in Facebook-speak) that associated them with any compromising activities, and removed wall posts that mentioned any risqué behavior. Crystal, the 21-year-old planning major, said that she regularly inspected all photos in which she had been recently tagged to “see, like, what pictures [have been put up], and if I need to untag them if they’re embarrassing pictures. ‘Cause some of those people don’t have a lot of discretion when they [post pictures].” Crystal said that she was particularly concerned about having inappropriate content on her profile because high school students with whom she worked in a church youth group were among her Facebook friends. Because her profile was visible to them, she did not “want them to think that I do that kind of thing.” Karen, the business major, worked with a youth ministry program at a local high school and was required by program rules to monitor her profile and remove any photographs or references to alcohol consumption. Her involvement in the campus program obligated her to present “an image that’s above reproach for high schoolers.” She elaborated, saying,
Not that I want to present a false image and be like, “I’m perfect,” but just be, like, “There’s certain things where there’s like a line that as [ministry] leaders [we] don’t cross.” And so we just have to be more conscious about what our profile portrays.
While for Crystal and Karen an authentically Christian Facebook self-portrayal entailed excluding content from their profiles, this same motivation compelled Rose, the foreign language major, to add content to her profile. Rose explained:
So I didn’t have “The Bible” on my Favorite Books until, like, this year. … I did have “Ecclesiastes” however, which is a book in the Bible. … But I would say that putting “The Bible” up there was peer pressure. Because I noticed that a lot of my friends had “The Bible” there, and I thought, “Oh, I have ‘Ecclesiastes’ there … maybe some of them don’t know that Ecclesiastes is a book in the Bible. And I don’t want them to get the impression that I’m not interested in the Bible.” So I put that in there.
As demonstrated by these three Facebook users, social desirability affected religious self-disclosure in online profiles by motivating portrayals that were thought to be authentically Christian. For these three respondents, an authentic Christian did not flaunt her occasional alcohol use, if she happened to use alcohol, and she conformed to the perceived expectation that the Bible would be among a Christian’s favorite books. With religious moderation being the ideal, the movement toward presenting Christianity in an authentic way in the profile was balanced by the socially desirable goal of avoiding the appearance of being too Christian.
Not too religious. In the process of articulating their religious self-disclosures, the respondents in this study consciously distanced themselves from the negative views associated with conservative Christianity (e.g., Kinnaman & Lyons, 2007). Karen, the business major, alluded to a perception of Christians as being “cruel,” or “narrow-minded,” that some members of the Facebook audience might bring to their reading of religion-related information in profiles. She mentioned that a friend’s Religious Views field said, “I’m not religious, I just love Jesus,” and reflected that,
I guess maybe that’s a way to express, like, the typical connotations of being Christian and being religious … And I guess he’s trying to show people what his faith is about. Like, more than rules or what people perceive of religion.
In Karen’s eyes, the quote attempted to mitigate the perception of Christianity as being a hyper-legalistic and proscriptive faith tradition. She also spoke about this view of Christianity in reference to having spent a semester abroad. The time away provided her with a new outlook on what religion means to people who might not be as religious as her:
I learned so much about … what people perceive as faith and, like, how they do see Christianity as cruel and how our actions can communicate that. Like, [when] I choose not to do [something], that might look like a cruel thing.
Other respondents were equally aware of the negative connotations associated with Christianity. The socially desirable response was to mute their religious self-disclosures in their profiles. The primary reason that respondents gave for not being upfront about their religious identities was that they did not want the readers of their profiles to jump to conclusions about who they were. Crystal, the planning major, attempted to elaborate this in the following way:
… even though my religion is very important to me, I don’t want people … ok, they read the first thing about me: “Christian.” And then just, [dismissively] “Oh, ok, well whatever.” … And then everything else that they see about me, [me being Christian would] be shaping the way they see me, like, just because of the stereotypes of Christians held on our campus, you know, that we’re intolerant. And especially being in a big Christian fellowship, there’s a lot of ideas associated with that. And so I don’t want people to not get to know me, and like … not consider the other things about me because they found out that I’m a Christian …
Crystal said that her profile contained less explicit religious information than did the profiles of some of her religious friends. Her reasoning in doing so was to avoid being dismissed for being too religious:
… certain people will, like, their whole profile is religion. Like, that’s what it is from start to bottom. And I mean, religion is important to me, like, it is the most important thing to me. But there are other aspects of who I am and I feel like, like I was saying before, some people will write you off if you have all that stuff on there …
Mike, the computer science major, echoed this concern of being “written off.” His profile did not contain an explicit mention of Christianity, even though he attended worship services as often as twice a week and spent his summers on mission trips in Mexico. Mike explained:
I think that a lot of people are scared away by people who, like, pound their Bible and are always talking about religion. And, I don’t know, if people are looking for me on Facebook, I don’t want to scare them off just because I’m a Christian. ‘Cause you can obviously tell that I am Christian just by looking at the profile, and so, I mean, if they want to get to know me, then they can learn more about me, but they won’t be scared away because they won’t think that all this guy does is reads his Bible and listen to, like, Jesus music and stuff.
Rose, the foreign language major, similarly said that she did not include a lot of religious information on her profile because she did not “want people to be, like, thrown off or deterred … since I am mentioning religion.” She justified this by indicating that “there is a lot of anti-Christian sentiment” on the campus. Her husband Jack added: “I feel like making fun of Christianity is just pop culture.”
The religious undergraduate students interviewed here were influenced by social desirability in the way that they self-disclosed their religious identities in their Facebook profiles. These students wanted to present themselves as being friendly and open-minded. They did not want other Facebook users to form impressions of them based on the stereotype of a Christian as being judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive, or antihomosexual (Kinnaman & Lyons, 2007). They wanted people to like them, and they wanted their profiles to help people to like them. On the other hand, they wanted their profiles to be authentic reflections of their religious commitments. These two objectives – to be genuine and to come across as being likeable – were both motivated by social desirability and led these religious students to portray themselves as moderate Christians in their Facebook profiles.
The research questions that guided this analysis asked whether Christian young adults accurately self-disclose their religious identities in their online profiles, and whether social desirability plays a role in shaping these self-disclosures. Based on data from five interviews, the findings suggest that Christian young adults tend not to use the “Christian” label to identify themselves in their profiles; that their religious self-disclosures accurately reflect the way that they live out their faith offline – through relationships and activities; and that they respond to socially desirable norms and aim to present themselves as moderate Christians, that is, ones who are authentically religious, but not too religious. Support for the validity of these results is found in literature on CMC, young people and religion, and the position of religion in today’s U.S. culture.
As they articulated their online religious self-disclosures, this study’s respondents engaged in a negotiation between portraying themselves as being authentically Christian and not portraying themselves as being too Christian. This negotiation was equivalent to the BAR approach (Both Attractive and Real) that Whitty (2008) found being utilized by dating Web site clients. Whitty’s respondents used their profiles to underscore their more desirable features while muting less flattering ones. Similarly, because being really religious was viewed as socially undesirable, the respondents in this study avoided disclosing the full extent of their religious identities. Meanwhile, motivated by the potential transition of a relationship from the Internet to a face-to-face setting, Whitty’s respondents emphasized that the dating profile not deviate from reality too sharply. Parallel to this, aware that Christians constituted part of their audience, respondents in this study aimed to portray themselves as real (or authentic) Christians. The corresponding set of considerations exhibited by Whitty’s respondents and the young Christian adults interviewed here suggest that online self-disclosures – whether in dating Web sites, or in social networking profiles – are guided by the common concern to appear as both an authentic and a socially desirable individual.
The resolve demonstrated by this study’s respondents to self-disclose in a socially desirable manner reflects Goffman’s (1959) classic observation that the presentation of self is a carefully controlled performance of one’s character before an audience. The Internet allows its users to be less accurate in their self-disclosures, and influenced by social desirability to a greater degree, than many other communication venues. Walther’s (1996) concept of “hyperpersonal communication,” meaning, self-presentations that are “more socially desirable than we tend to experience in parallel FtF interaction” (p. 19), finds resonance in the self-disclosure work embarked on by these respondents. Walther identified reduced cues and asynchronicity as two variables that facilitate hyperpersonal communication. The respondents in this study relied on carefully crafted text and selected photographs, to construct ideally balanced – authentic yet desirable – religious self-disclosures. They took advantage of the asynchronous nature of online communication to reflect on the implications of their disclosures, and they adjusted their profiles – added or deleted content – to better parallel what they imagined their audience would view most favorably.
While some studies have suggested that social desirability motivates survey respondents to exaggerate their religious identities (Hadaway, Marler, & Chaves, 1993; Presser & Stinson, 1998), respondents in this study indicated that it may be more socially desirable to mute one’s religiosity in an online profile. The general dearth of religious self-disclosure and their efforts to not come across as being too religious echo Smith’s (2005) observations concerning the religious system that seems to prevail among young people in the United States. The first of these is that religion is not a topic of conversation in which young people engage (Smtih, 2005, p. 124). Since Facebook profiles are young people’s means of communication with their peers, perhaps the overall paucity of religious references in the Facebook profiles observed here is reflective of the general lack of religious conversations among young people today. The second characteristic noted by Smith (2005) and echoed by respondents in this study was that in identifying themselves religiously, young people take great pains to not come across as being too religious. Because the line between “religious” and “too religious” is thin, the Christian students featured in this study actively sought to escape the scourge of the negative connotations associated with being too religious (e.g. Kinnaman & Lyons, 2007).
The muting of religious identities is a general practice that extends beyond the college-age demographic. Carter (1993) attributed this tendency of United States citizenry not to voice their religious convictions to the constitutionally enshrined separation of church and state. He argued that the separation of church and state gets translated, in the lives of religious individuals, into the separation of their private and public selves. If the presentation of one’s identity on Facebook can be thought of as a public action, then as these religious undergraduates limited their religious self-disclosures in their Facebook profiles, they simply enacted a familiar role. According to Carter, the muting of one’s religious convictions in the United States seems to be expected. It is the socially desirable way to present oneself.
Several characteristics of this study’s design limit the generalizability of its findings and suggest questions that may be addressed in future research. The small sample on which this analysis relied might be the most obvious drawback to the general applicability of its results. Future research may undertake to gather data from larger samples of Internet users to generate richer and more reliable accounts of how young people self-disclose their religious identities in online venues, and the extent to which social desirability plays a part in shaping these self-disclosures. The present study was further limited by the religiously homogenous makeup of its sample. Future research studies may look at how non-Evangelical Christians, less religious Christians, those of other faith traditions (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.), and those who identify as Agnostics and Atheists, construct the online self-disclosures that concern their religious beliefs or lack of such beliefs. The present study was further limited by the racially homogenous makeup of the sample. Surveys have established race to be one of the demographic characteristics that tends to be associated with religiosity, along with gender, education, socioeconomic status, marital status, geography, among others (see Smith, 2005; Wuthnow, 2007). Future researchers would be wise to draw on samples that are more representative than the one used here, and to pay attention to the way that these demographic characteristics might interact with their respondents’ religious self-disclosures.
Despite its limitations, the work presented here accomplished the goal of providing an initial exploration of how accurately young people self-disclose their religious identities in online profiles, and how social desirability might affect these self-disclosures. Because of young people’s widespread use of social networking Web sites as primary tools of communication, questions concerning the nature of identity, self-disclosure, and accuracy in such sites become increasingly relevant and interesting. The findings presented here suggest that young people who are highly religious desire for their profiles to accurately reflect the role that religion plays in their lives, that they strive to present themselves as authentically religious, but that they might mute their self-disclosures to a certain degree in order to avoid being perceived as too religious.
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