Pope Welcomes and Warns Facebook

The Pope himself has given a blessing, of sorts, to online social networking. Pope Benedict XVI has made a statement regarding social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace as ways to foster friendships and understanding in his annual message today for the World Day of Communications. According to the Associated Press, Benedict welcomes as a “gift” new technologies like social networking sites, as they respond to a “fundamental desire” of people to communicate.

Yes, that’s one of the great things about online social networks. It enhances individuals’ ability to communicate, and all of the features offered through such social networking is a direct result of their fundamental desire to do so. The way in which social networking has manifested online very much reflects the way in which we communicate in the offline world.

And there’s nothing wrong with a broader acceptance of such online networking, especially from those factions of society that have been slower to publicly accept such web-based tools. It’s been less than two months since the first U.S. Catholic Bishop joined Facebook in part for evangelical purposes, which at its core is communication. And it’s not as though religious sects haven’t taken to online social networking prior to Benedict’s message this morning. There are stand-alone networks like GodTube and a number of groups already on sites like Facebook. Not to mention, the Pope already has begun to take advantage of certain social media tools, such as a YouTube channel.

While Benedict’s mention of social networking today was rather brief, it still says a lot about an overarching shift in attitudes towards social networks. Benedict didn’t make any mention of a particularly religion-centric way of utilizing social networking sites, though he did warn against obsessive virtual socializing that can isolate people from real interaction. It seems that Benedict is concerned about the digital divide, as “obsessive” online socializing can further exclude those that are already marginalized.

In some ways this is a legitimate concern. We all need to unplug sometimes and online social networking, while representative of our offline interactions, is still an entirely separate experience from what happens between people when they’re face to face. But that also speaks to many of social networks’ specific attention to mobile access, as they are actively seeking ways to close this digital divide on a global scale.