Barack Obama – our newly inaugurated president if you have not been following the news – has 3,714,051 friends. I have 131 friends. How do I know this with such precision? I learned it from Facebook.
Facebook is a social networking site on the Internet where you can create a page about yourself. I have known about this site for some time – I may be 60 but I am no technophobe – but I just couldn’t imagine why people would use it. Then Rebecca Davis-Nord of our Development staff answered that question: “It’s fun.” She also offered to help me set up a page. That sounded even better.
As I write this, I have been “on Facebook” (as we users put it) for exactly one week, and 131 people have either asked to be my “friend” or have accepted my invitation to become my “friend.” A sampling of pictures of your friends appears on one side of your page. You can then post information about your comings and goings (“I am eating lunch at my desk”) and all your friends can learn about your dietary habits.
You can not only tell your friends what you’re doing, you can make plans with them and discuss your favorite movies, books, TV shows, hobbies and so on. You can also tell them about causes that interest you and invite them to get involved.
What is seriously interesting about Facebook, though, is that it lets you reconnect to all kinds of people you have lost touch with as the years went by. I found Thomas Bilheimer, whom I went to Calypso Elementary School in Bethlehem, Pa., with in the late 1950s. We exchanged pleasantries. I found more recent people I’ve crossed paths with, like comedian Marc Maron and singer-songwriter Catie Curtis, both of whom contributed their talents to our “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Separation of Church and State…But Were Afraid To Ask” show and DVD last March. Marc sent out a message that he was “using his magic powers for good” one day, and Catie was asking for suggestions for what to sing at the Human Rights Campaign ball at which she had just been invited to perform.
Then there are all the people in between childhood innocence and last year. I’ve “re-friended” folks who worked on so many of the issues I – and on occasion, they too – are stilling working to defend. There is Julie Steiner who worked with me during my tenure with the ACLU doing grassroots organizing to defeat the constitutional amendment to bring back government-sponsored school prayer during the Reagan administration.
There is the Rev. Selena Fox, whom I first met when the late Sen. Jesse Helms tried to remove tax exemptions for Pagan and Wiccan organizations because he thought they probably worshipped the devil. There is Marc Rotenberg, now running the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Marc once rescued almost all of my crashed hard drive on an ancient computer, salvaging my seminal study on the influence of right-wing magazines on news coverage of controversial issues. (This was when I worked for a foundation set up to honor the late Supreme Court Justice and separation champion William O. Douglas.)
Americans United has a distinguished group of “alums” who have moved on in their careers. It was nice to catch up electronically with Sam Felder, now doing web design in Los Angeles, who made improvements on the au.org Web site, and Donya Khalili, the first producer of my “Culture Shocks” radio show, now a University of Pennsylvania Law School graduate clerking for a federal judge. If we are going to keep our issue alive and well, we need to make sure we don’t lose the folks who we hope got some great opportunities here.
Although it may be of interest to a few people that I thought “Gran Torino” and “In Bruges” were two of the best films of 2008, I hope more people who land on my Facebook page use it to connect to Americans United activities. My profile is linked to a cause page about Americans United, to a podcast of “Culture Shocks” and to the Beliefnet.com debate blog that I do with Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice. (People can even donate to AU through the cause page!)
So, like circles of friends, on or off Facebook, there are connections between so many of the activities and projects at Americans United. I know everybody isn’t into computers, but they still might enjoy seeing Rob Boston or me on some cable television show. I know many people wouldn’t watch Fox or even MSNBC unless forced to at gunpoint, but they like seeing one of my op-eds in their local newspaper or seeing Joe Conn quoted in a news story.
The story we have to tell is a strong one, richly rooted in the best of the American dream. We try to show it, speak it, write it or connect to it in every way we can, including now on Facebook.
And by the way, Jesus has a page on Facebook. Since we have such a diverse religious and non-religious membership at Americans United, I’ll let you readers decide if the page is really his or not.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans Unite for Separation of Church and State.