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God just poked you

A global survey has revealed that religious pages on Facebook are more popular than Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga. In 2012, God isn't just everywhere, he's also following you on Twitter. We talked to local communities who use social networking sites to reach out to the youth and get them to 'like' the new tech-savvy Creator

Zeenia Wadia sits on the third bench, gazing up at her corporate communications lecturer, who goes on about media statistics and other clever-sounding industry terms. In a class of 60, the students doodle in the margins of their notebooks even as they keep one eye on their cellphones that keep them connected to friends, family and extended social circles while warming the bench in this south Mumbai college. On 22 year-old Wadia's Blackberry, however, you'll find messages on her Facebook wall not just from her 952 friends, but also ZYNG, Zoroastrian Youth For The Next Generation, a group under the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP). The group sends her updates on prayer meetings.


Viraf Mehta , Vice President at CLSA India Ltd is part of the core team
at ZYNG Zoroastrian Youth For The Next Generation that works to bring
together Parsi youth in the country. P
ic/ Bipin Kokate


"The group is a platform to showcase your talent, meet other people from the community and get to know about religious meetings in the city. Since I'm not part of the organising committee, this is the easiest way to stay updated," says the Rustom Baug-resident. She isn't alone. According to AllFacebook.com, a resource blog that tracks trends and statistics on the social networking site, since March 10, the top 20 most popular pages on Facebook contain religious content, giving many, like her, the opportunity to use the site to stay updated on religious events and information.

Results show that Jesus Daily has hogged the number one position for the last 37 weeks with 3,584,841 hits, followed by The Bible, which had 1,288,823 hits within a week. Pop singer Justin Bieber only comes in fifth place with 909,130 hits, followed by MTV Roadies at 556,313 hits. The Lady Gaga page, with 495,846 hits just about managed to beat the Lord Ganesha page that was close with 444,370 hits. 

2,00 with a click
Varif Mehta, a core member of the ZYNG organising committee, describes the group as a social platform. "There are around 60,000 Parsis in the entire country, so it is important for the youth to have a sense of community. Young people are not less religious than the previous generation. In fact they have a very unique sense of identity and spirituality but they are certainly complacent about it," says 30 year-old Mehta, who has been a part of the group since its conceptulisation in 2009.

The aim, he says, was to reach out to the youth in a community where dwindling numbers are a concern and conversion is frowned upon. Socialising is key here, says Mehta, who meets other members of the core committee every Wednesday to decide on activities like speed dating, treks, dance competitions, etc.
The latest such event includes a model hunt for the annual calendar. "Most people in the city are under the impression that Parsis are all old fogeys. If you see an old man with a cap then he must be a bawa. We wanted to change that image so we announced a model hunt for young boys and girls that would make it to the calendar," says Mehta who will release the 2012 calendar on January 26. 

"Earlier we would use Parsi media like Parsi Times and Parsiana, a weekly paper and a fortnightly magazine respectively to reach out to the community but if we need to target the youth its via Facebook, email and SMS. If I need to blast 2,000 people with a message, it's the easiest way to do it," he says. Their Facebook page is a restricted group meant only for Parsis where moderators evaluate and approve members from all over the world.

Search for Jesus online
Dr Aaron Tabor, a 41 year-old resident of North Carolina, is a medical professional involved in gene therapy research and the owner of the page Jesus Daily, the most popular page on Facebook.

"I found that there were very few Facebook pages that focused on Jesus. Many focused on the Bible but not our relationship with Jesus, which is what is most important in the faith. The aim of the page was to let people know that they can  post their prayers and praises on the page," explains Tabor, who founded the page in 2009. Today, it boasts of 10,879,784 fans.

Anyone is free to join and post on the page, he says, over email, adding that he has a team of moderators to check the five million weekly interactions and update content from the Bible. "Sometimes it gets hard to keep up with all the activity though the news about being number one is always great to hear week after week." And what makes it so popular? "It's people's passion for God," he believes.

But what makes people log on and decide to search for God? "Everyone has such busy lives, so it isn't surprising that Facebook is being used as a spiritual connection tool. How we reach people with Christ must change with the new technology available," feels Tabor, who also handles the pages in other languages along with several health pages for work that explain medical procedures for anti-ageing.

Not preaching
Omar Ahmed agrees. Founder of Hadith of the Day (HOTD), an Islamic page that gives fans a thought for the day from the Quran, Ahmed was surprised to see followers grow to about 5,000 overnight in 2009. Currently it has 2,136,401 followers and lets people around the world post and share their favourite Hadiths and Ayahs. But Ahmed isn't playing the numbers game. "The aim of the page is not to preach. Our messages are non-political and non-controversial, they're just meant to inspire people. Even if HOTD made one person feel better, we've done our job," he says. 

HOTD also has its own website and Twitter handle. "It caters to Muslims and non-Muslims. We have a large audience from the UK, USA and Europe but also a sizeable audience from Asia and the far East. The audience is between the ages of 14-35. We've even had two people accept Islam via HOTD, which we're very pleased about," says UK-based Ahmed.

Mehta would disagree. "We follow the panchayat and their orders to the letter. If we get too much hype on the Internet the elders are afraid that there will be too many non-Parsis who will be intrigued. Our rules about conversion are strict, so we don't want to create any additional problems," he says.

Online meetings 
For Fr Daniel Fernandes, youth in-charge at Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Orlem, Facebook is purely functional. "In a parish of 18,000 people with 2,500 youth it's difficult to reach out to everyone with two notice boards and church announcements. Our parish council moderates the Facebook page called Spirit of Orlem while our youth group has a page of its own," he explains.
 
While the generic church page has about 670 members, the page created for the Orlem Youth Week-2011, which took place in November, has 1,148 members. Even after the event is over, activity on the page continues, with photographs beings uploaded and comments flying in.

Nineteen year-old Venonah Povo is the secretary of Evershine Nagar, a zone belonging to the Orlem parish. She takes her job of organising the 30 youths under her for dance, drama and talent competitions very seriously. "We all go to college and it isn't possible for everyone to find a common time and have an actual meeting. I have a separate Facebook group for my neighbourhood and we discuss ideas there. Then when we meet, everyone is updated about the happenings," says the second year B.Com student.

Jackie Cohen, editor of Allfacebook that conducted the survey sees its as a measurement of passion. "We have noticed soccer fans show the same kind of passion. The sense of community and engagement on the page is what drives the numbers."

Four questions forJackie Cohen,
Editor, Allfacebook.com, a resource blog that provides news, advice and analysis of statistics on the social networking site Facebook

How is the 'popularity' of a Facebook page decided?
There are many factors that must be taken into consideration when deciding it. The number of members, installation of an application, 'likes' on a page, clicking, contributing to posts and simply hits to a page are counted. It's different depending on the content of the page, music pages work on purchase and downloads for example, we have different tools to calculate the popularity accordingly.

For how long have you been tracking the religious pages on Facebook and why do you think they are so popular?
We have been tracking the trend since March.  It hasn't been religious pages in general but it's specific to certain pages like Jesus Daily and Dios Es Bueno.  Soccer fans are known to visit soccer pages and interactivity is at its peak during game season. Religious fans on the other hand are Facebook users who are at home alone, often they are lonely, they may have seen the light and Facebook offers a sense of community where you can get involved and talk to like-minded people.

What gives some religious pages more hits than others?
We interviewed some of the founders of the pages which were doing well, Dios Es Bueno, which means God Is Good in Spanish received an astounding 100,220 likes for a status that read -- Click if you need Jesus right now. He is a trained clergyman. He pegs it on creating original content that relates to the audience and makes it engaging. I would say it's a measurement of passion with either soccer fans or religious followers.

What are the other interesting trends you have noticed?
On Friday the 13th, we noticed heightened activity. There were more people changing status messages every second.

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