Facebook Group or Private Social Network for Synagogues?
07/07/2011 - 16:42
Rabbi Jason Miller
Should Synagogues & Temples Invest in a Private Social Network?
Should Synagogues & Temples Invest in a Private Social Network?

In my last year of rabbinical school, I had an interesting conversation with a rabbi of a large congregation. He told me that he had put his foot down and refused to let his congregation create a synagogue-wide email LISTSERV. His rationale? This forum would be used by the membership to complain about the synagogue and the rabbi.

I gently suggested to my future colleague that if his members were going to use an email discussion group to complain about the congregation, they were likely already doing this in real-time at kiddush. He laughed and acknowledged I was correct. I'm sure that in the ensuing years he acquiesed and allowed for an email LISTSERV.

Developed in 1986 by Eric Thomas, LISTSERV was the first email list software application. The simple LISTSERV, an automated mailing list manager, allowed for likeminded individuals in a group to disseminate email messages to one another. The features of such a platform were minimal. The threads were difficult to follow. In digest format, there were several discussions arriving in the inbox all at once with no logical grouping order. Today, the email LISTSERV has long since run its course. Even the next generation of these discussion groups (Yahoo! Groups, Deja News which became Google Groups, the London-based GroupSpaces, etc.) are limited in features.

Today, Facebook has made these discussion groups unecessary. The Facebook Group application allows for the dissemination of rich content in a secure, private network. I have helped many synagogues transition from the old LISTSERV and email-based group platforms to the Facebook Groups application. As I tell rabbis and synagogue executives all the time: There are over 750 million Facebook users worldwide so there's a good chance that your congregants are already signed on. Facebook Groups allow for smaller cohorts within a congregation to have a forum to share ideas, documents, links to articles, photos, videos, and promote events. It is private and secure with at least one administrator monitoring the group.

Recently, when encouraging synagogues to start using the Facebook Groups application, I've been met with some resistence. Facebook isn't secure, they argue. They've heard that there is really no privacy with Facebook. They argue that a Private Social Network must be the way to go. I disagree and here's why.

Private Social Networks are certainly great apps and they have features galore. At first glance, applications like SocialGO and Yammer seem like the perfect solution for a company or organization that wants to have a social network that is open to only their employees or members. For many companies, these private social networks might make the most sense because once the employees are logged into Facebook, there will likely be many hours of unproductivity.

Synagogues and temples are different however. In that respect, I say use the network where the members are already participating. And that is obviously Facebook.

The Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly recently announced a deal through a partnership with SocialGo that allows member rabbis to contract with the private social network company to create a social network for their congregation. These private social networks have all the features and functionality as Facebook Groups, but cost a discounted $500 and then $25 per month. Facebook is free and everyone already has an account (or knows how to get one simply enough). Having people log in to another platform is tedious when they are already using Facebook on a daily basis and can simply use the Groups application to interface with the congregation's forums.

In terms of privacy, these Facebook Groups are just as private as LISTSERV groups were and continue to be. One must request to be a member of the group or be invited to participate in the discussions and view the content. Breaches of privacy can happen the same way there can be a breach of privacy from a face-to-face conversation. A group is only as private as its members allow it to be. The bottom line is that congregations shouldn't complicate matters by creating their own private social network. It's unnecessary. Save your money because Facebook Groups will work just fine.

Cross-posted to Blog.RabbiJason.com

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It's funny how LISTSERV has been here for so long. To bad we didn't have the vision to build it out and think of facebook before the social network did. I still use some of its features and when we build application I use it as a benchmark and for creative ideas and requirements. Great tool especially with social media in mind.

Jim Alamia

Dear Jason,
As you might expect, I wholeheartedly agree with Rabbi Goodman. However, there is one additional point that I wold like to make. One of the benefits of any social network is the fact that the content is constantly changing, creating a community that members want to revisit frequently. A website on the other hand usually has content that rarely changes and provides no incentive for return visits. So a social network is a much more attractive platform for local page sponsors and advertisers, creating a valuable revenue stream that completely offsets the costs and generates ongoing income for the community. You choose who takes part and you keep 100% of the income.

On SocialGO, you pay a modest fee to have total privacy, control and as much or as little technical and creative support as you require. On Facebook, they own your data and all your content, sell your information and that of your members, and generate their own revenue by pushing any advertising they wish to your site. So in that important regard Facebook is far from free - you do pay a considerable "price" for the service.

With kind regards,

Richard Weston Smith
Director of Strategic Alliances, SocialGO

I love the opening story! Dealing with the potential for negative (and positive!) comments in social spaces is an important question. I would encourage congregations who are involved in social media to develop a social media policy, as I wrote about here: http://jewpoint0.org/2011/05/the-value-of-a-social-media-policy/
This is a thorough and thoughtful article, and in general I think Facebook Groups are an excellent way to build community that flows between online and on-land relationships. I'm also glad to hear that Rabbi Goodman's social network, as mentioned in a previous comment, is working so well for that synagogue. It really proves that you need to assess the needs of your congregation before jumping into these spaces. Social media begins with people, not tools.
Nonetheless, I would also like to make a plug for Facebook (or LinkedIn, or whatever other pre-existing social network) in favor of a private network for the following reason: Facebook is, as Rabbi Miller writes, where many people "are already signed on." Beyond issues of features or privacy, offering opportunities for building Jewish community within these networks makes a statement: this - Jewish life, the life of your congregation - is not something separate. It is, and should be, with you wherever you go.

Dear Jason;
I find your article interesting, I however disagree completely with you. Yes, I am no tech Guru but I am a congregational rabbi serving the same pulpit for 13 years. We actually have a socialgo website www.sholombook.com and we have found it to be a tremendous asset in helping us create a virtual community that is branded to our congregation's image. Furthermore, we also have a facebook page but we have found that our congregants tend to share much more with each other when they know it is an narrow environment rather than something as broad as facebook where even though they can be 100% secure they don't feel that way. It is true, people don't fell secure on facebook and I know it is perception but that is what it is. The event creation capabilities, video conferencing, blog magazine and forums have made this a wonderful living breathing addition to the way in which we communicate and teach Torah and BTW the price compared to that of a website and what others charge is absolutely minimal. Ask other rabbis that have congregations, that don't have the time you do to devote to technology and they will tell you... The price is little for someone to design and help you implement your OWN social network without spending hours trying to figure facebook out!

Here's a good article on the various options for creating private social networks (including Facebook Groups, Ning.com and Google+): http://chromeossite.com/2011/06/29/dont-like-open-social-networks-like-facebook-use-facebook-group-and-alternative-web-apps-to-create-a-private-circle/