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Whether it's boasting about your mastery over the Gayatri mantra or checking into the Golden Temple, social media has found faith.
1008. In the first week of August, there was a spate of Facebook posts around that number. The posts were made the day after Upaakarma, the day that devotees are supposed to recite the Gayatri mantra. You could recite the mantra 18, 28, 108 and 1008 times. Those who lasted 1008 rounds took to social media, posting that number as a mark of pride.
Facebook has all kinds of content. Baby snaps. Vacation galleries. Kids saying the darndest things. Birthday and anniversary photos. And, religion.
According to the site Allfacebook. com, pages dedicated to religion have consistently topped the charts when it comes to user engagement. Hovering around the top for more than a year is Jesus Daily, a Facebook page created by Aaron Tabor, a North Carolina based diet doctor. Jesus Daily welcomes engagement, asking fans to post pictures, verses, praises and prayers. The page, at the time of writing had 13, 816, 650 likes. It had 5, 077, 663 people "talking about it". "Talking about it" involves the number of people liking a page, posting to a page's wall, liking, commenting on or sharing a page post (or other content on a page, like photos, videos or albums) etc. That's nearly a 38 per cent level of engagement. Lady Gaga's official Facebook page has a little over a million fans "talking about it" - a little below a 2 per cent level of engagement.
There are other "super pages". There's Joyce Meyer. There is "I Love Muhammed", an Indonesian page with 6 million plus likes and a 30 per cent level of engagement. Lord Ganesha has 1. 9 million fans and a 20 per cent level of engagement.
According to the social media tracking website SocialBakers. com, the Gurudwara Shri Bangla Saheb in Delhi and the Golden Temple in Amritsar are among the ten most checked into places on Facebook in India. Most of the other entries were airports.
SocialKonnekt is the company behind Lord Ganesha, India's most popular God on Facebook. The Lord Ganesha page has been adding around 1500 fans daily. Sachin Kelkar, SocialKonnekt's Founder and CEO, says that engagement is typically high for religious sites. "While the number of conversations around Ganesha may peak in September with the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, the average level of engagement is high all through the year, " he says. "One in five of our members is actively interacting with the page at any given time. This is much higher than some of the most successful pages - you are lucky if you get a 5 to 10 per cent level of engagement. "
"Since the page deals with God, we have to be very careful about the content that goes in there. This is not a page for advertising, not for profit. This is for people who love Ganesha, " he says.
Kelkar says that managing the page requires effort. "We have to monitor the page constantly. Admin posts appear on users' social feeds and we track how many people respond to the posts and how many mark them as spam. We also have to track comments for inappropriate content. When you have a couple of million "Likes" even 1 per cent of the "Likers" commenting on the wall translates to around 20, 000 comments every week. That's a lot of work. We also try to maintain a high level of interactivity - so we have created some Ganesha based Facebook apps. "
"One of our apps allows you to share pictures of your Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. That one is popular. We also have a 'Make a Wish' app, which allows you to make wish to Lord Ganesha and responds with a randomised answer, " says Prashant Patil, Chief Marketing Officer at Social Konnekt. "We did consider whether it was appropriate to make an app like that. We decided that it would be OK as long as the responses to the wishes were supportive and not harmful. That app now is one of the most popular features of the page. "
Patil says that outside India, Ganesha fans come from Nepal, the US and Malaysia, in that order. Ganesha is more of a men's God, with 60 per cent of the page's fans being male.
Other religious organizations are using social media for local outreach. "We initially had a website on which we would put up church news, " says Ajay John, a member of the pastorate committee of the CSI East Parade Malayalam Church.
"But that was a set of static pages and after the initial enthusiasm around the website at the time of launch, interest died down. Nobody really visits a church website on a daily basis to check for updates. So we decided to link the website with our Facebook page, and every time we had some new content - whether it was a new activity - like the youth camp we are conducting now - or a new church bulletin, the update would be pushed on to our Facebook page, and appear on our members' feeds. As a result, the number of people visiting the website has tripled, " he says.
There are other, more personal pages. Lalitha Rushikesh felt blessed by Lord Venkateshwara on a visit to the Tirumala at Tirupathy. She detailed her experiences and prayers in a book and created a website and a Facebook page called Lord Balajee Miracles in 2011. The page has close to 20, 000 "Likes" today.
"We received a lot of feedback on our Facebook page not just from India, but also from the US, the Middle East and Europe. Many of the devotees who like the page have heard about us from other devotees who have performed the Sree Venkateswara Vratham puja or read our Telugu book that we are distributing for free of cost, " she says.
For people who don't have dedicated religious pages - the bulk of the Facebook population - religion is in the post, in the status update and the comment. V K Vasudevan is a 42-year-old financial consultant who posts frequently on matters related to Hinduism. "I share because I would love to spread the message of my system of philosophy, " he says. "It's not as much a question of identity or pride in my beliefs - but the wish that others enjoy what I would. There is also the convenience of addressing people all over the world at the same time. "
But as Pope Benedict warned: "It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact. "
M Satyavathy, a great grandmother from Bangalore, echoes this in her own way. "In our time, people would visit the temple every day. There were morning prayers and evening prayers. You would meet family, your neighbours at the temple. Now, these days - its a big thing if you see a familiar face at the temple. You only see your family on the computer, on Facebook doing puja in photographs. It's not the same thing. "
She pauses and then adds, "Pictures of the Gods on the Facebook are good. Pictures of the Gods are always good. "
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