Managing Identities Using Social Networks
I first joined Facebook to keep in touch with my friends from the 2006 NUJLS (National Union of Jewish LGBTIQQ Students) Conference. From the beginning, my Facebook persona has had definite Jewish and Queer elements to it, from posts about NUJLS and conversations with friends I met at the conferences to posts about related events, groups, and community activism.
Many of the people I connected to were students in my NUJLS seminars, or my teachers for NUJLS seminars. Having such a supportive network of activists helped me to develop my own identity as someone who belongs to both the Queer and the Jewish worlds, and helped to support and encourage other people who identify with these two groups. My friends made it easier to talk about my own identity both within the NUJLS community and outside it.
According to Vinny Prell, the Executive Director of NUJLS, “NUJLS members have always used technology to create Queer Jewish community when they cannot have it in person. They have used web and social media to talk to friends, create events, train staff, and fall in love.” I personally know at least one couple who met through NUJLS, and many more people who made close friends from all over the world at the conferences.
Social networking sites such as Facebook allow us to interact with many different people. We can connect to friends, colleagues, relatives, and people from all over the world who share our identities and interests. Dev Singer, the administrator for the NUJLS Alumni Facebook page, says that while NUJLS conference announcements are sent to Hillels and other Jewish organizations, “Most people find NUJLS by plain word of mouth--and Facebook is really good at providing that word of mouth as people invite friends to the Facebook event, who in turn invite their friends, who in turn invite their friends...[which] means that advertising isn't necessarily tied down to any physical space, and someone in Maryland could spread the word to someone in Texas or Idaho.”
Based on my own experience, I suspected that many young Jews have strong online personas that incorporate their Jewish identities, even when they're connected to non-Jews and friends from other communities. My own posts often have Jewish content, whether in the Yiddish or Hebrew words I use, my greetings for Jewish holidays, or events in Jerusalem for new olim (immigrants to Israel) like me. I usually post events as my status, so they reach everyone who reads that status, and not just a select group that a Facebook message might reach, or the people subscribing to a particular group list.
I wanted to find out if other young Jews use social networking sites in similar ways.
I created a survey in Google Docs, asking about the sites people use, who they connect to, how people's online personas reflect their Jewish identity and affiliations to other nationalities or groups, and any other comments they had. I received about forty responses to the survey, which was posted on several Jewish and general sites and sent out by PresenTense.
The survey revealed a few things I hadn't expected. People definitely think about which relatives and coworkers they’re connected to when posting on Facebook, but it doesn’t seem to limit the Jewish content of their posts, even when they knew that not all of the people who read it are Jewish. As one respondent said, “It is clear from my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles that not only am I Jewish, but I am a particularly liberal and social justice-y type of Jew. And while I wouldn't invite non-Jews to join an IDF [Israel Defense Forces]-supporting group, I would invite them to take part in Jewish events with me, definitely.”
People with Jewish identities also incorporate other national or group ties into their online personas. More than one person mentioned having an American or Israeli identity as well as a Jewish one.
For organizations with an annual conference like NUJLS, Facebook provides a space for connecting to the community during the rest of the year, for promoting the conference to friends and Facebook buddies, and for promoting other Queer Jewish events. Even when we don't see each other every day, we can still be present in each others lives. It reminds us that we have a supportive community from all over the world to reaffirm and strengthen our identities as Queer Jews within our other social or national identities.
Lynley Shimat Lys is a poet, playwright and essayist living in Jerusalem. Lynley studies Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Rothberg School of the Hebrew University and holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley.