Anyone who has a message relevant to any segment of the general populace in America, be they corporate or non-profit, will eventually have to develop and maintain some sort of presence on social networks if they want their message to be heard. Period. We already know that the majority of young adults (75% of Americans aged 18-24, according to Pew) are on social networks, but 3.2 million seniors have also joined Facebook in the past year. Social networking is bigger than email. Social media has far beyond proven itself as being an integral part of any marketing or publicity strategy.
But on a sociological level, social networking has also irreversibly altered the definition of the interpersonal relationship. A "friend" is what one gains with a click of a button, itemized on a "list"; what one "likes" is their content. We make new "friends" when we find other network members with similar interests. Ours is an age of feeds and connections, of following and stumbling, of seamlessly interacting with our favorite brands, celebrities and highschool classmates in a growing sea of content. Those who interact with the same type or source of content — be they programmers updating the same piece of open-source software, a social network’s user base, or a group of armchair videographers documenting their lives on YouTube — invariably eventually form a "community."
Essentially, the affiliated Jewish community could be similarly defined: a group of people who choose to interact with the same type of content — granted, much more sublime (Divine?) content than YouTube’s — united by a bond infinitely stronger than a mass group invitation. Today’s "community" is a group of people whose connection is not determined by geography, but by their affinity for the content which unites them. It is the affinity for publicly available code that unites the open source community; similarly, it is the affinity for Jewish values, texts and concepts that unites the Jewish community.
Affinity and geography may not always intersect. It holds true for web 2.0 and exponentially more true for Jewish life. There is no shortage of testimonies of people who are bogged down by the geographically-defined Jewish communities in which they live.
It has become counter-productive, then, to define Jewish community in terms of geographic location: both to the Jews in and outside of said community.
It is time for post-geographic Judaism.
Our Jewish neighborhoods — especially Orthodox ones (especially in New York) — are rife with Jewish kids (and adults) who are finding themselves in the wrong place, all the time. When one is dissatisfied with one’s immediate surroundings — the shul, the JCC, the neighborhood — one tends to withdraw, a withdrawal which can equal dropping out entirely in smaller communities. Yet the social networks are still there — perhaps even more so.
We must begin to at least partially divest the offline relationship from the idea of affiliation. If there is anything we have learned from Facebook, it is how easy it is to, with enough tenacity, scour the globe and find "one million people" who agree with a given assertion or cause. Jewish causes are no exception. These people are effectively no less connected than their offline counterparts in a community center. While there may be less of us going to shul and joining Jewish organizations, more of us are joining — and becoming active participants in — Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
A decline in synagogue attendance and offline affiliation does not necessarily mean the death-knell for Jewish observance when organic, intentional online communities are seen as equally relevant and salient as their offline counterparts. When we see our online relationships not as "less than" our offline ones, but as differently-structured equally strong connections, our sense of "community" is redefined. In the online realm, a user goes from "unaffiliated" to "connected" in an instant. Every connection is intentional, yet effortless. This is a phenomenon which can save Judaism.
Social networking has not superseded "organized religion", in fact, it has re-organized it.
Barriers to affiliation can cease to exist if the chat room is seen as equal to the pew. A "join" button is far less daunting than an unfamiliar synagogue, and its connections no less real. A rabbi accessible via text message is now privy to his congregation’s thoughts when they are secure behind their cell phones. A webcasted Hillel event now has twice as many attendees. And perhaps most importantly, the previously cold or unfamiliar minyan is now a tweetup, comprised of members who follow each other — because they like each others’ content. Top-down hierarchical rabbinic communication is being eschewed in favor of the Hillary-esque "conversation"– and as we learned from the Lipa Shmelczer incident, even the most ideologically conservative communities no longer stomach being talked "at".
Building offline religious/cultural affiliation can only be done in the framework of the new sociology. The offline relationship is no longer the "goal" of the online interaction — social media must be appreciated as equally valid and viable alternative modes of communication. Until the Facebook group member, Twitter follower, and MySpace friend all feel as connected to our organizations as the person in the adjacent chair, that chair will always be in danger of remaining empty.