Facebook’s found a new way to capitalise on the thoughts, prayers (and data) from the religious side of its user base. On Thursday, the company confirmed that it’s begun expanding a new feature called “prayer posts” that will let members of particular Facebook groups literally ask for (and offer up) prayers for other folks on the platform.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the feature’s been in testing for “over a year” before quietly rolling out to the masses over the past few months. Back in April, Robert Jones — who runs Public Religion Research Institute in Washington DC — was one of the first public faces to actually ask the company what the hell these posts actually were.
So I just had this “Introducing Prayer Posts” pop up as a new fb feature on my profile. Anyone else seeing this? Wondering what fb algorithm thinks it knows about me? pic.twitter.com/TnP1reKDGR— Robert P. Jones (@robertpjones) April 14, 2021
His question wasn’t picked up by mainstream outlets at the time, but more than a few religious-facing newswires jumped on the story and got Facebook to confirm that Prayer Posts were indeed being tested on a select few groups, though the company wouldn’t elaborate on which groups they were (hint: probably users who are religious).
At the time, Nona Jones — who has the baffling role of leading “Global Faith Partnerships” for the company — told one of these religious outlets that the idea for prayer posts stemmed from the need to “build community,” with users over the course of the pandemic. It’s not a coincidence that Jones was seeing this post in the lead-up to Easter when churches were expecting to see their attendance to be sliced to a fraction of what they’d expect in the pre-covid era.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve seen many faith and spirituality communities using our services to connect, so we’re starting to explore new tools to support them,” a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo. He added that the feature first debuted in select groups in the US in order to “give people the option of requesting prayer from their Facebook Group,” if they choose. The company did not answer questions on whether any of the data from these posts would be used to deliver targeted ads at users based on their group-praying habits.
When a group administrator opts into using the feature, members just drop prayer requests into the group, and then others can flock over and hit the “pray” button to notify the poster that their request has been prayed for. Sure, it’s… something, but like the majority of Facebook’s design, it’s a concept that feels cold and clinical and more than a bit bizarre. This is a company that puts profits before all else, always, and has found ways to turn even the smallest blip on the platform into data to be monetized. And if prayers are something deeply personal to the users posting them, at the end of the day, they’re still just points of data on a major social platform that has absolutely no scruples about turning over that data for as much cash as possible.