I don't believe Facebook is intrinsically evil.
This is not a promising way to begin a column, but it must be said upfront so that readers don't think I'm a Luddite. I am actually on Facebook and have a great many "friends." And I actually visit my homepage a couple of times a week. Like many people, I've especially enjoyed connecting with friends I haven't seen in decades.
Connecting is what Facebook promises. Not community as such, or even friendship. Everyone knows that a Facebook friend is not a friend in any meaningful sense, but only another Facebook member with whom one is "connected," meaning you have access to each other's information as compiled on your respective pages, and can, among other things, instantly get short "status updates" about what the other is thinking or doing.
Facebook is part of the larger electronic phenomenon deemed social networking, which includes text messaging, Twitter, e-mail, blogging, and so forth — all of which are said to herald a new day in human interaction. But let's stick to Facebook as the prime example and admit that, in the end, Facebook actually sabotages our ability to genuinely connect with others. But it is an entertaining saboteur.
Really entertaining. I am writing this on the fifth anniversary of Facebook. The social networking phenomenon began on February 4, 2004, at Harvard University, and within a month, over half of the student body was registered. It was quickly introduced to Stanford and Yale and other Ivy League schools, then to all colleges and universities, and finally to everyone on the planet. Today there are some 90 million active users.
While the popularity of Facebook facilitates broad connectivity, I believe it does so at the expense of intimacy. Intimacy is what we really want. But because we are lazy and fearful creatures, we'll settle for connectivity, because connectivity suggests intimacy but without all the bother. It's like fooling around before marriage: lots of fun but without the danger of pregnancy or the psychological commitment of intercourse.
While Facebook connects me to people at one level (I have more "friends" than I've ever had — I feel so popular!), at another level it makes it harder to really connect with people. This is especially true when I take my Facebook responsibilities seriously — that is, read friends' status updates, regularly post my own, and send messages to friends. It's a lot of fun when I have the time. But it's a huge distraction.
As any Facebooker acknowledges, the interactions are superficial. It's mostly small talk. I have nothing against small talk. It serves a genuine social purpose of greasing the wheels of relationships as they get warmed up. But small talk becomes tiny talk and insignificant blather when it circles in on itself time and again. It's like coffee hour at some churches, where the conversation remains exceedingly trivial Sunday after Sunday, stuck in the weather, the stock market, and (for Chicagoans) "da Bears." Church coffee hour that doesn't lead to anything deeper (like joining a Bible study or small group or missions team) is something we quickly dread.
For some people, Facebook does lead to deeper connections. But for a lot of us, me included, it does not. And yet we don't dread it. Yes, it's like church coffee hour, but the difference is that I keep running into new people to be trivial with, so it's all so very exciting. "Guess who I ran into on Facebook today?" I exclaim to my wife every so often. But I never go deeper with anyone there. And the few times I have tried, through messaging and e-mail, it's been an utter disaster.
That's because, as we are slowly learning in this techie age, electronic communication is a poor substitute for audible conversation and physical presence with another. There's a reason God created us with bodies, and why bodily presence is necessary to create and sustain truly meaningful human relationships.
Instead, for most of us most of the time, Facebook is relational entertainment. And like all forms of entertainment, it is a gift of the Creator of joy. It can temporarily distract us from our routines and problems, and offer brief spurts of happiness. It seems more human than television, but in the end, it's an extension of television. It's interactive reality television. We read about the daily plotlines of other characters, and add our own plot twists and witty dialogue, and then talk to others about what we read and said around the office coffee machine.
The most significant Facebook connection for me, then, happens outside of Facebook. It happens with those people made of human flesh and blood, who speak audibly to me, and whose body language is such an integral part of their communication. These are real friends with whom I work and live, with whom I trade banter about da Bears and the latest episode of 24, and to whom I exclaim, "Guess who friended me on Facebook!" — greasing the wheels of a relationship I yearn will go deeper.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. This column is cross-posted on his blog, where he promises to interact electronically with his social network of readers.
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Agnieszka Tennant wrote about Facebook frustrations in an October 2007 column.
Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site.