Did you see this cover story from the May 2012 Atlantic?
Some quotable quotes:
“Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation.”
“Self-presentation on Facebook is continuous, intensely mediated, and possessed of a phony nonchalance that eliminates even the potential for spontaneity.”
“Our online communities become engines of self-image, and self-image becomes the engine of community.”
The article is intriguing, as are some of the rebuttals that have been written since. I don’t think Facebook is making us lonely, but it’s certainly not making us any less lonely. It’s probably exacerbating our existing loneliness, and, at its worst, preying on the loneliest by offering them a nearly irresistible placebo for whatever genuine connection they are craving.
Even if Facebook is more trouble than it’s worth, it’s not going away, so I’m not here to argue that we should avoid it or get rid of it. But here are my main two laments about it right now:
First: Don’t most of us, at our core, long to live lives of authenticity? Does Facebook do more to help or to hinder that? Facebook is a great forum for sharing celebrations and triumphs but not as great for sharing struggles and sorrow. Even the “Like” button perpetuates an ethos of sharing “likeable,” upbeat things. Lately I’ve noticed that when Facebook friends share some sad news, there’s often a disclaimer like “I know this is a weird thing to share on Facebook but…” Granted, few of us want to share our hurts as widely as our happiness, but it just feels awkward to be transparent about the highs in our lives and then to refrain from adding our lows to others’ news feeds (especially when our lows put us more in need of our friends’ support than our highs ever necessitated their accolades!). How authentic can we be if we are disseminating such edited versions of our experience? One wants to hope, of course, that we all have individuals and groups that serve as intimate confidants for us in “real” life, but that’s not always the case. Facebook is a great place to share news of engagements, weddings, pregnancies, births, anniversaries, and the like. I know, though, that for every joyous announcement in my news feed, there is another friend whose life is currently marked with struggles such as divorce, infertility, and raw grief over the death of a loved one.
By no means do I want my friends to stop sharing their joy, nor will I prod my sorrowing friends to go public with their pain. Lord knows I don’t feel Facebook is a safe place to share honestly about what it’s like to be single right now. But I just get more frustrated after a Facebook session–it feels like a waste of time anyway, and even more of a waste of time if I’m getting such a lopsided dose of reality. And I suspect it’s that lopsidedness that adds to Facebook’s power to make us come to distorted conclusions about how our happiness stacks up against everyone else’s.
This dynamic of Facebook especially bothers me, I think, because I spend my days as a pediatric chaplain intensely committed to the business of trying to be present with people in a way that lets them be their real selves, to unburden themselves of the whole blend of joy and pain that marks the experience of having a beloved child hospitalized with an acute or chronic, often life-limiting or life-threatening illness. I listen all day to the kinds of powerful, truth-telling, real perspectives on life that are not really “safe” for Facebook culture. Facebook will never satiate our appetites for deep, authentic connection and communication. And I think most of us know that and aren’t seeking that from Facebook. I worry about younger and younger children and teens, though, whose relational worlds are so thoroughly infused with social media. Time will tell how it shapes their attitudes and capacity for real-life relationships.
Many, I’m sure, would point out to me that a lot of Facebook’s role in our lives depends on how we use it. Yes, of course. As with most things, it can be a helpful tool if used well. But we’re all figuring out what that means as we go, aren’t we, and aren’t we also seeing that its ubiquity and allure gets the better of us regardless of our degree of resolve to use it well or thoughtfully (why else would it become something that is popular to give up for Lent?).
Which brings me to my second point. Even more troubling to me than the shortcomings of Facebook as a relational tool are its downright shameless pursuits at turning all of us into tools. Facebook would be harmless enough as a mediocre way of connecting with others, if that’s all it were. But Facebook cares a lot more about how it uses us, than about how we use it. We are discerning how to use it effectively for networking, reconnecting, communicating….meanwhile, Facebook is cultivating our functional use as commodities. We are sources of personal information, we are revenue producers for all the hungry advertisers and myriads of others who benefit from every new wee breach of our privacy. Spend all the time you want constructing your image on Facebook, but it won’t be your identity as a unique, intrinsically valuable human being that Facebook values, it will be your role as a potential consumer of whatever goods and services can be targeted to your demographic. For people of faith, this insidious reality of Facebook shouldn’t be ignored. At the end of the day, I’m so grateful to be in relationships, communities, and theological traditions where I am invited to be my real self, warts and all, and where I’m reminded that my worth as a person far transcends both the image of myself that I project to others, and the dollar signs that Mark Zuckerberg sees above my head.