catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 13 :: 2009.06.19 — 2009.07.02


Facebook reconsidered

For this past Lenten season, I decided to give up Facebook.  It all started with my friend Suzanne who gave up Facebook for Lent last year.  Her decision struck me as odd because Facebook is not alcohol, meat or television — it is a tool, a social networking device, so what’s the big deal?  Suzanne found that Facebook was becoming more of a distraction than a tool as she wasted time glancing through updates, looking at photos and tinkering with profile updates.  Her Lenten sacrifice caused me to rethink my connection to Facebook and ask what is this for?

Facebook’s ubiquity is undeniable.  According to founder Mark Zuckerberg, “If Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated in the world, just ahead of Japan, Russia and Nigeria.” Farhad Manjoo, of Slate magazine, writes that Facebook has crossed a threshold and “is now so widely trafficked that it’s fast becoming a routine aide to social interaction, like e-mail and antiperspirant.” And its popularity is hardly surprising given its many uses and conveniences:  I can keep up with friends as they post pictures of their babies, pets, vacations, graduations, weddings and other life events.  Status updates alert me to their daily escapades, opinions, and whatever else they share with the world — for better or worse.  Not only am I immediately accessible through a “wall” and “inbox,” every person I add to my network of “friends” is also immediately accessible to me. Yet despite the conveniences of such accessibility, I find that surfing Facebook often leaves me feeling disconnected and even isolated.

Most of my close friends live far away and I try to keep all the channels of communication open in order to stay connected.  In fact, these friends are why I joined Facebook in the first place. But I am often discouraged to realize daily that I am not present in their lives in the same way I once was — and probably never will be again.  I now realize that I have expected this social networking tool to keep my relationships strong, and that is an inappropriate expectation of any tool.  As the years go on and regular communication becomes more difficult, I learn that deep friendship requires an active giving of time and conversation, specifically through written or verbal communication. But the more I use Facebook, the more I feel it creates the habit of passively spreading information to a network of genuine friends, colleagues and acquaintances.  Eventually the constant bombardment of passive information feels like nothing more than white noise or static to me.

I fear this passive communication makes us lazy friends and lazy communicators.  I feel hurt to discover a status update informing the world that a close friend is pregnant or accepting a new job.  I feel I should have been told first, either face to face or at least in a personal message.  How do I then respond?  Do I simply reply via a wall post, or should I make a phone call, write a message, or wait until we meet for coffee to offer congratulations or thoughts?  What if a friend freely broadcasts her circumstances over Facebook but never shares the heartbreak, the prayer request, or the good news with me personally?  I have had a Facebook account for three years, and have been forced to question how close a friendship is when information is broadcast over Facebook but not face to face through conversation.

Facebook, with its design for constant updates, makes it easy to believe that simply because I have the ability to share my mood every hour means that I should. When I think twice before I post information on Facebook, I discover I don’t need to announce how angry, frustrated or lonely I am to three hundred people. Now I wonder if I am simply indulging in narcissism by talking about myself when no one is listening or bothers to respond. 

“Fasting” from Facebook forced me to consider what I use Facebook for.  Our lives are intertwined with technologies that can provide convenience, entertainment and easy access to knowledge, but as we discern what technologies to utilize we also need to create boundaries.  I am fairly convinced, for example, that I do not want to be immediately accessible to a large group of people who are mostly acquaintances, nor do I want access to all of their personal information.  I wonder what would happen if I used the time spent on Facebook to write personal letters, e-mails or make phone calls instead — in other words, to give personal information actively and deliberately to my friends to continue to deepen our friendship.  I ought to know what the technology in my life is for rather than simply defaulting to use it just because it is available.

When my friend Suzanne gave up Facebook we began exchanging regular, long e-mails.  We created space for actively giving each other personal information that builds our friendship.  And so, even though this dear friend now lives far away, our friendship has deepened. Taking friendship seriously means taking how we communicate seriously.  My goal during Lent was to communicate with my friends through phone calls, e-mails, written letters and conversations over coffee. I hoped that by giving up Facebook for Lent I would create space for my friendships to grow, and decide whether Facebook is a tool I really need. 

Since Easter Sunday, April 12, I have not reactivated my Facebook account.  During Lent I had more peace of mind without the daily saturation of Facebook chatter.  I have not reactivated my Facebook account, and am not sure if I will.  But if I do reactivate it I intend to carry what I learned during Lent with me, and will never allow Facebook to become a substitute for intentional or face-to-face communication.

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