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In Defence of Facebook

In Defence of Facebook

This morning Danielle Bean called my attention to a well-intentioned article excoriating the use of Facebook and calling all Catholics to jump on the bandwagon and abstain from Facebooking for Lent. I found the article’s analysis of Facebook to be overly-simplistic, pessimistic, and edging toward the alarmist instead of measured and discerning. And not surprisingly written by a person who by his own admission does not use Facebook.

Yes, Facebook can be trivial, silly, a mindless waste of time. Yes, it can even be an addiction, can be used maliciously and can lead people astray in other ways, I’m sure. And certainly many of the points that Father Berg raises are well worth pondering. Perhaps some of us are called to abstain from Facebook for the duration of Lent or perhaps altogether. But the article does its readers a grave disservice as it ignores all the ways in which Facebook can also be used for good. Dare I say, it can even be used for God?

Berg’s criticism reminds me of a comment C.S.Lewis once made. He said that a man who doesn’t like reading mystery novels shouldn’t write reviews of them. If the genre in general doesn’t appeal to you, then you are not really a good critic of what is done well and what is done poorly in any work in that genre. Your distaste for the genre itself gets in the way of your discernment. Likewise, I think criticism of media is better left to those who actually use and enjoy those media. Certainly there is room for criticism of Facebook and other social networking sites, I’m just not certain he is the best person to make that critique.

Fr Berg asks:

What is Social Networking Doing to Our Brains? And to our ability to engage in human friendship?

Well, in my case it has helped me reconnect to far-flung friends and family with whom I have lost touch. Without Facebook, I would not know that my high school friends were married, had kids, had moved to another state. I wouldn’t be exchanging emails with my college buddies and photos with my family. It has enriched my life in many small ways, reknitting ties that I thought were probably severed for good.

Father Berg objects that Facebook substitues false shallow friendships for real human relationships:

So let�s see:  we all have a natural vocation to love; friendship entails a genuine giving of oneself to another for the sake of the other (�becoming a gift� for the other), opening oneself in vulnerability to the other for the good of the other; friendship affords me the ability to look into my friend�s eyes, and enables us to laugh together and cry together, to spend time with each other, to become better human beings just because we were able to spend an hour at lunch together�

    Contrast that with a little red icon on your Facebook page indicating that someone is inviting you to be their Facebook �friend.�

    Sorry, I�ll take and keep the real deal.

I suppose what I object to is this false dichotomy between fake Facebook friends and “the real deal.” Would I prefer to spend an hour at lunch with my online friends? Of course. And when we have the opportunity to do so, rest assured most of us will seize it with both hands. But with the majority of my Facebook friends that is not a real option. Facebook allows us to laugh together and cry together, to share pictures when we cannot look into each other’s eyes. It is a pale imitation of what I wish we could have; but better than having lost these friendships altogether. Let’s look at the real contrasts, the real choices people are making, not a false dichotomy. Facebook can allow us to be vulnerable and to give gifts of ourselves to each other when otherwise we might have drifted apart. We can share with each other, recounting an experience of a good meal, the birth of a child, of loss, of prayer, of death, of faith. Not as deeply as we would like, not sharing touch, physicality, true; but it is physical distance not Facebook that separates us. For me Facebook is a bridge over that physical distance that life’s circumstances have imposed on me.

The sad fact is that our generation’s increased mobility and the fast pace of the modern world have often led to fragmented relationships. I live in Massachusetts while my parents and brothers live in Texas, my grandmother lives in Illinois and I have aunts, uncles and cousins scattered from coast to coast. And some relatives even live overseas. The same goes for my friends. After high school, I lost touch with everyone. After college, I found my friends drifting away.

I didn’t want to join Facebook, I did so under persuasion from my husband. I thought it would be a stupid drain, one more internet thing to waste my time. I thought I’d sign up, play with it for a week or so, and then let it fall away. But once online, I started to to make connections. Real connections with real people. Not new friendships, as Fr Berg implies, but new connections with old friends.  My brother and sister are on Facebook, my mother, my cousins, an aunt and some uncles, my mother-in-law, and all these friends that moved away and drifted away. They are all out there living interesting lives and now I get to touch them again. I get to see pictures of their kids and hear details of their lives. Suddenly the years melt away. It’s like a high school reunion, a college reunion and a family reunion all rolled into one.

Fr Berg argues:

And beyond the valid concern about what social networking sites can do to the mind, I�m even more concerned about what they are doing to our ability to interact socially, and most of all what they are doing to our understanding of friendship and human love.  Can you really call a person with whom you�ve exchanged an email and/or perhaps spoken to on the phone once or twice or met once a �friend�?  That�s not only a sickly impoverishment of the notion of human friendship; it�s downright dangerous for a healthy culture.

I heartily agree with Father’s argument that the kind of interaction he describes is far from healthy. But is that really how people are using Facebook? I suppose some people somewhere may be doing just that. Yet I’ve never heard of it or seen it except in third-party hearsay anecdotes attacking social networking sites. In my experience people use Facebook to reinforce pre-existing relationships, not to form new ones. This is a straw-man argument, attacking not what Facebook is but what it is perceived to be.

Fr. Berg also objects to the trivialities that people post on Facebook:

Now, call me a sociopath, but are any of you really interested in knowing that I went to the dentist last Thursday (no cavities), or that a couple of weeks ago I bought a pretty green hanging plant which I keep perched above my computer? But if I were on Facebook, I would have been tempted to make all my Facebook �friends� privy to such extraordinary personal events.

Yes, I agree sometimes those trivialities can seem—can, in fact, be—well, trivial. But then so is so much of the chitchat we engage in when meeting friends after Mass or over coffee. Let’s face it, without trivialities there would be very little conversation even among the best of friends and the deepest of soulmates. Real human relationships are laced together with a network of trivial interactions and inane exchanges about the weather, our health and what we ate for breakfast. It is precisely those little details that get lost when you’ve moved far away from friends and family and these exchanges which can be so hard to recapture in email or by phone. Have you ever tried to have a real conversation on the phone with a long-lost college buddy when both you and she have multiple children under five? Trust me, sometimes Facebook is a better way to reconnect.

In fact, now that I think of it, if triviality is Facebook’s greatest weakness, it’s also its greatest strength. It is precisely those intimate minutia and details that can give us a glimpse into aspects of someone’s life and personality we might not otherwise see and make someone seem more human not less. Recently a fairly distant acquaintance posted an update about her father’s death, when she might otherwise never be able to talk about it with me. This sharing opened up chances for sympathy and prayers and perhaps a closer friendship.

Because of a trivial comment I made on my Facebook profile about my sick child, I had a delightful
interchange with my cousin in Chicago about our children. I haven’t seen this cousin since our aunt’s wedding several years ago. At the time I was unmarried and she had just had her first child. We aren’t close, and don’t know each other well. I’d never have called her or emailed her; but Facebook’s short update format was a perfect opening for an exchange that began in trivialities but ended with a real connection with a real person. We may not see each other for several more years and in the meantime our children are growing, our families are growing.

Because a college buddy of mine posted a trivial comment about drinking coffee and eating chocolate, the two of us travelled down memory lane, recalling our trip to Greece and a memorable Irish Cream chocolate bar we discovered and shared. She’s married with two children and I haven’t seen her but once since graduation. Sure, I’d love to sit down and have a real cup of coffee with her; but we live on opposite sides of the country from each other and that day may be long in coming.

Also via Facebook several of my cousins organized a campaign to send my housebound grandmother Valentine’s Day cards. I sadly didn’t get my act together to participate; but that doesn’t negate the value of Facebook as a tool to organize people. That is in fact what it is best at.

Much of the triviality and tawdriness on Facebook can be traced to its roots as a college networking site. The worst aspects of the site reflect the worst aspects of collegiate life. At the same time, even for college kids Facebook isn’t only about hooking up and drinking and inane poking each. A professor I know at a Catholic college uses Facebook to keep in contact with his classes, to inform them of changes in schedule or meeting place or assignments. And my sister reports from the college front that as often as her friends abuse Facebook, using it as a substitute for picking up a phone or dropping by, there are as many cases in which she might not have known about a social event without the Facebook invite. Let’s clear up one major misperception, college kids don’t only interact with each other online. For most of them Facebook isn’t a substitute for real life but a tool to organize their very busy social lives full of real flesh and blood people (sometimes a little too flesh and blood, if you know what I mean; but that’s a different objection.) Facebook is the perfect tool to arrange those valuable face-to-face meetings for busy students who can otherwise find that their frantic schedules makes it impossible to connect. Facebook can be used to organize study groups and prayer groups and Bible studies as easily as it can be used for beer bashes and less-savory get-togethers.

What it comes down to is this, Facebook is merely a tool. Misguided Christians have been hurling anathemas toward various forms of media for two thousand years: poetry, plays, novels, radio, movies, television, the internet, blogs have all had their turn. Now it is apparently Facebook’s turn. But all of these efforts are wrongheaded and really verge on a heretical sort of thinking. As Christians we are not dualists. We believe that matter is good. Things are good. Yes, there have been examples from each of these media of misuses that have led people astray. But let us not confuse the misuses of the tool with the tool’s innate moral value.  And yes Facebook, like every other medium, can distract us from God and can be used for trivial or even evil purposes. But we must remember that evil does not reside in things, it is not in the tools we use, or in the media we consume. The evil is always and everywhere in the hearts of men.

We should be careful when reacting to new technologies that we are not reacting merely to their misuse. The internet is a sort of Wild West territory, a new found land that is just beginning to be explored. History has shown us time and again that pioneers are often not those with higher motives and sterling characters. But after the trailblazers come the missionaries following in their footsteps, bringing the gospel message and all the benefits of civilization. We should not turn our backs on the internet, on Facebook and other social networking sites. Imagine what would have happened had the brave men and women who risked their lives bringing the gospel message to this country had stayed at home for fear of being corrupted by the low morals of the natives and the first settlers. Rather, we should boldly set out to use these new technologies in the best way possible, bringing our values and our knowledge of Christ with us, as we should bring them everywhere we go.

We are called to be in the world but not of it. We must learn to use moderation in our use of all the things of the world. Excessive use of any good thing can come between us and God. Too much television, too many novels, even too much volunteer work at church might pull us away from our proper duties towards our family and to God.

Some individuals might indeed find that for them Facebook is too great a temptation and that their best path is not to use it at all. But others may well be able to use it for good, reconnecting with friends and family and reaching out in love and friendship. As with all aspects of life, this calls for prayerful discernment. We should always be careful in everything we do that we are moving toward God and not away from Him.

And yes, it is a good thing for us to be aware of the unique challenges that Facebook poses. There is room for thoughtful critique, to help us discern when and where and how best to use this new tool. Bring it on. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Rather than foreswearing Facebook, we might consider how else we might use it as a tool for evangelization. I know that our archdiocese has used Facebook to help organize Theology on Tap and other events for young adults. There are many pro-life Facebook groups and I’ve seen many Catholics using Facebook to create fan pages for their favorite saints, to organize novenas and prayer chains and to raise awareness about causes and feast days and church events, and to ask for prayers and knit themselves closer as far-flung members of the Body of Christ. Virtual relationships should never replace or take precedence over face-to-face ones; but the worldwide web can be a means of strengthening those real connections between real members of the universal, worldwide Church.

I’ll confess, one of the trivial things that drives me most crazy on Facebook is when everyone “becomes a fan of” something or other. And yet the Catholics seem to have taken over this silly triviality and made it their own and made even this a tool for devotion, education, and evangelization. How exciting is it to see hundreds, thousands of people becoming fans of St.Therese or St Francis? My sister reports that just this past week a bunch of her friends became fans of the “Eucharist, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus.” What a wonderful witness! I guarantee that many of their friends are not Catholics or not practicing Catholics. This small act of triviality is also a chance to share our excitement and devotion. How much must that small act of being a fan of the Eucharist stand out against the real trivialities of those who are fans of movie stars and television shows?

Finally, Father Berg raises objections to Facebook’s effect on the development of the human brain. It is possible that further scientific study may be necessary to determine safe and responsible levels of Facebook usage. But studies only get us so far. In the end it always comes down to individual discernment. Let’s be clear that, as with so many other things in life, different boundaries may be necessary for children, teens, young adults and mature adults. I don’t give my infants alcohol or caffeine or let them watch television, I will limit my teen’s exposure, carefully supervising their usage as they learn to navigate unfamiliar territory. And even adults must seek moderation. Excessive use of any of these is harmful to the development and function of the human brain. And yet in general society leaves it up to individuals to make that determination for themselves. Or at least it should. For some people any alcohol is too much, others can drink in moderation. So, I predict, it will be with Facebook.

Update:
I wanted to pull this up from the comment box because it is so pertinent to the conversation. John Murphy writes:

“In a recent message for World Communications Day, “New Technologies, New Relationships: Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue, and Friendship,” Pope Benedeict XVI stressed the growing importance of social media online. “When we find ourselves drawn toward other people,” he wrote, “when we want to know more about them and make ourselves known to them, we are responding to God’s call—a call that is imprinted in our nature as beings created in the image and likeness of God.”

In this way, social networks should facilitate, not replace or trivialize, the paramount importance of authentic human contact. God is a God of communion, of ever-flowing love between a trinity of three persons. The social web is a means, not an end, to allowing the Catholic community to share resources, advice, wisdom and experience on a global platform, while reaching out to others in a spirit of understanding and solidarity. Help us work towards building a Christ-centered civilization of love online!”

 

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