In Praise of Facebook

A new article over at Relevant Magazine talks about the dangers of Facebook envy and the threat social media poses to true community. 

I want to be sympathetic to the author's concerns, but I have to object to the way she universalizes one kind of experience with social media and suggests that it is inherent to those media themselves.  For some of us, Facebook can be a valuable tool for promoting true community.

Niequist writes:

We check [Facebook] when we’re bored and when we’re lonely, and it intensifies that boredom and loneliness.


I check Facebook when I'm bored and/or lonely, sure.  (Not only when I'm bored or lonely, but some of the times I check Facebook are also times that I'm bored or lonely.)  But it doesn't intensify those feelings -- it helps to relieve them.  I cease to be bored because my friends invariably post really interesting stuff that's worth reading on Facebook.  I cease to be lonely because there's a reasonably good chance that checking Facebook (at least at certain times of the day) will lead to having a real-time chat conversation with someone who loves me who is also on Facebook at the same time. And even if I don't end up in a direct exchange with a friend, I feel less alone simply by being connected with my friends' lives, sharing their everyday sorrows and joys as they come across in their status updates.

She continues:
... it only takes one friend at the Eiffel Tower to make you feel like a loser.

Again, Huh?

I can't say it any better than Jon Stewart:  "I'm not a doctor, but if you get upset because other people are happy, it seems your problem might not be Facebook, but that you're an asshole."

Seriously: if you respond to the news that one of your friends is in Paris by throwing a pity party for yourself rather than thinking, "That's so cool!  I hope she's having a great time!" -- you need to get over yourself.  And/or seek therapy.

Now, I freely grant that I have an exceptionally good experience with Facebook because I have extraordinary Facebook friends.  Every once in a while I am reminded that most people who use Facebook probably don't encounter a newsfeed filled with articulate, thoughtful, faithful reflections on life, the universe, and everything.  But Niequist's discussion seems to imply that every one of her Facebook friends uses the service only to present a carefully crafted persona that shows them in the best possible light.

I find this kind of hard to believe.  (Although, if it is the case, I guess I can understand why Niequist would find Facebook depressing.)  What I find when I log in to Facebook is not a newsfeed full of show-offs, but an opportunity to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  I pray for my friends who share their fears and struggles with me using Facebook.  I commiserate and offer encouragement to those who vent their frustration over the annoyances of living in a fallen world.  I laugh with delight at the pictures and anecdotes of my friends' brilliant and beautiful children.  I cheer the victories when my friends share the good news of a major goal accomplished.  Yes, I know, my friends don't show me everything that's going on in their lives, but in the aggregate, I feel like my Facebook feed gives me a realistic snapshot of the daily ups and downs in the lives of people I love, not just a set of "carefully curated images."

...I don’t think you can build transforming friendships that take place only in a public sphere like Facebook or Instagram.

I guess my point of disagreement with Niequist here is in her classification of Facebook as only "a public sphere."  To be fair, in calling her readers to "stop comparing" and "start connecting," she says, "You can use Facebook if you want," while arguing that other media like email, Skype, or text messages might be better suited.  She seems to experience Facebook as a format that encourages the user to passively consume status updates rather than interacting personally with the people who posted them.  But there is nothing about Facebook that forces us to use it that way.

Many of the most intimate and life-giving exchanges I have had on Facebook have been through mechanisms that Facebook provides that are decidedly NOT in the public sphere:  a private, invitation-only group that has become a place where members can reach out for moral support when dealing with hostile interlocutors on more public areas of Facebook (or the broader internet); a private message thread through which a group of friends organized a surprise for a new mother; another private message thread in which we rallied to encourage and pray for a friend with cancer.  I imagine these communications would fit Niequist's definition of connecting and building community.  They did not happen in spite of Facebook; they were things that happened in part because Facebook made them possible.

To my own great surprise, I have true friends whom I have never met in real life, but only know on Facebook.  I do not mean here "friend" only the Facebook sense of the word (I've got a number of those, too), but real friends -- people I love and pray for, people I would be delighted to welcome into my home if they ever come to my side of the country, people I trust, whom I genuinely believe I could call on for help in a crisis, and to whom I would readily offer my assistance if they needed it.  These are people for whom I am immensely grateful, and chances are we would never have known each other (and surely not known each other as well as we do) without Facebook.  They are for me the greatest possible testimony of the potential of Facebook to be a vehicle for real community.


Eliza Roy said...


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