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Friday, March 20, 2009

Why I Haven't Joined Facebook (Thoughts on Friendship and Self-Knowledge)

I’ve been asked a few times recently why I haven’t yet joined Facebook (an online personal networking site). It seems I’m one of the last surviving holdouts of my generation. So I thought I would offer here a brief defense for my willful neglect of this newest technological marvel, using it as a case study to examine the underlying philosophy of the technologies that shape almost everything we do. (Because of the length of these thoughts, I’ve posted the latter piece as a separate blog-article below. If you’re only interested in the reasons for my status as a Facebook virgin, then you don’t need to read the second post. However, in my opinion, the second post might be more worth reading, simply because most of our philosophy of technology is unconscious, and it does us good to consider it directly). It should be noted at the outset that, having never actually used Facebook, I’m in no position to offer a critique of it. Rather, this is intended to be an exposition of my own reasons for ignoring it—it’s not an argument for why no one should join.

Facebook is, as I understand it, a site that allows people to post their thoughts, activities, pictures and so on, and it offers easy connections to other “friends” and their posts—thus allowing a quick, efficient, and ever-accessible means of connecting with the people we like. My reasons for ignoring Facebook are numerous—some I’d like to think are kind of noble (and those are the ones I’ll focus on here), and a few are probably quite selfish. Let’s start with the potentially selfish reasons. First of all, I have very little desire to use Facebook, which makes motivation a problem; and second, no one has yet convinced me that I need Facebook. The desire probably stems from my introversion. I enjoy and appreciate people, but I seldom feel the need to seek new ways to connect with more of them. I tend to dodge mediums that would force me to interact with people more than I already do. I prefer to invest deeply in a small number of significant relationships in my immediate context than to spend my small reserves of social energy by interacting with growing numbers of acquaintances. That may strike some people as harsh and antisocial, but the truth of the matter is that if I stretch myself too thin by reaching for a greater quantity of personal interactions, the quality of the personal interactions that I really care about will probably diminish. (That’s simply the dynamic of introversion—I love people, but they wear me out, so I need to be conscientious with how I use the social energy that I do have.)

This leads me to one of my great concerns about Facebook—that it enhances the superficiality of relationships, already a growing problem in American culture. Being aware of the minutiae of everybody’s life does not automatically make relationships more significant. If anything, it may make them more trivial, leaving little room to focus on the deep heart-matters of true friendship. One of my deepest concerns is a very simple thing—the semantic impact that Facebook is having on the word “friend” for my generation. From what I’ve observed, it seems like Facebook (to the extent that I allow it), encourages everyone with whom I’ve ever had a conversation to become my “friend.” Contrast this with my understanding of friendship (an understanding that I would defend as the classical meaning). I have a very small circle of people whom I consider “true friends”—some family members, some college buddies, and a couple others—no more than ten people in all, and only two or three here with me in my current station of life. These are rich, precious friendships, in which almost anything can be expressed. They are infused with love, respect, and deep appreciation.

Every once in a great while, there is the opportunity to reach a level beyond true friendship—a partnership that used to be called “soul friendship” by the Celtic monks of the 1st millennium. The pre-eminent biblical example of this would be David and Jonathan. Soul-friendships are usually long-term, deeply committed, and it’s hard to have more than one at a time. But they are immeasurably rich and transformative—havens of peace and loyalty, strength and honor, adventure and joy. While it might sound like this level of friendship requires deep gushes of heartfelt emotion, that’s not necessarily the case. There will be a pleasant fondness and an openness to emotional and spiritual sharing, but it’s really all about being who we truly are with someone else. That’s not as easy to do as it sounds, which is what makes soul-friendship so rare. (While it’s possible to reach the place of soul-friendship with one’s spouse, my impression is that it’s actually more common with a friend of the same sex.)

A step below true friendship, I have a broader circle of “social friends”—people who run in the same circles, people whom I enjoy and am comfortable with, and who could, under the right set of circumstances, become true heart-friends. For me, this circle is also small, only slightly larger than my group of true friends. And many others are what I would call long-term acquaintances. Acquaintance-relationships are pleasant and enjoyable, but there’s very little deep investment in one another’s life. I’m open and accessible to helping acquaintances, even in very deep and personal ways if they need that kind of attention, but there is no assumption that that depth will be long-term or that there will be any reciprocation.

My observation is that the majority of Americans have a lot of acquaintance-friendships and probably a few “social friends,” but very few have learned the art of investing in true friendship. That’s not the case with everyone of course, but my impression is that I, despite my introversion, have more and better “true friendships” than the vast majority of the American population. Many, I suspect, have never had a true friend in their entire lives, to say nothing of having a soul-friend.

The sad truth is that American culture encourages this weakening of friendships. One major cause is our mobility. School and jobs pull us hundreds of miles away from our homes, and many Americans, even when settled into a career, will make major moves at least two or three more times in their lives. Technology has blessed us with the ability to do this, opening up opportunities that we wouldn’t have had in our original home areas. However, that blessing does not come without a cost. For most Americans, the “extended family” is a nice idea rather than an experiential reality. And because we move so much, we will inevitably leave behind large numbers of the friends we make in any particular place. While it’s possible to maintain a “true friendship” from a distance, it’s not an easy thing to do, and its quality suffers greatly from the separation. (And I’m convinced that it’s actually impossible to maintain a long-lasting soul-friendship from a distance).

The anonymity and self-sufficiency of American life also deals a blow to the classical experience of friendship. Most of us have very little need to rely on friends for anything in our lives. Even in our emotional distress, we can dull our souls with the narcotics of television and Internet entertainment rather than sharing that pain with anyone else. It’s far too easy to forego communal “play” with friends in favor of the pleasant comforts of our own sofa, our own TV.

A third cause is the trivialization of American life. A great mass of the population is losing touch with the things that are truly important in life, thanks mostly to the effects of mass media entertainment and the general spiritual malaise. The deepest we go now is merely the level of personal, emotional pain. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that emotional pain is unimportant. I am a firm supporter of the value of counseling and psychotherapy in many circumstances. But I do think that we are far more aware of our emotional woes in our psychologically-driven culture than most other cultures in the world have been. They are not unimportant, but they are taking over our lives in a dangerous and aggressive way. The breakdown of friendships allows for the cancerous spread of isolationism and emotional disease in our culture. Part of the reason, I suspect, is because we’ve lost our fluency in the things that go even deeper than emotional pain—the things of the spirit. We’ve lost the genuine community that would allow us to blossom into our full humanity.

So what does this have to do with Facebook? My feeling is that Facebook implicitly cripples our understanding of friendship by allowing the outer two circles of relationships—social friends and acquaintances—to fill the role of “friends.” This is certainly not intentional on Facebook’s part, but the plain fact of the matter is that it is not a good engine for the growth of deeper relationships—either true friendships or soul-friendships. These latter categories of friendship require time spent together, face-to-face interaction that will often be neither immediately accessible nor convenient. I worry that many in my generation are substituting Facebook-friends in place of true friends.

That’s not the case with everyone, of course, and there are people out there with enough social energy and wisdom to maintain a host of Facebook contacts at the same time as investing in deep, meaningful, true friendships. But in my case, that wouldn’t be the way it would work. If I gave in to its draw, Facebook could suck the life out of the relationships I have here and now. I care deeply about the friends I have elsewhere, but to be honest, I would rather connect with them face-to-face or through a more substantive medium sometime in the future than to see every random picture of their lives here and now. And here’s an intriguing point to consider: I’m not communicating any less with my friends in other places now than I was before Facebook came along. That indicates to me that the sort of interaction and catching-up that happens on Facebook is probably not worthwhile now, because it apparently wasn’t worth the effort before.

I’ve also heard the argument that Facebook can be a good forum for significant interactions over ideas, philosophical inquiries, and the like. That’s more attractive to me, but I remain dubious. In my experience, online interaction is about the poorest forum possible for genuine idea-driven discussions. It’s too easy to hide behind false facades; too difficult to see the facial expressions or the vocal inflections that would tell me what this idea actually means to the person I’m debating. Ideas are not just ideas, static and independent. They are born in the fire and wind of each individual heart, and without that personal connection, the meaning of the idea loses some of its luster. And it’s far, far too easy to misinterpret positions stated in online writing. It’s too easy to take offense at comments that were not intended to be offensive. It’s too easy to be angry and lose the common courtesy that we would have if we were speaking face-to-face. Even the email-discussions I sometimes have with close friends can go misunderstood or misinterpreted, and often end up either stalling or turning out to be hurtful. Unless each member of the discussion is a very, very good writer and a master of self-control, I would think that personal interactions are far superior to online interactions in almost every instance. If I feel the need for a good philosophical discussion, I (yes, even I, the introvert extraordinaire) would start a book club or a discussion group in my community rather than enlisting in an online polemic-fest.

The final appeal that I hear being made is the appeal to ministry. The argument goes like this: “Because you’re a minister of the Gospel, especially a minister who enjoys interacting in writing and ideas, then you ought to be on Facebook. That’s where the people of this generation are connecting, and if you want to connect with them, then that’s where you have to go. If you want to speak transformative ideas into their lives, then that’s where you need to do it.” This is somewhat more compelling (so compelling, in fact, that because of it I won’t rule out the possibility of my joining Facebook sometime in the future, perhaps as a way of touching base with kids in my church’s youth group). But I still don’t buy it. In my view, online connectivity as a means of genuine personal connectivity is a bust. For all the ways that we can now connect, Americans (and especially young Americans) are more lonely and isolated than ever before. It seems to me that there are two options—to use Facebook as a ministry-tool and so touch a lot of young people on an idea-driven basis, or to invest in personal relationships that offer not only idea-driven transformation, but the whole broad radiance of genuine person-to-person contact that reflects the image of Christ. Now, as I said, some people could probably manage to do both options in their ministry; I doubt that I can. And since the potential for personal transformation is so much higher in the latter option, that’s where I’ll put my focus. The danger for me is that Facebook, because it’s an online forum and therefore somewhat personally distant, will feed my introversion. For me, it’s the easy way out—to throw random ideas at people from the isolation of my own home and tell myself that that counts as “doing ministry,” rather than taking the courageous step of choosing to be actually involved in someone else’s life.

At the heart of it, while I have reservations about the cultural implications of Facebook, it comes down to knowing my own weaknesses. Facebook would encourage my introversion in relationships, allowing me to believe that online connection can substitute for true friendship. It would allow me to say, “It’s okay for me not to have any true friends here, because I have so many ‘friends’ that I’m connected with in other places.” It would also stroke my narcissism by giving me a place to post about myself all the time. There are sweet and poisonous dangers involved in having a place to construct one’s own identity through “friends” and personal preferences. For some reason, I don’t believe that the trivial details of everything I do during a day are actually worthy of anyone else’s consideration (and I’m under the impression that if I did start to believe that, I would be in serious danger of the deadly sin of pride). So again, this isn’t a critique of Facebook per se; rather, it’s an exploration of the ways that Facebook would be an unhealthy influence for me in my personal relationships and spiritual growth.

So that’s my defense. If there are any compelling virtues of Facebook that I need to reconsider, then please bring them to my attention. Otherwise, I’ll leave the Facebook world to its furious connections and instead take up the adventure of pursuing true friendship with those around me, here and now.

Technology Is Not Neutral

When it comes to critiquing new technologies, especially media technologies like the Internet or TV, one often hears a common argument: “The medium itself is morally and socially neutral; what matters is the content.” This underlying philosophy is the reason why concerned parents are worried about the sex and violence in their children’s TV programs and video games, rather than being concerned with the TV or video games themselves. We tend to accept new technologies rather blithely into our lives under the unspoken assumption that they aren’t good or bad in themselves; rather, the messages they carry are what have moral and social significance.

I would like to oppose that philosophy in this post. Technology is not neutral. Although the content of a particular medium is important to consider, we need to be aware of the ways that the medium itself shapes our lives. As the great media-critic Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” The clearest instance of this is television. TV is producing a cultural revolution in Western civilization at least comparable to the impact of Gutenberg’s printing press. (And, astonishingly enough, the advent of the Internet may have an even deeper impact in the long run). TV is moving us away from a culture of words, rationality, and focused, linear thought to a culture of images, emotion, and rapid-connection, multitasking thought. Consider what television has done to presidential elections—now not only are such rational marathons as the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates utterly unthinkable, but “image” and personal charisma is at least as important in a candidate as wisdom and discernment. Entertainment is replacing the acquisition of knowledge as a primary focus of life. Our cultural quest is now aimed at experience rather than truth. All of this happens almost regardless of what the content of a particular TV program is—it’s inherent in the nature of TV itself. (The best book to read on this subject is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death).

It’s actually a fun little exercise, and quite profitable if you have a good imagination and an understanding of history and culture: imagine what our society (or your own life) would look like without a particular technology. Take Microsoft Word (or any word-processing system), the program I’m using to write these thoughts right now. What was writing like before the advent of word processors that allowed in-text editing? Or even before typewriters (some of which also allow in-text corrections)? This is a bit of an exercise of the imagination for me, which gives you a clue as to my young age. Writing without a word processor is a whole different discipline. The rules of grammar and spelling and style are the same, but the process is very different. Here on this computerized picture of a piece of paper, I’m able to spit out thoughts with astonishing speed, and I can revise them whenever and however I want. There’s no need to go back, to rewrite and rewrite until my writing becomes good. I can just patch it up here and there until it’s satisfactory. Writing without word processing would be a slower, more thoughtful process. I would be far more careful with the words I choose. I would think about how I put them together before I actually write them, because if I didn’t, it would mean hours and hours of lengthy rewrites. Is word processing an efficient tool? Of course. Does it make me a better writer? I sincerely doubt it. I think I would be a better writer if I had been trained to write without it. So is Microsoft Word neutral in value? No, it’s not. Simply by its nature, it affects the process and philosophy of writing.

Another example would be cell phones (yet another new-technology area in which I am proudly ignorant and lacking in experience). Cell phones have their benefits, of course—we are all immediately available all the time to one another. When important issues or emergencies come up, we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’ll be able to reach someone. However, the mere fact that we’re all now immediately available to one another is restructuring our society. Our definitions of privacy are being redefined. There is an assumption that because we can be reached by cell phone, we ought to be willing to be reached. Because we are always available, our time and attention ceases to be entirely our own. (Whether it ought to have been considered “our own” at all is another question; the point here is that cell phones are redefining the previous social dynamic of privacy and personal accessibility). Again, this all happens regardless of what is spoken over the phone; it’s inherent in the nature of the technology itself, and it takes an intentional personal philosophy of cell phone use to overcome that inherent tendency.

A few more examples might help to illustrate this principle. Take the technology that records music and makes it marketable to consumers. Until just about a hundred years ago, one needed a musician or a singer, and probably some instruments, to produce music. It was an exercise both in individual artistry and in communal identity. But with recorded music as a mass product, music has lost some of that original meaning. Now it is primarily used in our culture as a means of creating or expressing personal identity. It is an expression of our preferences and tastes as individuals. Even at most concerts nowadays, especially in genres other than classical or folk, the music is an expression of individuality. A concert is a communal gathering, to be sure, but no real community takes place—it’s just a collection of individuals who all have the same personal taste in music, expressing that taste in the anonymity of a crowd. Music has thus lost some of its communal magic. Very seldom is it used anymore as the artistic expression of a local community of people. To understand the true power of music, one needs to join a jam session or a hymn-sing, where music becomes not just a consumer product, but something beautiful that we create together.

One final example might serve to make the point, and this one requires a bit more imagination—what does the technology of reading and writing take away from the experience of being human? We all assume literacy to be an unquestioned good (even those Americans who don’t make much use of it), but when reading and writing first appeared on the scene, they were not always welcomed with joy. For example, the advent of literacy ended (or at least radically changed) the age of the epic poem in ancient Greece, putting the bards and singing poets out of their jobs. Because of literacy, a great art form (one of many that live in oral cultures but not in literate cultures) began to die. More importantly, though, reading and writing changed the way people perceive and acquire knowledge. Because of the ease of gaining new information through reading, old ways of learning were swept out the door. When one could read books on any and every subject, there was not quite the same draw to experience the art or craft for oneself, to be tutored in wisdom and knowledge by our parents and our elders. Where literacy is present, the power of local community as a medium for knowledge is compromised. We begin to see knowledge and understanding as the key to our problems. People buy self-help books, looking to find that until-now-unknown bit of knowledge that will henceforth revolutionize their lives. It doesn’t happen, so they buy another book, hoping to find the magical knowledge there. And so on, and so on, until their shelves are full of worthless books. Or they go to counselors, seeking to gain a deeper understanding of their problems. These are important things, but they fail if practiced on their own. Pre-literate human culture reminds us that knowledge itself is not enough—we must act. We must learn wisdom from the hands and feet of those who are walking the trails ahead of us. And from their example, we need to take action. It’s easy to feel spiritual by reading books about spirituality, but precious few buckle down and practice the hard work of asceticism or intercessory prayer. Reading and writing have such power as a medium—regardless of their content—that they shape our lives and perceptions in all these ways.

Technologies like these are part of the fabric of our lives, and too often we completely ignore their effects on our lives and culture. With each new technology, it’s appropriate to ask the question, “What will we lose?” This is a useful exercise even with those technologies that have been around for ages. What did culture lose with widespread use of the clock? The interstate system? Geographical maps? The Internet?

I’m not arguing that these technologies are bad (obviously, I’m quite a strong fan of reading and writing). Rather, the point is that they have consequences on human culture. These consequences are often unintended and, to a large degree, they proceed without most people taking note of them. But their effects are staggering. So with each such technology, it’s worth asking about those unintended consequences, and then balancing them against the obvious potential benefits. It’s worth asking, “What does this technology do to shape the human experience? Does it help to make me more fully the person that God intended me to be, or does it hinder me toward that goal in any way? Is it a technology that I can control and use as a tool, or does it have the capacity to control and shape me?”

Even if we continue to use these new technologies, this awareness will enable us to practice greater self-regulation and to search for new ways to preserve those areas of culture and human identity that would otherwise be lost. Because we’re aware of the detrimental effects of TV, we can be disciplined about exercising our minds through other, more linear and rational mediums. Because we’re aware of the individualizing nature of mass-marketed music, we can take steps to make music a conscious part of our communal experience. In the end, the best question when faced with a new technology is not, “Is it useful?” or “Is it pleasant?” or even “Does it help me do this job better?” Rather, the best question is, “What will I become because of this?”