“Facebook: a way to get back in touch with people from your past whom you were perfectly happy growing out of touch with in the first place.”
Not an ad that Mark Zuckerberg is likely to use on his blue-line trimmed social networking empire anytime soon. Zuckerberg is nothing if not a master of marketing his invention. I remember a letter from the CEO to the billion-member Facebook community that signed off this way, “For a more connected world.” The man can turn a phrase.
Yet much of Facebook is more like my mock advertisement above than Zuckerberg’s Godlike benediction. I don’t argue with people who refuse to be on Facebook. Such Facebook Forbidders may soon be like the monks and nuns of old. As the ammas and abbas showed the rest of us that people can live without money, sex, or power (but not without the word of the Lord), Facebook Forgoers may show the rest of us that one can live without social networking.
Social media is good but not salvific. It extends the range of our relationships, allows us to “meet” people we wouldn’t otherwise, and it enables us to stay in touch with people we would forget otherwise. But it is an extension of our embodied life, not a replacement for it.
I thought of this recently as I started getting ads for my college class’s fifteenth reunion. Something about reunions feels quaint in a Facebook world. Do we really need to show up physically to see how everyone is? Heck, we’ve seen everybody’s kid pictures and athletic achievements on Facebook for years. Why do we need to see each other in person? Just to gauge how much fatter we all are?
Don’t we keep in touch with the people we want to already?
Maybe not. Maybe reunions show that social media’s logic is supplementary and not substitutionary after all. For one, we’re not gathering just anywhereat a convention center or hotel. We’re gathering at the school itself. I’ll undoubtedly bore my family with my own personal tour: here’s where I studied, here’s where I shot baskets, here’s where I lived each year. I just as undoubtedly could do that with a web tour right now. And I won’t. It’s not the same. The physical space matters. The fact that the academic building is the most glorious on campus, the college church and former debating societies next, while the dorms and fraternities are shabby chic I want the people I care about to see the physical space.
I also want to see my classmates. Not the handful I do see regularly, but people whose lives intertwined with mine every day for four years. People I admired but didn’t know well. People I need to thank or apologize to. In other words, people whose embodied lives intersected with mine and vice versa. I want to introduce them to my children and spouse and have them do the same for me. Facebook pictures and profiles will matter more once we know each other again in the flesh.
Finally we’ll gather to make new meaning together. It will likely involve some combination of storytelling, libation-imbibing, Jesus-worshipping, athletic-eventing, nostalgia-spinning slobber fests, as all such events do. You could follow it via a Twitter hashtag or uploaded photos. But you won’t because you have your own life. I do, the “we” of my college do, and for now, that’s impossible to replicate online. Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is a research fellow in theology and leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.