Can Facebook be good news?

Posted Dec 02, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Verity A. Jones


I recently wrote the following in an article for Reflections, the journal of Yale Divinity School (Fall 2011):

Facebook’s success is tied to how it originally differentiated itself from online tools that encouraged false identities such as video gaming. Instead, Facebook encouraged people to dig deep into their actual, real relationships. In a Time Magazine profile of him last year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says, “At its core, what we're trying to do is map out all of those trust relationships.” Profile writer Lev Grossman explains, “The fact that people yearned not to be liberated from their daily lives but to be more deeply embedded in them is an extraordinary insight.”

Granted, Facebook is confronting ethical and legal questions about privacy and other issues these days (see interview with Jeffery Rosen on NPR’s Fresh Air, “Interpreting the Constitution in the Digital Age” for recent scary comments about Facebook and privacy).

But I’m curious about what you think of these basic claims made by Zuckerberg and Grossman—Facebook’s goal is to map out our real “trust relationships” and it has tapped into our “yearning … to be more deeply embedded in them.”

Zuckerberg’s statement strikes me as true but ironic. Facebook has connected scores of people to long lost friends and family … for better and for worse. You can’t hide much of anything on Facebook, unless you are lying. And the idea on Facebook is not to lie but rather to find old and new friends and then share your lives. The irony is that critics claim Facebook and other social media deprive us of relationships with people IRL (in real life). Do they, really? What is real life?

Grossman’s statement strikes me as somehow hopeful about human nature. Perhaps we actually do like our lives and the people in our lives enough to want to share them with others. Perhaps we don’t yearn for an escape into entertainment’s dungeons as much as we want bask in the light of our relationships with the other people around us. Perhaps the church is onto something when it truly values the community of God’s people gathered to hear and share the gospel, and to serve others.

Okay, so being too imbedded in the lives of others can be problematic. Setting appropriate boundaries around social media has been a recurring theme in the interviews we’ve conducted at the New Media Project. Some younger clergy tell us that they like how refreshingly honest teens can be on Facebook, but they also worry about how all that sharing makes some teens more vulnerable.

But perhaps it’s good news that a retreat into isolation may not be the most potent challenge occasioned by the rise of Facebook and other social media. Not to under appreciate the work of developing appropriate boundaries, but I’ll take the challenge of coping with an expanding number of relationships over loneliness any day.

Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary.

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 newmediaproject@cts.edu.

5 Comments

  1. 1 Dan Gangler 31 Jan
    Facebook brings a whole new meaning to community from proximity to global. Technology has brought us a global proximity that transends geography. Now we need to rethink church to understand and expand meaning of faith community that is highly transcendent, while communicating in a very public way. This is good news. I can't imagine what the Apostle Paul would have done with this medium with so much potential for growth and expansion of the new church.
  2. 2 ccox_csc 31 Jan
    Thanks for another great reflection, Verity. Those who wish to make a dichotomy between "virtual" and "real" relationships are making a false dichotomy. Most of the people that we e-mail, Tweet, and Facebook are people that we know in real life. Many are people that we will see today in work or social settings. Facebook is simply another tool for interaction. The norms and conventions around it are being established, probably in ways not unlike how we established the "correct" way to answer a telephone a century ago. So, just as the telephone can bear Good News (as well as other types), so too Facebook.
  3. 3 Verity Jones 31 Jan
    Thanks, Dan and Chris, for the comments and conversation. Yes, the potential for church life is huge -- mapping real trust relationships! I hope to do some more reflecting on the nature of relationships understood theologically.
  4. 4 Dale 31 Jan
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  5. 5 Dale 31 Jan
    Verity,
    I have often argued that the very concept of "real" vs "virtual" is relationally not very useful. There are relationships that have been exclusively online that I experience as more "real" than a lot of relationships I have face to face , even ones of much longer duration but limited to niceties and small talk. I attribute this to those social boundaries we place on most "leisure" or "business" relationships that take place on the far periphery of "relationship" as I envision what a "real" relationship entails.

    Since I set foot in the "virtual world', even before the Internet (via BBS's and their various discussion groups and News groups, and on Ecunet in the early to mid-90's as the Internet was becoming a more public place), I have noticed how much quicker we get to a place of extended conversation, mainly due to how these "introductions" happen in the first place. Ie. That the group is pre-defined as devoted to a topic, and searchable.

    This is where I originally became excited about theological possibilities, since in the church we naturally gather around particular issues.

    The online forum affords us an opportunity to "lay it all out there" and those who "hear" us (read us) can focus their attention and questions to us, and we find engagement coming at us from all directions. In person, the context, (ie Sunday School class, Sermon, "water-cooler" or "vestibule" talk, there are numerous contraints that limit interaction (not the least of which is the luxury of fashioning a written presentatation rather than being faced with the hesitancy we often feel about how we may verbally articulate to a just-met stranger or a group, not to mention that there is no real time pressure, either from our end or in worrying about whether we are keeping the other from what they need to do next (like leave the class to get to the worship service, or leave the sanctuary to go to lunch, or go home. Conversations can take place across multiple logins, or via notifications from various social tools on mobile smart phones).

    While I must admit that "Social media" has been a bit stymied by the sheer volume of it, to the extent that people are now more concerned with filters to limit their intake and exposure to "noise", and I have experienced a little bit of moderation to my initial almost utopian view of online community, I still think we have a lot to discover re: how to "curate" valuable and meaningful and "real" community.
    Dale

    "real" community

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