Friday 29 October 2010

Facebook as Digital 'Crack'

Daniela Elser wrote an interesting column on Facebook a couple of weeks ago (Sydney Morning Herald 9-10 Oct). In it she seems to put her finger on a number of reasons for the popularity of Facebook around the world:
  • It offers us the possibility of reinventing ourselves or presenting a specific crafted image of ourselves to our Facebook friends.
  • It has changed the way we interact with others.
  • It offers a sense of connection, or in Elser's words, it offers a "digital inoculation against any creeping sense of disconnection or isolation".
  • It offers an opportunity to "socialise in solitude" (to quote Aaron Sorkin the writer of 'The Social Network' which is the story of Facebook's creation - see the trailer below).  
  • It allows us to be hyper-focused on constructing hyper-elaborated identities.
  • We live more distracted lives because of our constant checking and updating of our profiles. 
 Daniela Elser writes:
One of the most intoxicating things about Facebook is the possibility it represents for reinvention. From our words, to our image, to our friends, Facebook lets us control the public perception of ourselves with an iron fist that would surely please even Kim Jong-il.

Sadly, while recognising that Facebook is allowing us to do this to ourselves, she fell short of suggesting ways that we might use it responsibly (like any drug).  However, she does recognise that Facebook "...speaks to an underlying human need to feel like we are the centre of things".  She cites recent survey research that indicates that 48% of Facebook and Twitter users check or update their profiles from bed on a daily basis either during the night or first thing in the morning.  This comes hot on the heels of other research that shows that addiction to the Internet is a problem for 25% of young adults at University.    

I love technology, and so I know just how strong the urge is to present false images of myself, to be less than honest about my heart's desires at times, particularly the desire to be liked and respected. I think the essence of the problem is a subtle difference between the word 'need' and 'desire'.  Elser suggests that we have a 'need' to feel that we are the centre of things, worthy of attention, needing to be admired, liked etc. While I have no doubt that we have a human need to be loved, I don't accept that we have a 'need' to be at the centre of the world.  This is a 'desire', and it is one that is in opposition to God's desire for us to give him first place in our lives. This is the desire that he created us for. Our desire is to be for him not for the promotion of self.

What a different view the Bible gives in Romans 12:1-8 of what we should desire, and what true community looks like when its members centre their lives on God. Rather than spending our lives feeding a need to be recognised, to be liked and to be admired, we are called to give ourselves to a life of sacrifice - "living sacrifices". We are not to be conformed to the patterns of the world. Rather, because of God's mercy to us we are "not to think of (ourselves) more highly than (we) ought". As God's children in Christ, we have been given gifts from God due to his grace and mercy, not for ourselves, but to fulfil our part as " body in Christ, and individually members one of another".  Whatever good gifts God has given are to be used for the good of the Body of Christ and the glory of God.

Is Facebook bad? No, I don't think so. It is a social networking site that can be used to sustain relationships and maintain contact with friends around the world. But it does have the potential to become an addiction and to shift our focus too much to our own sense of self worth and the need to create an identity that is pleasing to us and others. This is not ultimately something which will be for our good.
Other posts and resources

Daniela Elser column 'Hooked on the digital crack of Facebook', Sydney Morning Herald (HERE)

Previous post on 'Late Night Habits and the Mental Health of Young Adults' (HERE)

'The Social Network' (HERE)


Greg T said...

Hi Trevor,
Thanks for this post. It has been on my mind for some time to write a piece on the uses of this sort of technology, but a reply to your post will probably cover most of it.
Earlier this year, a former member of our church alerted us to the fact that she had encountered our eleven-year-old daughter on Facebook. She was concerned that we might not know she had a Facebook account. Naturally, we were grateful for this information, and quickly took steps to have our daughter close the account, and had some talks with her about why we didn’t consider it appropriate or advisable for her to be involved in such a thing at her age.
Considering the scenario a little more, I found myself thinking (perhaps a little uncharitably), “Well, Jennifer (I have changed the friend’s name), what were YOU doing on Facebook??” Now of course, there are things which adults can legitimately do which children may not (when, for instance, my children are in their mid-teens, if an adult friend happened to be in a bottle shop and saw my children buying alcohol, I would be glad to be alerted). Nevertheless, a sneaking suspicion remained that Facebook is not something I would ever want my children to be involved in (or at best, in a very minor and utilitarian fashion), due to some of the implications of its use. Trevor, as a fan of technology you are probably going to disagree with me on this one (I being practically a card-carrying Luddite). Nevertheless, my views are not based on a distrust of technology, per se; I think there are legitimate matters of concern when it comes to the use of digital communication tools such as Facebook.
I recently read an interesting book by a Perth-based, transplanted New Yorker called Susan Maushart. The Winter of Our Disconnect describes the writer’s decision to impose an almost total electronic communication ban on her family (herself and three teenage children) for six months: why she did it, how they coped, how they changed, and how her thinking about communication media and related technologies, and their effects on people’s lives, changed as a result. To cut a long story short, the author, herself a huge fan of technology (she admitted to sleeping with her iphone!), noted a number of quite remarkable improvements in the quality of her own life, and especially that of her children, over the course of the six months. Instead of being almost constantly plugged into some kind of digital device (or more than one simultaneously!), she noted, for instance, that the family began to eat together more often, and to, well, talk to each other; her son picked up the saxophone he had not touched for some years, and within a few months had made such progress that by the end of the book, he was seriously considering a career in music; her younger daughter, whom the author had frequently in the past found awake at all hours of the night messaging/surfing/emailing etc on her laptop, began to sleep…and sleep – paying off, in fact, a years-long sleep debt brought about by such abuses of technology; the family began to use their imaginations to find ways of entertaining themselves and their friends; and more besides.


Greg T said...

Part 2...

Where does my daughter’s flirtation with Facebook fit in with all this? Technology, like all created things, can be used well or badly. I am not for a moment suggesting that the way of the future is to go back to the 1970s (the decade in which I spent my teens), with the telephone the only means of instant communication, radio (preferably a transistor in a leather case, like mine) or record player (strictly vinyl, mind you) the only way of listening to music that wasn’t live, and TV and cinema the only means of seeing moving images that weren’t in the immediate vicinity. While thoughts of a return to the past are often comforting, the past is not perfect either; just different. By the same token, however, “new/modern/latest” also do not always equate with “better”. My concern is that the modern pressure to have the latest gadget and associated applications can open doorways into worlds which some people might not yet (if ever) be ready to enter.
I think there are legitimate concerns with the use of technologies such as Facebook, to name one of the best-known examples. As the article in the post shows, its use is essentially narcissistic, and can become addictive. As is often the case, the answer probably lies not in avoiding such technologies altogether, but in using them moderately and responsibly. My concern is that for many, this might be more easily said than done, with potentially calamitous consequences.
I am probably in danger of becoming alarmist and melodramatic (or at least tongue-in-cheek), but it does concern me that when, for instance, iphone and Kindle rule the world, the last printed book having disappeared (I probably will have owned it!); when verbal communication has virtually disappeared as an art form (with families too “wired” (or wireless!) to have dinner together, and people communicating with the person sitting at the desk next to them almost entirely by email); when the lengthy phone call is almost a thing of the past (I already note an alarming trend towards doing away with home phones as a means of communication, thus discouraging talking at all because mobile phone calls are so much more expensive); when our imaginations have been stunted by the almost exclusively one-way information flow of the web, etc (as if TV wasn’t bad enough!): I worry that only then will we start to realise – perhaps too late - what we have lost.


Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Greg,

Thanks for your detailed and well thought through comments. There are many things to be worried about with Facebook. Beyond the common almost irresistible desire to image oneself in ways that impress, there are the problems of wasted time, addiction to the technology and added problems for children due to the dangers of showing too many details of their identities.

I was very impressed recently to hear of a young woman I know who removed herself from Facebook because she knew it was taking up too much of her time. Facebook isn't the only thing that can do this, but it does seem to be a particular problem for teenagers and young adults.