I have to start this post with a confession: I have a mild Facebook addiction. There, I said it. I semi-regularly post things on Facebook, I often read things my ‘friends’ have posted, and there are some people who I find easier to message on Facebook than email. I used to play the odd game on Facebook, but no longer. I have the app on my phone and it is so easy when I have a few idle moments to check if anyone has added anything interesting. Ironically, there will be a link to this blog post added to my personal Facebook page. So far I have avoided Instagram and Twitter, but I know Facebook is only one of a huge number of options for social networking, and many of them face the same issues this post is about.
And it would appear that I am not alone. I won’t quote statistics here, for they are sure to be out of date by the time you read this. But it seems most people in the developed world have at least a Facebook account, and many of them are very active in their Facebook use.
But there is a question we should ask ourselves as Christians: is Facebook a good thing or bad thing for Christians? What are the strengths of this way of communicating, and what are the drawbacks? Is this just another way we mimic the rest of the world without thinking?
Facebook is clearly not all bad. Here are a few real positives to Facebook:
• It gives a way to connect with old friends whom you have lost contact with, or with friends who are a long way away. I have on my friends list people from school and university I would otherwise have lost all contact with, for which I am grateful.
• You can share information and photos with a wide range of friends at once. When it comes to public baby announcements or engagements or new jobs, all the significant people in your life can know at the same time.
• You can interact with people, make comments and share ideas, all quickly. It is interactive, so you can contribute to discussions and not just be presented with them.
But as I have been considering this topic, there are a few dangers for us to be aware of as well:
Danger 1: The unrealistic edited version of your life
What do you post on your Facebook profile? If someone had never really met you, would the version of your life you post on Facebook line up with your real life? Probably not. We all like to post things that put us in a positive light. We will post the pictures of our cute children smiling and doing something funny, but not when they cry and act unreasonably. We can make witty commentary on the current popular show or sporting event, but not include something if it is not clever enough.
To be fair, we have always done this. Our photo albums are also edited to include the great birthday parties and not the lying in bed for weeks with chicken pox. But with Facebook we are not just editing something for our own memory; we are presenting an edited version of ourselves to the wider world.
As Christians, are we open with the fact that we are Christians? This will not be popular perhaps with your friends who are not believers, but it is the core definition of who you are. If you never speak of Christian things on Facebook, is this because you never think about these things (which should make you consider your priorities in life) or because you are fearful of what your ‘friends’ might say?
Danger 2: Valuing wittiness over depth
The Facebook posts that get the most likes or comments are often the witty, funny ones. And being critical of something often also gets recognized. We are encouraged to be light, to be funny, and to be interesting and short.
Yes, Facebook is not really a forum for detailed, deep conversations. It does not really cater for long, thoughtful discussions. That’s not in itself bad. But where it becomes a problem is when we never think very hard about things, only staying at the Facebook level of interaction. We will lose the skills to concentrate on a serious book, or the patience to work through a lengthy, thought-provoking article. Perhaps we will even lose interest in the Bible, especially the parts from the Law or the Prophets.
Many think that contributing to a Facebook discussion with atheist friends will lead to a thoughtful, well-structured discussion on facts. That does not happen often. What tends to happen is some mud-slinging, perhaps on both sides, and attempts at cheap shots. Real discussion and interaction between those who believe and those who do not is very important, but over a coffee in person is much more likely to be useful than in a Facebook feed.
Danger 3: Using it as a substitute for real friendship
At the time I am writing this I have 298 ‘friends’ on Facebook. By any realistic definition I do not have that many friends! Some of these people I am genuinely close to; some I have been friends with in the past; and most would have to be called ‘acquaintances’ rather than friends.
In more recent times I have refused many friend requests. My basic criteria is that if I know someone well enough to have had a real conversation with them outside Facebook, and I know who they are, then that’s OK. But if I needed to speak to a friend about something important, it would not be on Facebook. And if I saw that a friend needed encouragement, I find a hand-written card, or a phone call, is worth a thousand Facebook messages of support. I also generally do not write Happy Birthday messages to people whose birthday I only know because of Facebook; it seems a little, well, less than genuine.
So where does all this leave me in my relationship with Facebook? In kind of a love-hate relationship. I find myself checking the news feed more often than I should. I have breaks from it for a while now and then. I think Christians should be salt and light in every context of their lives, including making Facebook a better place. So I will try to be thoughtful and helpful in my Facebook use rather than writing it off as something Christians should avoid.