Social Networking: False Promises? (Part One)

In the space of less than a decade, Facebook and other social networking sites have become an indelible, ubiquitous – and, according to some, indispensible – part of contemporary culture. This is not only so in the prosperous west; indeed, much of the rest of the world has become enamoured with this relatively new development in communication. From humble beginnings, some of these sites have risen to places of great social and cultural influence (Facebook, which started at Harvard University in 2004, now boasts several hundred million users worldwide, and its inception has been turned into an Oscar-winning film), that influence has shaped, and is shaping, our relationships, our interactions with the world, and even the way in which we view reality.

But can it be said that these changes have had an unambiguously beneficial effect on the way we live? Has that amorphous concept known as “society” been changed for the better? Some point to the increased capacity for network-building and the development of wider friendship groups, and this cannot be denied. Links between previously disparate individuals are certainly created and strengthened, which can only be a good thing in an often disconnected world. At the same time, however, many have concerns over some of the less desirable effects that social networks seem to have wrought on people. What I want to do in this part of my look at social networking is focus on the social and relational implications of sites such as Facebook, and the kinds of negative effects they have had. I mean, for every person who has had the fortune of being able to strengthen existing relationships through Facebook, Myspace or Twitter, there is someone else for whom these online environments only deepen and reinforce the sense of loneliness they may have already felt. For every person who can claim to use these sites to successfully network with others, there is someone else who not only cannot do this, but who feels even more socially distant than before.

It might be argued that this is simply a reflection of life: people in the real world are often divided into social butterflies and lone wolves; a site such as Facebook simply mirrors this reality. This may well be true, but when a site implicitly claims to transcend barriers to friendship and social connection, one has to ask whether this is indeed the case. For example, it is easy to see how this might be played out within the Facebook environment. You’re happy with your 23 friends. Content, you might say. But then you see that one of your friends has 487 of his own. It may induce petty jealousy – a niggling emotion, but nothing to worry about. However, it may also induce something far more serious and far more emotionally damaging. It’s not the fault of Facebook, of course; nor can one say that such social networking sites have actually created these conditions (not directly, anyway). But again, this is hardly the perfect advertisement for a site whose raison d’etre is to bring people together. Moreover, it could be suggested that although a site like Facebook may reflect (as opposed to create) the socially stratified world in which we live, that sense of disconnect and alienated anonymity may only be deepened with the immediacy and constancy of others’ popularity within the cyber community.

This is no mere speculation; nor is it nothing more than a hypothetical situation. I know of people who have entered into the world of Facebook (or some other social networking site) with the ultimately forlorn hope that such technology will help break down the social and geographical barriers that previously hindered their ability to foster strong and enriching relationships. Those hopes were dashed. Their sense of disconnectedness and loneliness was hardly ameliorated; quite the opposite, in fact, as they struggled to garner attention in the same way that others do. And given the constant reminders of other users’ popularity (due to the ease with which one can view another’s Facebook page), that sense of their own social inadequacy is only reinforced. Social networking sites may have the potential to break down social and geographical barriers (and we shouldn’t deny this fact). But it also seems that the kind of social disconnection that people feel in the “real” world can now be brought right into their living rooms. Add to that the now notorious ability of Facebook to create social addicts of us all, and the tension between the desperate need to be accepted on something that represents the cultural zeitgeist of our age, and the often-felt reality of digital alienation that lies behind the promise, becomes unbearable for some.

The problem is one among many. Even if, say, Facebook is unequivocally able to create an environment that is conducive to networking and friendship, one needs to ask just how strong those networks and so-called friendships really are. Everyone on Facebook is called a “friend” when another user invites him or her. In many cases, a friend in the Facebook world is a friend in the real world. But how often is this the case? How many of a person’s 673 Facebook friends (to use a purely hypothetical number) are actually true companions? Now, simply having this number of people on one’s Facebook page is not a problem in and of itself. But when the word “friend” is used in such a loose and cavalier manner, it is stretched beyond breaking point. In other words, the word (and, one might say, the concept) is trivialised by the all-encompassing use of what ought to be a special and selective term. Friendship is far too precious to be undercut by the way it is applied to even the most distant of acquaintances and the most shallow of relationships. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that “friendship is one soul in two bodies”. Looking past any literal interpretation of that quote, we can see how friendship is elevated to the status of something that possesses almost unique intimacy, bringing two separate lives together in such a way that they become deeply interdependent. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus himself spoke of friendship in glowing terms, describing both the sacrificial love and the relational intimacy that characterises its true expression (John 15:13, 15). These poetic descriptions of platonic unions stand in stark contrast to the shallow and trivialised notion of friendship that one sometimes witnesses on social networking sites.

These concerns have already been raised in the public sphere. An article in The New York Times detailed the explosion of so-called “weak ties” as a result of sites such as Facebook, and the problems that follow (Clive Thompson, “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”, 5th September, 2008). Before the advent of such technology, distant acquaintances, such as an old high-school friend or a business colleague, may not have been so important. They were present in the background of a person’s social landscape, but did not elicit much energy or attention. Now, however, things are much different. The proliferation of relationships and social ties that are more distant and less intimate than a person’s inner circle – aided and abetted by social networks’ capacity to transcend time and space at will – has had, according to some psychologists at least, a burdensome effect on individuals’ emotional energy. If everyone on, say, Facebook is clamouring for your attention; and if everyone is worthy of the appellation “friend”; and if such technology has the effect of making social ties appear stronger than they really are; then it becomes easy to see how a person can be stretched socially and emotionally by the obligation to respond to the false appearance of friendship. Although a site such as Facebook can put one in touch with others who have similar interests and tastes, it can also sustain weak social ties that may in fact undermine one’s more close and intimate relationships.

Indeed, certain questions arise as a result. To what extent are people robbing themselves of the chance of true, substantive relationships with other flesh-and-blood individuals for the online attraction of cyber-relationships? How far does the notion of “Facebook friend” undercut the notion of actual friendship? And is all this changing the way we look at the concept of friendship, leading us to devalue the hard work and effort it takes to build and maintain them? One may expend emotional energy maintaining the constant existence of weak social ties out of nothing more than devotion to digital norms and customary obligations, but is that simultaneously trivialising the notion of authentic friendship, and all that that entails? Does a social networking site such as Facebook (or Myspace, or Twitter) give us an illusory picture of intimacy and relational knowledge? We may know what another “friend” did over the weekend faster and more easily than we were able to just ten years ago with a flesh-and-blood companion, but that is a far cry from true knowledge of another person. As Danah Boyd, a Harvard academic studying the phenomenon, said, others can “observe you, but it’s not the same as knowing you”.

The concept of reality – personal reality – is also a question without a concrete answer. We now have the unprecedented ability to construct certain portraits of ourselves on sites such as Facebook, but how much do these portraits reflect our true selves? It must be said that such sanitized versions of people’s lives are not only inimical to the requirements of true friendship, but they may induce a false (or at least, severely truncated) representation of personal reality. What we take to be reflections of people’s lives are, in actual fact, mere slices of social reality that only bear an oblique resemblance to a person’s true self. How does the seemingly happy and care-free triviality of Facebook play with someone who is in the deepest throes of depression or social anxiety? I suspect that it doesn’t play so well, which may not be a direct cause of such sites (Facebook doesn’t actually cause depression), but has been increased by their ubiquity and pervasiveness. Indeed, therein lies part of the problem, for although we may enjoy connections with a whole host of different people, those connections betray a fundamental distance (the “weak ties” phenomenon) that is only reinforced by the kind of culture that has developed on social networking sites. As the quote above suggests, mere observation of an individual’s daily routine is not the same as actually knowing them as a whole person. Of course, I can’t claim to have expert knowledge in these areas; nor can I claim to have concrete answers for the questions I have just posed. But we must be aware of the potential of Facebook, et. al., to undermine, or at least transform, the very truth of friendship – a truth that is sometimes difficult, often demanding, but nearly always rewarding.

It’s not just the concept of friendship that seems to have been transformed by social networking sites. Triviality, for instance, seems to be something of a core value on these sites (before going on, I have to put all cards on the table, and admit that I, too, engage in this online banality from time to time). But that can only have a deleterious effect on one’s efforts, thinking and perspective on life. If a site such as Facebook continues to exert such wide – and deep – cultural influence over young people (and some older people, too), it is not unreasonable to suggest that the trivial take on life that seems to have sprung up as a result may end up defining the way in which the world is viewed. Given the ubiquity of Facebook and other sites that I have already mentioned, there is little doubt that minds saturated in this kind of environment can only become infantilized. The truly great things of this world that should occupy our thoughts and our time have taken a back seat to the immediate and transient pleasures of knowing who-did-what last weekend, or who-had-what for lunch. The vacuous and the banal now occupy a place in people’s minds that seems to have squeezed out far more substantial concerns. Even a cursory look at the Facebook “news feed” Wall will put to rest any claims to the contrary. And if one’s attention or thinking is narrowed and truncated in such a way, what does that say about our culture as a whole? I don’t want to press these arguments too far, but it seems that sites such as Facebook, for all their promise (and let’s be frank; they can – and do – deliver on such promise), can actually have a detrimental effect on a person’s ability to think, to critique, and to engage with this world in a mature manner. To be sure, we cannot assume that this is simply the fault of Facebook or some other such site. Facebook, for example, is as much a reflection of common cultural pursuits as it is a driver of them. It both creates and imitates cultural mores in a dialectical relationship. What is more, not every user of such sites is in fact worse off as a result. Nevertheless, the pervasive presence of such sites at least raises the issue of whether or not they are feeding into an infantilized society, which jars horribly with efforts to build people who are well-rounded and critically engaged individuals.

I might sound like a prophet of doom with all of these grave concerns about something that seems to be so innocuous. But let it never be said that the things we create exert no power over us as individuals or us as a society (if we let them). That much is true. And, within the Western world at least, the concerns that I have detailed above are fairly close to the mark. Now, it might sound like I am completely opposed to Facebook and its ilk, but that it’s not actually the case. For as in most things, so in this: ambiguity reigns. As I have already noted in this article, social connectedness is often enhanced (and one might even say enriched) by social networking sites. How often is a matter for debate, but one must concede that fact. Indeed, relationships in the real world are, in some cases, deepened as a result of social networking that occurs online, at a much faster rate than previously. In addition, the ubiquitous triviality that is constantly witnessed on such sites is very different from the more substantial uses towards which, say, Facebook, is put, especially in other parts of the world. However, I don’t want to anticipate too much what I want to say in my next post. Those points – and a Christian perspective on the whole phenomenon – will have to wait for Part Two of this series.

UPDATE: I’ve just found out that the manager of my blog has just posted this entry on Facebook. Hmmm…using the very medium that I critique on my blog in order to publicize it. I am aware of the irony.

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One comment

  1. I’ll be watching you…every breath you take, every move you make, every single day, every price you pay…that’s social networking…

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