". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Facebook Thoughts

A few days ago I read this article on National Review Online:

It concerns increasing age stratification in our culture and the long-term effect it is having on us. One of the areas the author considers is online communication: social networks, texting, email and such. He provocatively compares Facebook, specifically, to C. S. Lewis' description of Hell in his book The Great Divorce:

Lewis envisioned that the damned suffer not a fire, or any physical torment or confinement, but absolute dominion and inalienable rights: the liberty to roam an infinite and borderless land, and to freely and instantaneously build castles wherever they like.

Lewis’s damned enjoy this freedom by abandoning locations and acquaintances the moment they become inconvenient. The awkwardness of an exchange with a neighbor we think has slighted us can, in Lewis’s Hell, be evaded by simply moving away. So after a few years’ stay in Hell, each of the damned is thousands of miles away from any other, pacing solitarily in his castle.

The political moral is that unchosen obligations, restraints, and dependencies are the things that push people together, despite our irritableness and our inconvenience to each other. Our limitations and inadequacies counter our selfish bent, and become a foundation for community. (Lewis’s cosmic allegory, then, doubles as theodicy, showing how it can be good for us that we do not always get what we want, and are sick and feeble.)

We’ve been making Lewis’s Hell for ourselves for a long time, expanding autonomies in ways that cause social separateness in general, and generational separateness in particular. . . .

Facebook appears to have been modeled on [it]. It is the acme of modernized society, allowing us unrestrained control over our relationships — we literally choose the face that others see, and can start or end a friendship by tapping a finger. These friendships never become inconvenient, because no obligation can impose itself through the digital medium. The irony of Facebook, and of modernity’s expansion of social autonomy generally, is that total, unlimited cosmopolitanism in the end produces more parochialism, homogenization, and even chauvinism than geographical confinement does: I can now commune with people all over the world of all nationalities and tongues and races who are just like me. As human interactions become less contingent on geography, and more on the preferences of digital cosmopolites, communities became more horizontal — incorporating similar kinds of people across broad territories — and less vertical.

When I read this I found myself objecting in part. I have all kinds of people in my Facebook friends list, from all age groups and walks of life. I will admit it is heavy on the Republican and homeschooling and Lutheran fronts. :-) But Facebook has allowed me to create connections with many people I would otherwise have not been able to connect with. It has enlarged my world by giving me a peek into the days of others, many of whom are leading lives very different from mine. I live in the Chicago suburbs but I have Facebook friends who live on farms and ranches, in small towns and big cities, overseas, even in third world countries. So I think Facebook gives me a broader picture of the world than I would otherwise have. And when I think about all those people out there, living their lives, carrying out their vocations just as I am, I find comfort in it. I kind of like knowing they're out there, drinking their cups of coffee, enjoying time with their families, going to their respective churches on Sunday. So I would say that my Facebook experience has overall been positive as I have learned and laughed and prayed and been prayed for by others.

And yet . . . .

I think what Mr. Shaffer says also has great merit. Facebook is not the real world and if we aren't careful it can skew our perceptions of how human beings should relate to each other. I worry that as people, especially young people, spend more and more time there, they may be learning behaviors on Facebook that they will end up applying in real life, behaviors that are not realistic and that are, in fact, harmful.

So here for whoever is interested is a list of suggestions for not letting Facebook get the best of you. I am really writing this for my children. It is not my place to tell others how to behave on the internet. But it is my place to guide my children and to help them learn from my experience. I have experienced some unpleasantness on Facebook and I would like to help them avoid that if possible and also encourage them to comport themselves in a way that doesn't cause unpleasantness for others.

Facebook - A User's Guide

1) Decide what purpose you want Facebook to fill for you and behave accordingly.

For some Facebook is a playground. For others it is all about business. For still others it is a way to keep in touch with close family and friends or a place to advocate for a particular cause. It could be all of these things at the same time, so it is worth deciding what role you want Facebook to play in your online life and then carrying out that decision in a way that is respectful towards others. If a church member sends you a friend request but you prefer to limit Facebook to business contacts, send a polite note back explaining that policy. If you want to limit Facebook only to those people you know in person, and someone you only know online friends you, again, send a polite explanation. If you daily spout right-wing politics and a family member that you know is quite liberal sends you a friend request, write back and explain the situation and suggest that if you become friends the two of you will avoid posting on each other's walls on political topics. Most people will understand and respect the boundaries you have set up and thank you for explaining them.

2) Keep in mind your audience. This follows logically from #1. For most people, talking on Facebook is akin to standing up and talking about yourself in church. Some of the people who are reading are your closest and best friends, while others are casual friends and others are peripheral acquaintances or near strangers, especially if, like me, you have a broad friending policy. You should not put your most personal "stuff" on Facebook for all to see. What is helpful here is Facebook's apparatus for creating sub-groups within your friend list. That way you can send family related posts to family, church-related posts to those in your church body, and political rants to those who are interested in reading them. Also, if you are going to post something that you think will be a "hot button" or sensitive topic for someone in your friend list, you can block him or her from that particular status update. Why cause that person or yourself grief? It is worth taking a little extra time to preserve some tranquility.

3) Think before you post. Post things that you think will be useful, informative, interesting, entertaining, edifying, and helpful. Try not to be a downer. Everyone occasionally does a little whining on Facebook, and it's a nice place to get encouragement from friends when you're having a rough day, but a steady stream of angry, snarky, complaining and negative posts gets old and ultimately reflects poorly on you. Don't give people a reason to hide you from their news feed.

4) Show good manners. Be ladies and gentlemen. Know when to walk away--it is okay to let someone else have the last word and it doesn't mean you "lost" the debate. Don't use foul language. Avoid posting potty humor, dirty jokes, R-rated pictures, and the like. People have different levels of tolerance for that sort of thing and again, the things you post say something about you. And there is no such thing as a "back" key on the internet. Once it's out there, it's out there. And once you have hurt someone's feelings, the damage has been done.

5) Don't put your dirty laundry on display for all to see. People do not need to know the details of your latest huge fight and breakup (or reconciliation) with your boyfriend or girlfriend. I'm not saying it's wrong to talk about your life--I certainly do it--but use some common sense and maintain a little dignity.

6) Avoid vague-booking. This is not to say that you have to provide every detail of everything you choose to share. But posting cryptic messages that no one or only a handful of people will understand or posting updates that will cause people to worry about you unnecessarily is a childish way of making you feel powerful because you are in the know and your reader is not.

7) Don't be passive aggressive. This can take many forms. It might be as simple as posting something like "Thinking of weeding out my friend list." If you want to weed out your friend list, fine. But why talk about? Just do it and spare your friends the grief of wondering, "Is she talking about me? Did I do something to offend her?" Another form of passive-aggressiveness is taking a veiled swipe at someone in your friend list that other people might not get but the target probably will. Now, it is possible that you will make a comment that someone will take as a slap when you didn't mean it that way. That's not your fault. But please don't consciously say something that, if understood, may hurt someone's feelings. It's just mean.

8) Avoid playing the blocking/unfriending game. It reeks of junior high and whether they admit it or not, hurts people's feelings, even if they don't know you well. It is only human to take such things personally. So be kind. If you end up friends with someone that is annoying but not dangerous, try hiding him or her from your news feed. You can also use this strategy for keeping your news feed of a manageable scope. But consider using that annoying person as an opportunity to practice tolerance, forbearance, and overlooking. Maybe in time you will find he or she is not as annoying as you thought. Maybe the inconvenience of being that person's friend will turn into a blessing. God does work in strange ways! If you must unfriend someone send a note explaining why and make the note about you rather than the other person: "I just don't have time to keep up with my contact list and I'm trying to narrow down to only my family and very closest friends" or "You make me uncomfortable but it's because of something I'm going through, nothing that you are doing." And don't block people for trivial reasons. It is simply immature.

9) If someone is truly harassing, stalking or threatening you, don't think twice about unfriending or blocking him. Your safety is paramount.

10) If someone blocks or unfriends you, think long and hard before you ask why. If you think you may have committed an offense against that person, by all means, ask forgiveness. But if you are puzzled by the action, it may be best to just let it go because it probably has less to do with you than with the other person. If you do ask, prepare for the worst. You may get it.

11) Remember that Facebook is all about perception. The "people" you see there are not complete people. They are snapshots in time. You may have a fuller picture of some of them by virtue of having relationships that go beyond Facebook. But the picture you get on Facebook (or other online forums) is a tiny, tiny part of a person's identify and life. Try not to make judgments based on one or even a few posts. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Put the best construction on their words. Ask for clarification. Measure your own responses. Avoid sarcasm--it is so often misunderstood--and express yourself with earnestness and sincerity.

12) If it seems like Facebook World is bringing out the worst in you or otherwise causing you distress, take a break from it. It is not real life. There are all kinds of people out there who don't "do" Facebook. Go read Pastor Cwirla's list of "Silly Facebook Games" (see next post) and put it all in perspective. Don't let Facebook make you sad.

In short, instead of trying to turn Facebook (and the like) into an ideal virtual paradise of which you are the supreme ruler with the power to condemn those whom you find annoying, strange or inconvenient, look upon it as a microcosm of the real world, one in which there are all kinds of people who are sinners just as you are, struggling to get through their days just as you are, and in need of love and acceptance just as you are. Block and unfriend, as a last resort, those who are harassing you, who are an obvious threat, or who are tempting you to sinful behavior. Otherwise look at Facebook as big tent, one that causes you to moderate your own comments in light of the broad audience and that expands your world by giving you more people to love. Even if you can't love them all in a one-on-one way, you can love them all in your prayers. You can love them by being open to them and tolerant of them. And you can love them by modeling good behavior and a generous heart and spirit.


Ewe said...

I think what you wrote here is very good advice. Dh and I refuse to do Facebook for a whole bunch of reasons. We are unusual for someone our age that neither of us do Facebook. So far it has worked fine that friends that do Facebook have been kind enough to e-mail me photos when another friend had a baby etc. We had a trip last year that would have been so much easier to contact friends with Facebook. But it worked the old fashioned way to e-mail or phone all our friends and family. We met up with everyone we wanted to meet up with.
I do see good things about Facebook. My sister reconnected to her current boyfriend through Facebook even though they are living on different continents now. She sold most of her belongings to friends through Facebook and moved to another country for a year.
I do get frustrated when people assume that everyone else does Facebook. It seems like the more people I mention that I refuse to do Facebook, the more people I meet that are just like me and don't do Facebook either. It is not just the older generation that doesn't do Facebook. Also there are people like me that do technology, but not Facebook. I wish that more people that did Facebook would remember that there really are people that don't do Facebook.

Cheryl said...

Ewe, that is an excellent point. Facebook has become such a common way of connecting that those of us who do it can forget that not everyone does. (I didn't, by the way, until a year or two ago. And before that time, I had a Facebook account but never checked it and didn't feel like I was missing anything. Sigh. Now that I have become active on FB it is another place that I experience FOMS--fear of missing something.)

Your comment is a good reminder that Facebook is NOT real life. It is just one way to communicate. But it is an imperfect way. And real life is what happens outside, not inside, Facebook.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Cheryl, and very helpful to a newbie facebooker such as myself!


Orycteropus Afer said...

Well done, Cheryl. You've neatly addressed in detail a portion of the broad issue tackled by Matthew Shaffer in National Review.

Cheryl said...

Thanks, OA!

Leah said...

Even though I don't "do" Facebook, I appreciate the points you made on your list and, as usual, how well you made them.

(And The Great Divorce is one of my favorite books.)