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Why I’m Not on Facebook: An Open Letter to Christian College Students
by Steve Baarendse
Recently I visited an old college friend. He said half-jokingly that it was his mission in life to get me onto Facebook, so we spent some time scrolling through a list of our mutual friends on his iPhone. He made a valiant effort to convert me, and I must say it was tempting, but I remain a Facebook conscientious objector. This put me to thinking: Why am I so reluctant to open a Facebook account, when one out of eight people on this planet has seen the benefits of joining the world’s largest circle of friends?
To begin, three disclaimers: (1) You’re about to read the comments of a Facebook outsider. If you’re a Facebook fan, you’ll probably find some of them quaintly naïve. (2) I don’t pretend to treat this subject objectively. I’m “throwing the book” at Facebook. I make my arguments as pointed as possible, not because I’m angry, but because, like Chesterton, I find the quick rapier thrust to provoke the most vigorous response in the shortest space. I also think we have a major problem on our hands and that the cautionary view about Facebook hasn’t been sufficiently heard. (3) I’m neither against friendship nor opposed to the many ways technology helps make life easier today. I think of myself as a social being made in the image of a communicating, social Creator, and I’m grateful to write these thoughts on a laptop.
When I told a student in our college cafeteria that I was thinking about writing “Ten Reasons Why I’m Not on Facebook,” he shot back, “And I’m on Facebook for ten other reasons!” We shared a good chuckle, because we can agree that Facebook has many advantages: It’s a handy self-updating address book and photo album; it reunites us with long-lost friends; it’s a lifeline for missionaries whose support network spans the globe; it has given oppressed people a voice amid social chaos, and so on. I can see how many people today find Facebook so helpful they can no longer imagine life without it.
But the truth is that, as recently as eight years ago, before the 850 million users, when some of you were 11-to-12-year-old “tweens,” no one could imagine life with Facebook, because it hadn’t been invented yet. And amazingly, people back in those pre-Facebook Dark Ages were living happy, fulfilled lives. Though it may be hard to believe, they even communicated with their friends.
My apologies to that student in the cafeteria: the list of reasons has now grown from ten to a baker’s dozen.
1. The Unfriend
Facebook has inflated the definition of friendship and thus devalued it. A friend used to be solid currency you could bank on: David and Jonathan, John Newton and William Cowper, John and Abigail Adams, Lewis and Tolkien. Diana is Anne Shirley’s bosom friend; Hopeful comforts Christian in Doubting Castle and lifts his face above the icy waters of the Jordan. In Facebook’s world, friend has come to mean casual acquaintance.
Facebook could only have been dreamt up in America, this land of the instant smile and handshake. My parents were missionaries in Austria. If, after ten years of ministry there, you had five friends, you were most fortunate, because they’d be friends for life. On Facebook, you might have 500 “friends” and not one true friend. You can friend or, in bizarre Orwellian Newspeak, unfriend at a click. (Unfriend was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2009 Word of the Year.) Worse yet, you can be unfriended without even so much as a “Dear John.” One stroke of the index finger and you’re zapped off the board. The casual fluidity of such things is distressing: it’s a brave new world of instant coupling and uncoupling, all from the safety of distance.
The recent movie No Strings Attached actually had the gall to celebrate the kind of dehumanized promiscuity—known in popular lingo as “friends with benefits”—that Huxley portrayed so chillingly in Brave New World. Facebook has downgraded the meaning of friendship; its ranking system of “inner” and “outer” circles has needlessly provoked envy and hurt. The Bible’s definition is stronger: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17).
Friendship used to be defined by quality; now it’s a matter of quantity. In the old, pre-Facebook world, the important thing about friendship was goodness; today, it’s how many you amass. Oh, you only have 40? I have 200!
2. Virtual Reality
Facebook removes us from reality. Its transactions happen in the shadowy no-place of “virtual reality.” We comfort ourselves with the illusion that we’re chatting with people person-to-person, but it’s really our image that’s interacting with their image. We’re hunched over a screen in the privacy of our rooms. We project an image of ourselves, and we interface with images others project of themselves. It’s all a step removed from reality, a strange, high-tech version of the shadow-play in Plato’s Cave.
This can lead to less than truthful communication: we’re all masters of putting our best profiles forward. It can also foster the insidious gnosticism that confuses the image with real presence. Virtual technologies magically morph the material into the immaterial: “Facebook” is not a book; its “faces” are flattened representations; its “pages” are not pages; its “walls” are as flimsy as the screen. The world becomes figurative and diaphanous, as words are separated from real things.
The spell is potent: we learn to look at the bright megapixels as if they are the things. A steady diet of these pictures of reality may dull our receptors and appetite for reality itself. Craving the constant excitement of the virtual image, we might find the more subtle pleasures of our real surroundings boring compared to the greater stimulation of the screen.
3. Superficial Immediacy
Facebook interactions tend to be hasty and superficial. The medium encourages only the most surface-level comments. We respond to rapid-fire queries with off-the-cuff, knee-jerk blurting, not with carefully weighed responses—or the discretion of not responding at all. Needless to say, this encourages the discipline of neither careful reading nor good writing, and “when words are many, sin is not absent” (Prov. 10:19).
Facebook demands 24/7 sound bites, but a stream of disjointed sound bites does not make an intelligent conversation. Actually, the term sound bites is misleading. More and more, we do all this “talking” without saying a word. We hold what we consider “conversations” in total silence. A USA Today article called 2010 “The Year We Stopped Talking to Each Other” (Jan. 30, 2010). It was about that weird paradox of social networking: the incessant chattering of rapidly moving fingers has made the world an eerily silent place.
4. Alone Together
Facebook perpetuates another social/anti-social oxymoron that a recent book by Sherry Turkle aptly calls Alone Together. Has it ever seemed strange to you that people in the same room connect with others far away but not with those in their immediate social space? Apparently, this no longer strikes many as odd. But next time you’re in a restaurant or an airport, unplug and observe. People no longer talk to each other. They’re mesmerized by some sleek piece of communication technology they hold in their hand—an iPad, droid phone, etc. They might as well be hermetically sealed in their own bubbles; it’s as if the people around them don’t exist.
What’s especially tragic is to see families in restaurants all tunneling into their own hand-held devices. A recent website picture for my alma mater under the “Community” tab featured three students sitting side by side next to an abandoned foosball table, all staring at their separate laptop screens. Is this our new ideal of community? What would L’Abri have been like forty years ago if all the lodgers had spent their evenings by the chalet fireplace gazing stolidly into their brightly lit iPhones? Do we call it “community” because their bodies occupy the same room? I can picture Francis Schaeffer raising a concerned eyebrow and saying something about falling below the line of despair and losing the mannishness of man.
So much of human communication lies in the incarnational bond between word and body. Think about the volumes conveyed by a piercing glance, an eye moistened with tears, a tender hand on the shoulder. Pointed sarcasm or a tough word of confrontation can be tempered in person—the surgeon’s scalpel that cuts in order to heal—but these words are often blunt meat cleavers on Facebook.
Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son or Jewish Bride vividly depicts the power of human touch. Bonhoeffer talks about this in the wonderful last pages of Life Together. The ministry of bearing burdens, of holding one’s tongue and listening, of confessing and forgiving—these all involve real presence. If your friend is in extremis, you can text the family a “praying4U!” Or, you can drive to the hospital room and hold your dying friend’s hand. You can embrace the family members, cry with them, read Scripture and sing hymns with them.
In the 1980s, phone giant AT&T encouraged people to “reach out and touch someone.” And clearly, a personal phone call from a friend can be a touching thing. But whether by phone or Facebook, touch is still a metaphor. You can only really reach out and touch someone by being there. Our society is high-tech but low-touch, and growing more so every day. Jesus mixed his spit with mud and anointed a blind man’s eyes. He laid his hands on little children and blessed them. He touched people. The society that Jesus—and even our grandparents—lived in was lower-tech but higher-touch.
Obviously, there’s no going back now, but we should note this important shift. And whenever we can, we should show up with the treasure in our real, tangible jar of clay. Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up. It’s the wisest thing he ever said.
Nobody likes to think of himself as a peeping Tom, but the endless flitting in and out of the minutiae of others’ lives can dangerously lure us into vicarious living. Facebook makes it possible to eavesdrop anonymously on conversations that have nothing to do with us. We can put our eye to the keyhole and nobody needs to know we’re looking. This was once known as voyeurism.
Today everyone can be Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window just by staring into a screen. With 300 friends, we have a rear window into 300 personal worlds. But is this good? The temptation to indulge in idle curiosity rises exponentially. Neil Postman has called this the “peek-a-boo world.”
It’s time we came to grips with the great danger of false intimacy Facebook presents. What should we make of the bizarre paradox that students often feel comfortable discussing private concerns on Facebook that they would never divulge face to face? They air their deepest secrets on this most impersonal, public medium, and yet are incredibly awkward and guarded in person. Perhaps, like clowns on a virtual stage, they find the mask strangely liberating.
This is how people link up with high-school sweethearts: first virtually, and then in reality, no strings attached. One in five U.S. divorces can now be linked to Facebook intimacy (Scienceblog.com, Feb. 28, 2011). It’s right to abhor the obvious soul-corrosion of visual Internet pornography, but we must not ignore the subtler devastation of emotional adultery that online social networking enables. Early in his ministry Billy Graham wisely resolved never to counsel women behind closed doors. But how can we “keep the doors open” on Facebook?
Corresponding to voyeurism in our peek-a-boo world is the lure of exhibitionism. We’re so tempted today to make our lives the central story, to turn our biographies into the stuff of fiction. Facebook caters to what Augustine and Luther called our sinful incurvatus in se (turning in on oneself), with its new interface that turns users into the fastidious curators of their personal timelines.
C. S. Lewis said that humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. But with the constant demand for personal updates, Facebook fosters a culture of narcissism, where we come to inhabit the harmful delusion that the world revolves around us. Marcel Proust recorded every tedious detail of his life in the thousands of pages of Remembrance of Things Past. Facebook is the Proustian medium par excellence.
The temptation for self-promotion is inexhaustible: we construct a personal profile that would please an ad agency; we post witticisms and breathlessly await our courtiers’ adulations. We think of ourselves all the time, because we have to keep up with the Joneses. If we don’t update, people may think we’re anti-social. Horrors, they may unfriend us! But how much do we tell? Does the world really need to know what kind of pizza we ate for dinner?
8. Endless Distraction
The tyranny the trivial exercises over our lives is perpetuated by the incessant Facebook update. It makes us a society of drone bees flitting restlessly from flower to flower. We can never pause, because there’s always more nectar to gather somewhere else. We’ve learned to live with a constant low-grade chatter of information. In this world of instant gratification, we demand to know everything—now!
It’s easy to lose our bearings in the flood of irrelevance that swamps our lives. In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr says we now have “juggler’s brains.” Like the Cat in the Hat, we have to keep many things in the air at the same time. There’s no time to stop and rest, no time to think, no time to spread deep roots and watch seeds grow. Such things demand patience, an endangered virtue in our culture. Blaise Pascal recognized this constant juggling as stemming from man’s insatiable appetite for diversions. He said we pursue diversions to escape the heavy realities of life and death.
And how many of these endlessly diverting rabbit trails are motivated by our sinful craving for the latest gossip? In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s wife Mildred spends her days sitting in the comfort of her living room, endlessly entertained by the chattering projections of her “friends” on enormous wall screens, while all of the world’s books go up in flames. Here’s what’s chilling: we’ve gotten there in less than sixty years. This is our world. You and I are Mildred.
9. Claustrophobia of the Now
Facebook traps us in the company of our peers. As a culture, we’ve largely cut ourselves off from the wisdom to be learned from past generations. An article in The Wall Street Journal aptly diagnoses today’s Generation-i as “afflicted with a plague of nowness” (March 26, 2012).
Tradition, Chesterton said, is “the democracy of the dead.” By trading the great books of the past for the constant present-tense of Facebook, we’ve silenced the counsel of the dead. Reading old books takes slow, uninterrupted time, as my students who plow through Les Misérables can attest. C. S. Lewis says we must “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds [to help blow out our errors], and this can be done only by reading old books.”
We’ve exchanged the wisdom of our elders for the opinions of our contemporaries, not realizing how stale the air in our little jar has become. In his book Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon argues that few pastors today can preach good exegetical sermons because they’ve been shaped by a pop-diet of social media rather than by deep patient reading. He encourages pastoral students at his college to log off and read old poetry.
10. Vanishing Hobbies
In our parents’ day, people had hobbies, many of which involved the patient mastery of craftsmanship. Things were actually made in those pre-Internet days. People learned the art of woodworking, knitting, gardening, painting, baking, poetry writing, fiddling, car maintenance. Fathers taught sons how to fix things. Community directories listed smiths, clockmakers, cobblers, seamstresses.
These expert hobbyists are rapidly vanishing from our increasingly high-tech society. Instead of “a stitch in time saves nine,” we throw the shirt away and buy a new one. We prefer Huxley’s jingle: “The more stitches, the less riches.” We fill landfills with used things and broken things that are no longer even made to be fixed. When we have free time, we bask in the comforting glow of the screen, which brings an easier return than the lonely tedium of practicing scales on the piano.
The many hobbies of old have boiled down to one great national pastime: the Social Network. But what craft does all this networking develop? When the power grid crashes, those whose only manual skill is texting an endless stream of commentary will find themselves not just utterly bored, but pitiably helpless. In What’s Wrong With the World, Chesterton says that the wonderful secret about domesticity is that, while the drab modern workplace narrows women, the colorful array of activities at home broadens their lives. There is no such thing as a mere housewife; she is a regal “Jill-of-all-trades.” But today, the collegiate Jill-of-one-trade has traded the graceful finishing skills Jane Austen called accomplishments for the all-demanding “hobby” of online networking, while her Jack-of-one-trade future husband is the master of video games. Deprived of the practical talents that used to be fostered through hobbies, what will Jack and Jill bring to their marriage?
11. The Unlived Life
It’s the cruelest of ironies that our timesaving devices gobble up all our time. As everything accelerates, we tell ourselves we’re wise stewards of time, but deep down we know we’ve become time’s slave. The older I get, the more I see time as precious currency that flows away faster and faster with every year. Moses writes, “You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream. . . . So teach us to number our days” (Ps. 90).
Recently I watched two dear friends on ventilators cross the River Jordan into eternity. Something of the “eternal weight of glory” in their sickrooms still hangs on me. Life is the sum total of tiny choices. And in today’s world of instant gratification and endless time-eating distractions, how many choices! Increasingly, we’ll have to decide between good and better. What is the better use of my brief moments this afternoon? Do I really need to update my status every hour? Do I have to see what my high-school friend is thinking now, compared to what he was thinking ten minutes ago? Or should I tackle that term paper instead? Should I struggle through that difficult but important book? Should I pray?
The great call of the hour seems to be for self-discipline and self-denial: saying no when no one’s looking, when we can do anything and get away with it; saying no because we fix our eyes on the face of Jesus, who exhorts us to run the race and cast off the sin that so easily entangles us (Heb. 12:1–2). Obviously, Facebook may not be the sin that entangles. But we need to see that whatever consumes the majority of our waking hours—whatever we need like a fix the moment we walk out of class—is no longer our tool but our master.
We’ve come to an absurd point when we spend more time commenting on our life than actually living it. Thoreau dreaded an unlived life: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately . . . and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” If the unexamined life is not worth living, the unlived life is hardly worth examining.
For many today, Facebook acts like a ventilator. First it helped them to breathe; now it does their breathing for them. They can’t possibly live without it. Their lives have become absorbed in the machine that is the Social Network.
12. Shadowy Friends
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may be a much sweeter guy than his fictional counterpart in the movie The Social Network. Maybe he helps the old ladies of Palo Alto cross the street and has never betrayed any of his friends. Fair enough. But this 28-year-old Harvard dropout sits atop an Everest of private information (Zuckerberg, fittingly, is German for “sugar mountain”). He’s the virtual head of the third most populous country in the world. He operates the largest database not owned by a government. Some 850 million people willingly surrendered this information to him in a social contract, in exchange for their “free” access to his global virtual network.
But is anything apart from grace ever free? Facebook’s IPO has been valued at an astronomical $85–$100 billion, more than the GDP of many small nations. So are its services really free?
Here’s where a healthy doctrine of man’s depravity comes in handy. Had Othello been more of a Calvinist, he might have suspected Iago, but Othello was a credulous soul who thought people good if they appeared to be. When the 500-millionth user joined the Facebook family in 2010 (over 350 million more have joined since then), Guy Raz interviewed Mr. Zuckerberg on NPR (July 24, 2010). He asked the great question: What would keep someone from using this information for harmful ends? Zuckerberg’s answer: “Trust us.”
Trust us. Our Founding Fathers wisely instituted “separation of powers” precisely because they did not trust us. But here, on the eve of the IPO, fabulous powers are concentrated in the world’s youngest Jay Gatsby billionaire, who sits on a sweet mound of private data worth close to $100 billion. He establishes the privacy settings—and changes them at will, as he did in June 2010. And there’s no restraint, because he hasn’t technically stolen this personal information from anyone.
Facebook’s new frontier used to be advertisement-free. Now, targeted ads garishly clutter its landscape. And little wonder: the peek-a-boo world is also a surveillance world. The code is always open, at least to its programmers. We’re never alone online. We’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses: Mr. Zuckerberg and his techies, ad agencies, prosecutors, insurance adjusters, future employers, and who knows what shadowy lurkers with dubious intent. It’s helpful to remember that we invite a host of potential future “friends” to look over our shoulders every time we log on. As C. S. Lewis put it, the modern world would say you could have your views when you were alone, and then they’d make sure you were never alone.
13. Face His Book
Finally, the reason that really belongs first: The greatest of all friends—the Friend of friends, who laid down his life for you and sticks closer than a brother, never to leave you nor forsake you—doesn’t have a Facebook account. We’re exhorted to seek the face of our faithful friend Jesus. But because he’s not on Facebook, we seek all other faces but his.
Ask yourself this: Where do you tend to go first? To Facebook, or to the Book where you see his face? Do we seek “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6)? This is the eternal glory that doesn’t fade with the loss of Wi-Fi. We find the glory of Jesus’ face in his word. Who gets the firstfruits of our waking moments? A recent sign I saw on a church put it pointedly: “Get off Facebook and get into His Book.” It’s a challenge worth pondering.
You may think I’ve exaggerated some of these points. Perhaps I have. Yet I’m not trying to be mean-spirited or a fear-monger. I’m not even urging you to give up Facebook. I can see how an active Facebook account may be necessary for thriving in today’s world. No doubt it’s futile to wish our culture back to the technological simplicity of the Little House on the Prairie or Walden Pond. So be it. Then the question for Christians becomes: How do we use social media responsibly, especially in view of our calling as students? Answering this will require great discernment. At the very least, I would be especially wary of using it to air your personal laundry, or for chatting with a friend two rooms down the hall.
Given the ever-greater share of our waking moments that today’s virtual media demand, I think it’s important to discuss this issue as a learning community. Let’s agree that the danger doesn’t necessarily lie in our tools, but in our lack of self-control, which can make us the slave of our tools. Just as we can overeat in the cafeteria, so we can over-consume in our use of technology. Our hearts, Calvin helpfully reminds us, are idol-factories. Even good things can become addictive if not used in moderation. Here in college, you have a unique opportunity to focus your attention on learning. It’s a time for you to grow deep character roots and develop the resources of mind you will use for the rest of your life. But this kind of rich development might require that, for extended periods, you turn away from the 24/7 chatter that’s roaring down the Facebook pipe, clamoring for your attention.
The danger I see for college students today is that they will spend tens of thousands of dollars to major in the Social Network. A study reported in USA Today (Jan. 18, 2011) found that almost half of our nation’s students learn virtually nothing during their first two years in college, and not much more in the last two. Students spend 50 percent less time studying than they did a few decades ago. Why this decline? Let’s venture a guess: Teachers are padding their tenure portfolios, and students are studying their social lives. Everyone’s busier than ever; they’re just not busy teaching or learning. But there’s one big winner in education today: Facebook is worth $100 billion.
If Oxford’s halls had been rigged with Wi-Fi and Facebook sixty years ago, would we have Narnia or Middle Earth? Lewis and Tolkien had a wonderful social network: the Inklings. They had a chat room: the Eagle and Child, where you could run your finger along the wood grain of the benches, hear the tinkle of cutlery, smell the smoke from Jack’s pipe, and catch an elfin twinkle in Tollers’s eye as he clears his throat and reads: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Inklings were real friends with real faces discussing real books. Is it wrong to lament a human loss here?
Have you ever thought of writing your friend a letter by hand? People used to do that! Think of how much more meaningful it would be to find a hand-written letter in your mailbox than an emoticon on your phone. Have you taken a slow read through a good book lately, or considered taking up a hobby? How about spending time with people face to face?
And how about spending more “face time” with your Lord: “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). There’s no satisfaction in the world that compares with this: “As for me, I will see your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in your likeness” (Ps. 17:15). “My heart says to you, ‘your face, Lord, do I seek’” (Ps. 27:8). We become like what we spend the most face time with. We seek his face when we face his Book.
Some students have taken “Facebook fasts” for Lent. Could you go a month without Facebook? A week? Even an hour? Try it. You might find life beyond the screen curiously refreshing. •
Steve Baarendse is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife Sara have three children and worship at Lexington Presbyterian Church (PCA).