Facebook’s Problem

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painting of Narcissus with a minor edit

Researchers at Western Illinois University recently published study in the the journal Personality and Individual Differences that shows a direct link between people who have “socially disruptive narcissism” and those who “had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often, and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.”

Social networking has long been linked with narcism, but smart researchers are careful to point out that the research doesn’t prove that Facebook causes narcissism. However, they do say that Facebook provides a powerful platform for feeding the beast of toxic self-focused behavior.

Facebook’s Response

Though not directly linked to the research mentioned above, Facebook has rolled out a feature that lets you distinguish people with whom you regularly interact (i.e. “Friends” in the pre-Facebook meaning) and those you only know casually which Facebook calls “Acquaintances.” (Check out your suggested Aquaintances)

For the past several years, Facebook has tried introducing various features to help you filter large lists of friends. For some time now, Facebook has allows people to create custom lists of “Close Friends” and only receive update from those people and they also allow you to be friends with someone but manually unsubscribe from their updates. But it seems that most people don’t want to spend their time clicking buttons and curating lists (which is one of the reasons Google+ Circles haven’t really caught on).

So Facebook’s new solution is not to create an inclusive list, but to suggest people that you can filter out. By moving someone to the “Acquaintances” list, you’ll see less of them and hopefully be more connected to people to whom you have a deeper connection. It might not prevent narcissist tendencies, but it may help focus your online interaction.

A Lesson in Philosophy of Technology

When people talk about technology, they often fall into two camps. The first, which I call “instrumentalists,” believe that technology is purely neutral and has no effect on people. As long as you use it for good, then you’re good. At the opposite end of the spectrum are “determinists” who say that technology is such a powerful force that it completely shapes society and culture in its image which is mostly negative.

The study above disproves the first theory, and Facebook’s response disproves the second. The researches show that technology like Facebook is not in fact neutral, but Facebook’s response shows that technology often bends to the will of the people, adapting to their needs over time. Many have wondered if Facebook was redefining our understanding of the term “Friend,” but it appears that Facebook is now adapting to the ways peoples think about “friends” and “acquaintances” in real life.  In academic terms this middle ground is sometimes called “Social Shaping of Technology.” (see Dave Stearns’s excellent discussion of these various positions).

The Takeaway?

Rather than fall to either of the above extremes, I think that the careful, thinking Christian should will end up somewhere in the middle on Facebook. On the one hand we should come away with a healthy fear of social networking’s power to entice us toward the sin of self-focused narcissism. If Facebook recognizes the problem of too many friends, shouldn’t we also acknowledge it?

But at the same time, it doesn’t do any good to run in fear every time something new comes along believing it will unswervingly corrupt all who use it. We will undoubtedly adapt to it, and it will adapt to us. In the mean time, let’s keep having good-natured discussions about the pros, cons, and unseen effects technology can have, so that we can find safe, helpful ways to use it well.

But please, please, don’t make me just an “Acquaintance.”

Update from Dave Stearns

Dr. Stearns wrote with some additional categories that I think are really helpful:

I think Sherry Turkle’s categories of Affordances and Vulnerabilities are really helpful when thinking about Facebook’s tendency to reinforce narcissism. Facebook is to the narcissist as a Las Vegas casino is to the compulsive gambler. The casino is probably more purposely designed to deceive and ensnare than Facebook is, but some people can walk through those casinos without the least desire to gamble; others play a bit, have fun, and leave; and others quickly get drawn into addictive behavior. It’s when those affordances intersect with a person’s vulnerabilities that trouble really ensues.

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