In the first act of The Social Network, the movie depicting the origin Facebook, we are introduced to a fictionalized version Mark Zuckerburg who, after being spurred by his girlfriend and overlooked by Harvard’s elite final clubs, begins creating facemash.com, a site that lets visitors vote on which of their classmates is better looking.
After a night of beer chugging and code writing, Zuckerburg unleashes his creation on the Harvard campus which both delights and disgusts his classmates. Director Aaron Sorkin then juxtaposing scenes of students gathered around laptops ogling pictures of female coeds on facemash.com with students gathered around tables watching scantily clad women dance at the final club parties.
In this sequence, Sorkin seems to be asking us, “What is the relationship between these two worlds – the ogling women online and the ogling women in person, that of flesh and blood and that of bits and pixels?” Sorkin never ventures an answer, and ten years after the launch of what was then called “thefacebook,” it’s a question we’re still trying to answer.
Online vs. Offline is Dead
When Facebook started, there was still a raging debate that pitted the “real world” against the “virtual world.” In the ensuing years, confidence in this simple dualism has eroded, with researchers, pundits, and bloggers alike recognizing that the relationship between the two is more fluid and dynamic.
Online and offline interact with one another, influence each other, and augment one another, but they never exist in isolation. Even those that choose not to use Facebook still communicate and relate to others through forms of media (phones, letters, and so on), and one must look at the ecosystem of media as a whole rather than isolate one strand and pin various social ills or benefits on upon it.
This is part of the Sorkin’s genius depiction of Facebook’s birth. He shows that the two worlds are so inextricably intertwined that they are really one world. He doesn’t say it’s the one world that God made, but I think that’s the conclusion to which Christians should come.
Rather than see “online” and “virtual” as two magically distinct spheres, one fully incarnate and the other its discarnate doppelganger, Christians especially must affirm that the entire created order, including all that humans create (yes all that “virtual” stuff) is part of one continuous spectrum of creation over which God have complete dominion and control and through which God’s Spirit is actively working.
The Interactions Are More Complex Than We Acknowledge
While we are breaking down the online vs. offline dualism, it is also becoming increasingly clear that the interactions between the technology and culture are more complex than initially imagined. One still doesn’t have to look far to find one person offering effusive praise of the new world of social networking and another offering outright condemnation of all things Internet. But happily it also doesn’t take a terribly long view or much data to see that both of these extremes miss the complexity of what’s really happening. Take for example the idea that “Kids spend all their time online rather than face-to-face.” Statistically speaking teens may in fact be spending less together face-to-face, but to link this effect exclusively to the cause of Facebook is both wrong and unhelpful.
In her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, Dana Boyd interviews teens who say they’d much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them. It turns out that today’s kids are overscheduled (bowing to extreme pressure for college admissions) and today’s parents are overly fearful (while kidnapping and crime is down in America, 24 hour coverage of gruesome crimes contributes to a general state of fear among parents). Left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, and the only parentally-allowed way to image the Truine God is to go online.
So the problem of “less face-to-face” time isn’t simply caused by social media and neither is social media merely a symptom of some deeper boogey man whose secrets are only available in a book or special conference. Instead there is always complex ecosystem of cultural forces.
Even when Facebook itself is making terrible commercials encouraging narcissism and self-focus (see below), we must also take into account the spiritual forces at work, the “powers and principalities” of which Paul writes and about which Wormwood’s uncle encourages us to forget. Christians have a vocabulary of spirit and flesh and of word and spirit that can add richness, power, and depth to the comparatively anemic ideas of narcissism, privacy, and identity.
The Questions Change as Both We and Facebook Age
And yet, for all this talk of complexity, over its 10-year existence Facebook has made an undeniable impact on society and individuals. Ten years may not seem like a long time, but it’s long enough to see that Facebook has come to have different meanings at different stages in our lives, and that these meanings shift as we age.
Early adopters of Facebook, who were then scruffy college kids, are now approaching the threshold of untrustworthiness, the age of 30. Where they once used Facebook to update their “relationship status” and Poke one another, they moved on to sharing wedding photos, and eventually parenting advice, and now Vitamix coupons. The then bewildered 40 and 50-somethings who didn’t “get it” when Facebook launched are now grandparents who have gone from joining Facebook to see baby pictures (which are no longer mailed to them) to using Facebook independently to share the thoughts that didn’t have an outlet in their earlier lives. And then there are today’s teens who were never given the chance to know a world without the word “selfie,” and whose use of social media will, too, evolve as they enter college and the workforce.
Many of these same people have now deleted their account in disgust with the entire social media enterprise only to rejoin again in order to reconnect with loved ones who no longer call or write. Some are on their third of fourth account, and many of us maintain multiple accounts on different networks that we use for different purposes. We often complain about the system, but we also recognize that it is a new and constant part of our reality.
The Continuum of Home, Work, and Play
So in this new reality what role should social media play in our lives and in the lives of our communities? How has our conception of identity and relationship shifted? Can we just unplug and things will get back to normal?
Long ago, it was expected that the way one interacted with professionally with co-workers was different from the intimacy afforded in marriage and different yet again from one’s orientation to one’s children or one’s parents, and different still from a relationship with a long-time friend or pal at the gym.
But by today’s standards, acting differently in these scenarios might be considered “inauthentic.” To be “genuine” today, one must be the same in every sphere of life. Interestingly, this is just what most social networks require – a single, flat identity equally discoverable by anyone. A teacher cannot have a different Facebook relationship (in its current iteration) with her students than she has with her mother, and a student’s relationship to parents, teachers, and friends must be the same as well.
As we’ve previously mentioned, such shifts are multi-variant; we cannot blame them soley on Facebook. In the same 10 years, the physical distinction between one’s job, one’s home, one’s leisure, and one’s school have been blurred by economic and technological forces, each playing on one another.
The cumulative effect of these forces has allowed (or forced) many Christians to re-examine fairly basic concepts like discipleship, preaching, and Sabbath. To take just one of these areas – Sabbath – we know taking a break from “work” is a biblical idea, but when our work machines are also our leisure machines and our social machines, where can we go to truly rest? We can unplug the laptop to stop working during out Sabbath, but what if we need it to socially connect through Facebook? If stopping the use of media is important for true rest, what other technologies might we also give up?
Such questions bring us back to Sorkin’s original question: What is the relationship between the offline and online, the physical and the digital world? It seems that simplistic, binary answers don’t offer us much hope. We must proceed carefully and with perhaps more discipline than previously thought.
A Mirror and a Window
What I hope is emerging from these questions is a sense that looking deeply into Facebook and its impact is not altogether different from looking closely at humanity itself. This is not to say that Facebook is humanity or that Facebook is inert. To the contrary, our global culture has undergone some big changes in the past decade, and Facebook is one of the forces behind that change.
What I mean to say is that the benefits and problems we attribute to Facebook are in many ways a reflection of the two sides of our humanity as the Scriptures portray it. Every thoughtful post, every beautiful image, every impactful campaign is rooted in the stamp of God’s image embedded on every Facebook account’s human. And every case of bullying, every self-focused rant, and every single game of Candy Crush betrays our brokenness and need for Christ to finish his work of redemption in us.
Facebook can be a convenient punching bag for all kinds of social ills, but it can also offer us a window into the struggles and beauties of a human race that still bears God’s image and which is in need of a complete resurrection.
I think our understanding of technology is clearest when we can carefully take into account its downsides while also seeing its benefits as pointers and foretastes of the resurrection. To that end, I’ll leave you with this commercial from Microsoft. It of course places too much hope in technology itself, but if you can see past the technology and see the time and place to which it points, it is indeed encouraging.