Commentary

I recently wrote the following in an article for Reflections, the journal of Yale Divinity School (Fall 2011): Facebook’s success is tied to how it originally differentiated itself from online tools that encouraged false identities such as video gaming. Instead, Facebook encouraged people to dig deep into their actual, real relationships.

In a 2010 TIME Magazine profile of him last year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says, “At its core, what we’re trying to do is map out all of those trust relationships.” Profile writer Lev Grossman explains, “The fact that people yearned not to be liberated from their daily lives but to be more deeply embedded in them is an extraordinary insight.”

Granted, Facebook is confronting ethical and legal questions about privacy and other issues these days (see interview with Jeffery Rosen on NPR’s Fresh Air, “Interpreting the Constitution in the Digital Age” for recent scary comments about Facebook and privacy).

But I’m curious about what you think of these basic claims made by Zuckerberg and Grossman – Facebook’s goal is to map out our real “trust relationships” and it has tapped into our “yearning … to be more deeply embedded in them.”

Zuckerberg’s statement strikes me as true but ironic. Facebook has connected scores of people to long lost friends and family … for better and for worse. You can’t hide much of anything on Facebook, unless you are lying. And the idea on Facebook is not to lie but rather to find old and new friends and then share your lives. The irony is that critics claim Facebook and other social media deprive us of relationships with people IRL (in real life). Do they, really? What is real life?

Grossman’s statement strikes me as somehow hopeful about human nature. Perhaps we actually do like our lives and the people in our lives enough to want to share them with others. Perhaps we don’t yearn for an escape into entertainment’s dungeons, as much as we want to bask in the light of our relationships with the other people around us. Perhaps the church is onto something when it truly values the community of God’s people gathered to hear and share the Gospel, and to serve others.

Okay, so being too imbedded in the lives of others can be problematic. Setting appropriate boundaries around social media has been a recurring theme in the interviews we’ve conducted at the New Media Project. Some younger clergy tell us that they like how refreshingly honest teens can be on Facebook, but they also worry about how all that sharing makes some teens more vulnerable.

But perhaps it’s good news that a retreat into isolation may not be the most potent challenge occasioned by the rise of Facebook and other social media. Not to under appreciate the work of developing appropriate boundaries, but I’ll take the challenge of coping with an expanding number of relationships over loneliness any day.

Verity Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Jones lives in Indianapolis. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. Contact Jones at newmedia@uts.columbia.edu. This commentary was reprinted with permission. New Media Project. © 2011.


Perhaps the church is onto something when it truly values the community of God’s people gathered to hear and share the Gospel, and to serve others.