The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community
Douglas Groothuis' review of "The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community" by Jesse Rice.
Jesse Rice. The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2009. 231 pages. $12.99. ISBN: 978-1-4347-6534-5.
Human culture is multifaceted, variable, complex, and often invisible. Put simply, culture is the mark that humans make on nature and on each other. However, that mark may be blended into our lives so that we hardly notice it. Competent cultural criticism brings the cultural background into the foreground, as Marshall McLuhan observed. That unique human touch takes manifold forms—involving the sartorial, the architectural, the orchestral, the automotive, and so on—and extends to various discursive communicative media such as spoken language, smoke signals, forms of signage, and written language. It also extends through electronically mediated communications, such as telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and the Internet. The latter has afforded us, in a very short time, a plethora of possibilities for communication from email to text messaging to blogs to what is now called “social networking,” a phenomenon that occurs on the Internet by broadening the kinds of computer-mediated social contact offered by email, blogs, or web pages. This creates a digital agora, but with no one there in the flesh. Bodies are absent, but interaction is very present in this new electronic forum.
Internet technologies have swiftly changed cultures around the world through speed, availability, and new contexts for information exchange. The rise of social networking has raised significant questions about the meaning and experience of community in the digital domain. Christians believe in normative and objective principles for human flourishing designed by God; therefore, they should be especially concerned with how these new and nearly ubiquitous technologies are shaping our selves and our society. If the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39), then it behooves us to discern the strengths and weaknesses of these technologies and “to hold fast to what is good” while avoiding “every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
In The Church of Facebook, Jesse Rice, a young musician, worship leader, and writer, examines the nature of Facebook in light of the human need for friendship, family, and community. Thus it is more than a book about Facebook. However, the meteoric ascent of Facebook itself is remarkable. In the first quarter of 2009, every week, five million people joined Facebook. Its membership doubled from one hundred million to two hundred million from August 2008 to March 2009 and the vast majority of its members (140 million) have joined since February of 2007. Facebook has rapidly generated a spontaneous ordering of human communication that is unique in history.
While Rice subtly articulates a Christian worldview, in the introduction, he tries to disarm the reader from thinking that he strongly advocates a particular religion. He writes that “because this book also contains a spiritual thread woven throughout, much of the discussion will be framed with biblical insights. In no way is this approach intended as a means for selling a particular kind of faith or practice.” If Rice means that this is not a book about apologetics or evangelism per se, then his statement is apropos. But he goes further, “Everyone has their own understanding and experience of faith, and all are welcome into the conversation found here.” He finishes his introduction by claiming that the gospel is “particularly well suited for helping us understand, adapt to, and even thrive among the challenges of living in a hyperconnected culture.” Rice’s authorial posture seems to vacillate between witness and relativism. One may write a book that keeps the Christianity latent (as C.S. Lewis put it in his classic essay, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock) instead of explicit. We need more such books. Yet Rice appears to be saying that while Christianity helps him understand “a hyperconnected culture,” others may find other faiths useful. In that case, truth is not the issue at all, but pragmatics. But as Os Guinness writes in God in the Dark: “Christianity is not true because it works. It works because it is true.” There is no reason to question the genuineness of Rice’s faith, but one may question the way he states his purpose in writing—especially given postmodernism’s fragmentation of truth into a thousand relative perspectives.
Rice assesses the changes that Facebook (and social networking more broadly) brings to culture through the lens of social psychology—he holds a Masters degree in counseling psychology—or perhaps anthropology. He tells many stories about psychological research related to the profound human need for personal association as well as recounting the surprising cultural effects of older technologies, such as the advent of air conditioning. At times, one wonders what the point of the story might be, but Rice eventually reveals the purpose. For example, for all the benefits of air conditioning, it has another deleterious effect. “As entertainment and social events moved indoors, the shared experience of the neighborhood began to shrink.” According to Neil Postman, every technology produces both good and ill effects. None are neutral. (Rice fails to refer to Postman, although he makes good use of other technology critics, such as Sherry Turkle and Christine Rosen.) Those drawn into social commentary largely through stories will not be disappointed; those of us a bit more analytically inclined may have to exercise some patience.
Rice repeatedly emphasizes that new technologies, such as air conditioning, produce unforeseen and unique effects. New patterns of association emerge in all their perplexity. Using an example from the unforeseen consequences of the construction of the Millennium Bridge in 2000, he finds three principles at work with social networking technologies and structures the book around them.
- There is a force that is capable of synchronizing a large population in very little time, thereby creating spontaneous order.
- This spontaneous order can generate outcomes that are entirely new and unpredictable.
- These unpredictable outcomes require the affected population to adapt their behavior to more adequately live within the new spontaneously generated order.
Rice unfolds these themes through six chapters in which he offers many wise observations. He warns of “continuous partial attention” in which we are always attending to multiple stimuli provided by communication technologies such as Facebook. This mentality erodes our ability to concentrate on any one thing by over-stimulating us; it also makes us feel powerless. We may have hundreds of Facebook “friends” with whom we are “connected,” but how much real influence do we have in their lives or vice versa. The presentation of self in Facebook also raises concerns for Rice, who warns that we (like media celebrities) may be more concerned to be liked than to be ourselves.
Although he doesn’t use this term, Facebook and related technologies foster the overexposure of the self by facilitating the mass distribution of text and image related to oneself. But one may overextend oneself. As The Book of Proverbs so often says in various ways, the wise hold their peace, but fools proclaim their folly. One should choose confidents carefully (see Psalm 1). There is much folly and frivolity in social networking. Everyone should not know everything about everyone else! As counselors put it, while secrecy wrongly conceals vices or wrongdoing, confidentiality is prudent because it shields things that need to be kept out of view. Social networking makes the broad distribution of text and image virtually effortless, and many souls lack the discretion to hold their peace. Although Rice does not develop the idea, one should also be careful of gossip on Facebook (and elsewhere). Biblically understood, this is sinful and should be repented of. Moreover, there is a time to retreat from words entirely, as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes warns, “The more the words, the less meaning, and how does that profit anyone” (Ecclesiastes 6:11; see also 5:1-2). The same is true for images. Many Facebookians recklessly post photographs of themselves in immodest and/or narcissistic poses; and even innocent photographs may be misunderstood given the often ambiguous nature of the image. More than once, Facebook comments and images have come back to haunt their authors.
Rice considers what a Facebook “friend” might be. A friend is allowed access to your personal information (profile) and your posts. One may accept or deny friend requests and request others to be friends. A friend has more access to your Facebook page (and you to theirs) than a non-friend. Outside of Facebook, we tend to choose friends carefully; but on Facebook, most think that the more friends you have, the more popular you are. On Facebook, I have had dozens of friend requests by strangers who do not identify any contact, such as being a friend of a friend or as having read one of my books. Calling such people “friends” in any classical sense (whether Aristotelian or biblical) is nonsensical. Moreover, the medium of Facebook does not allow for much depth in communication. As Rice says, “When we perpetually communicate via short, rapid fire bursts of information, we inevitably turn our friends into audiences and ourselves into performers.” This falls far short of biblical virtue.
I must omit many of Rice’s other perceptive observations and consider his concluding advice for Facebook users. The rapid rise of Facebook and the kind of spontaneous social order (and disorder) it creates demand discerning participation, not mindless immersion or sleepwalking experimentation. To that end, Rice recommends five principles for using Facebook:
- Practice regular check-ins. Since social media can induce “out of body experiences” (digital interactions apart from personal presence), we should monitor our selves in the midst of using Facebook or similar technologies. What are we feeling and thinking? How are we responding to this world? Given the hyperconnectedness that Facebook affords, it is easy to get swept into the data flow without being mindful of what is happening on the screen and in the soul. I think of Jesus’ admonition, “Therefore consider carefully how you listen” (Luke 8:18), which applies to Facebook as well as face-to-face situations.
- Make the intention to not go online immediately before bed and immediately after waking up. These significant times of day should be reserved to memorize Scripture, meditate on it, and pray (See Psalm 119).
- Practice mindful Facebooking. I am reluctant to follow the author in making Facebook a verb, but he advises us to monitor how much time we spend on Facebook and exactly what we do there. Perhaps, for example we tend to ogle at photographs we should not, for example (see Matthew 5:27-32). Being mindful is sound advice, but seems to repeat his first point.
- Practice authentic Facebooking: Facebook caters to narcissism, with many people presenting flattering images of and words about themselves that are unreal. Therefore, we should evaluate the “presentation of self in everyday life” (Irving Goffman) on Facebook. “Does the content reflect your God-given nature?” Are we being authentically ourselves here or are we hyperactive and hyperconnected pretenders? God knows: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
- Adopt one or two Facebook friends for one month. One’s involvement in Facebook can become more meaningful by picking just a few people to focus on, instead of distributing one’s attention more widely but superficially. Pray for them; send messages only for them; post photographs with them that are meaningful; etc. Then consider whether this has deepened your relationship with them.
These five recommendations are sane and solid. I often challenge people to develop a philosophy of Facebook to guide their involvement, and Rice’s encouragement should spur reflection. But given the depth of historical and cultural analysis that precedes conclusion, I desired more. For example, just who should be our “friends” on Facebook? Does Facebook encourage the humiliation of the word by the image (as Jacques Ellul puts it twenty-five years ago) and, if so, how should we respond to that? Nevertheless, The Church of Facebook is a welcome and wise piece of cultural criticism. I wonder if Jesse Rice would become my Facebook friend.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy