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Facebook, Twitter and social networking have been at the receiving end of a bit of a backlash recently. Social networking sites have been accused of accentuating feelings of loneliness, encouraging narcissism and discouraging the development of normal social skills.  Former enthusiasts such as Sherry Turkle, have turned against the tide, voicing their caution as can be seen in her talk, Connected but alone?

I’ve been particularly interested in the commentary going on as I very much had a love affair with online social networking over the years – up until recently when I realized that not only was I getting annoyed with myself for spending so much time on Facebook and Twitter, but I was also feeling less happy after a “session” than before.

One of the blogs I have read over the past few weeks has been the “Will you be my Facebook friend ” series by the Christian author, Tim Chester. Chester acknowledges Facebook’s benefits and admits he is focusing on its dangers partly because he is “a grumpy old man” but also because he believes those dangers are very subtle and need to be brought out into the open. Some of the main points that he covers are the fact that Facebook is a massive consumer of our time – apparently 700 billion minutes per month spent on Facebook! If like me, discipline and self control are not your forte – your time can disappear down a social networking black hole! He also points out that Facebook enables us to recreate our image using words and pictures. I personally don’t think this is a subtle danger – I think that it’s a fairly obvious temptation to Facebook users for them to project an image of themselves that they would like to be perceived as truly being – rather than who they are in reality. This isn’t anything new – it’s part and parcel of online dating as well.

One particularly interesting thing that Chester  highlighted though was that Facebook is geared to project positivity – there is no dislike option on Facebook! I have to say I find it fairly depressing to be bombarded with all these positive projections of people when I log into Facebook – one researcher gives the following amusing summation “When I scroll through page after page of my friends’ descriptions of how accidentally eloquent their kids are, and how their husbands are endearingly bumbling, and how they’re all about to eat a home-cooked meal prepared with fresh local organic produce bought at the farmers’ market and then go for a jog and maybe check in at the office because they’re so busy getting ready to hop on a plane for a week of luxury dogsledding in Lapland, I do grow slightly more miserable. A lot of other people doing the same thing feel a little bit worse, too.

Projecting a positive image for most people will also mean posting photos showing themselves with lots of friends, having a good time. It is as if we’re saying – “I have a good life and am popular and here is photographic evidence!” It is not that there is anything wrong with showing photos to other people  – but the way Facebook works, or at least the way it works now, means that every photo you post, whether it be of your wedding or of a dinner party – all your Facebook friends witness this in their “news stream.” Unless you manually go through each of your “friends” and choose those who you wish to “unsubscribe” to you are given a running commentary of other people’s Facebook lives – and they are given a running commentary of yours (note I say Facebook life – because it isn’t real life!). I realised recently that I really don’t want to see every single photo of all my facebook friends’ social lives – weddings, babies – yes these are significant things – but photos of me dancing badly at a gig last Saturday – I don’t think so.  In a life before Facebook, it would be rather strange if every time I met somebody who I knew I took out my phone and showed them photos of my sisters birthday party from last weekend. But now doing the online equivalent has become the norm.

Another danger Chester draws out is that Facebook becomes a place where we find affirmation and approval. As I read the blog it very much resonated with my own experience as I realised the way I had been using Facebook had accentuated the very sides of my character that I had identified as needing work on. I tend to struggle with the need to feel accepted and valued by my friends. Using Facebook was like pouring oil on a fire! For example, if I were to post “I’ve had a really awful day at work and feel miserable” and no one were to comment on it – chances are I would have felt even more miserable – and very alone.

Loneliness is a problem in our supposedly connected Western world (although according to these articles from Forbes and Slate  the problem has been over exaggerated) with many people feeling much more “alone” than perhaps previous generations. (I don’t want to go into an analysis of loneliness – apart from highlighting two definitions that I’ve come across which definitely give food for thought. The first being that loneliness is a lack of confidants – people to share personal things with and the second being that loneliness is being in a situation where you don’t have the level of social connection that you desire/need (a level which tends to differ from person to person).) I would argue though in line with the Atlantic article that Facebook tends to accentuate loneliness rather than causing it. I have had seasons of my life where I have been extremely lonely and where using Facebook has made me miserable! But there have been seasons where I’ve not really experienced loneliness and Facebook has been a much more positive experience. Generally though, I think that lonely people are more vulnerable to feeling more alone if they are using Facebook and Twitter a great deal . The number of comments, re-tweets or “likes” are the things which can make people feel less alone or more secure. That cannot be healthy.

One thing I find interesting about social networking is that people say things that if they were to have to speak them out loud, they would either not say or would find it very difficult to say. This could be both positive and negative things. For example, I once read a Facebook status which contained a stinging criticism of a Christian university society, a criticism which I followed up with some concern to find out if it was merited. Once I realised there was very little justification for it, I challenged the person to speak face-to-face with the person who ran that university society to voice their complaints. They never did. Sadly, we also postings on Facebook such as “I love you“or “I miss you” or “I think you’re amazing” that when we are face-to-face with someone on the phone to someone – we just can’t say! It’s very bizarre – we’re willing to write these kinds of things on people’s Facebook walls, where hundreds of other people can read it – but when we are breathing the same airspace as someone and it’s just them and us in the room – we can’t say these things!

Social networking also means you can delete the record of things that you’ve said, articles that you’ve read and photos that you have uploaded. The author of this article talks about how he was watching Mad Men with a friend who posted a status update about how fat Betty Draper had become, only to rush to delete it when later on in the episode it turned out that she had a thyroid tumour! Most of us can get away with deleting things and not many other people knowing (unless you are a celebrity or prominent organisation – Starbucks had to recently apologise after inviting its Irish Twitter followers to “show us what makes you proud to be British” as part of a Diamond Jubilee promotion!), However this is not how real life works. If you something to somebody – you cannot “unsay it.” Even if you send an e-mail, you can’t recall it (actually this is probably possible although I still haven’t figured out how to make it work!) Words are powerful – the power to speak and communicate means that we also have a certain level of responsibility on how we speak and what we communicate – and we have to live with the consequences of that. If we can delete our Facebook posts or tweets – this removes that responsibility and enables us to avoid the consequences.

Finally, I would argue that one of the most inherent dangers of online social networking is that it can fuel an unhealthy level of self absorption. Over the past week, one of the people who I follow on Twitter posted this tweet “dinner was so nice tonight. Broccoli and meatballs.” How profound. Really essential information for myself and everybody else who follows her. How self absorbed have we become if we feel the need to tell everybody every intricate, inane happening in our lives?! Sharing our lives is important – I am a Christian, and therefore, a passionate believer in the importance of being part of a loving and open community, however, these kinds of trivial overshares really don’t seem to be things which will help either the person sharing all the people hearing. I feel crippled when I think about myself too much – there is a very real danger that social networking can be used in a way which fuels a focus which is always on me, on my activities, on my interactions with other people, on my likes, on my opinions. Me, me, me, me, me…..

After this tirade, I’m sure you’re wondering “why is this woman still using social networking?! (Especially as the likelihood is that you read this through a link on Facebook or Twitter!) You’re probably also thinking “what a hippo!” (A description that has been directed towards me before when I’ve been speaking in a fairly hypocritical way!) You could also argue that blogging is a fairly narcissistic thing to do – perhaps there is some truth in that, although there is always good and bad things about most things – even Facebook and Twitter which I have yet to come to! The thing is – I am guilty as charged of pretty much all of the things I have highlighted today. However, realising this has been the start of breaking free from it – and the joy of breaking free is something I would like to share!

There are healthy and productive ways of using online social networking – Facebook and Twitter have some fantastic tools and facets to them which we can take advantage of. Social networking is a great way of keeping in touch with people who live far away – people who you are unlikely to see in the short – medium-term. I have a friend from Kenya who is now in South Africa whom I haven’t seen since 2009. We have been fairly good at keeping in touch since 2009, however, since we both joined twitter we now have extremely regular contact – and have been able to add to that using other technologies such as whatsapp. This has definitely helped us to preserve our friendship. I also have two nieces and two nephews who I don’t get to see as often as I would like – seeing the photos that their parents post on Facebook brings me genuine joy and helps me to keep track of how they are growing.

Social networking is also useful for sharing articles and videos which you genuinely think the people you know might find interesting or helpful. I have a friend who is studying in the US who often posts articles which make me think – which I really appreciate. I have another friend who regularly blogs about her homeland,Nigeria– her blogs are probably the main reason why I actually have an idea of what is going on with Boko Haram and Nigerian politics, reducing my ignorance for which I am grateful! Social networking gives you a launchpad for ideas, for information – which is an extremely powerful and positive thing as it can bring about behavioural change.

Tim Chester has suggested a couple of guidelines for using Facebook. Personally I have found the following helpful:

  • uninstalling Facebook from my phone (twitter – you may be next, although the antics of @Queen_UK and the quotes coming out of @FinePickUpLines and @FirstWorldPains may cause me to hold back for now!)
  • Limit myself to checking once or twice a week, 15 min maximum at a time and never after 8 PM.
  • Only sharing photos with the people in those photos or people who I know for sure would want to see them.
  • Sharing articles and videos which I think other people might find beneficial or interesting to read without sharing absolutely every news article I read, every song that I listen to! And sharing these things without actually opening my Facebook page.
  • Using Facebook and Twitter to enhance an existing relationship – but only if it is well established, not if it is new or has problems.

All of these things have meant I have been given the gift of time! I’m able to clean my house, phone my sisters more, see friends in the flesh more, go to bed earlier – and research and write pieces like this! The last two friends I have made don’t actually use Facebook so I have been forced to text, e-mail, phone and arrange to meet up – and it’s been great!

So in conclusion – online social networking sites are not necessarily bad things. In fact they can be really great things. But the way they are designed can enable our weaknesses and mean we neglect the business of real relationships if we’re not careful. These are dangers worth recognising – and guarding against.

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One Comment

  1. Some really good points to mull over. I particularly liked the bit where you highlighted the fact that people say things to each other that they won’t in real life! For some reason filtering your thoughts works differently online, although I always tend to think, ‘If I wrote this then saw them tomorrow would I be embarrassed?’ I’ve never found social media particularly addictive (I’ll have my short, enthusiastic stints which usually don’t last) but have also tried to put measures in to prevent temptation. For example, I have a twitter account but I use it only to ‘follow’ people I’d like to hear from (like pastors, church networks and news channels – I esp. recommend DesiringGod and Paul David Tripp!) and decided not to try to get followers by telling friends or actively getting it out there, because I knew I’d likely soon become obsessed about having more ‘followers’. Until I have something useful to put out there I don’t see how my followers could benefit from my tweets anyway. Personally, I prefer Facebook Messenger or Skype over Twitter for keeping in touch with friends whom I don’t get to see much.
    Another ‘trick’ I use to stop social media overload + save internet usage on my phone is to switch of the mobile network when I don’t need it. At home I can use the wi-fi and, when I’m out, I only get updates when I switch on the network. The biggest challenge I find is discerning what is out there that’s actually helping renew my mind and what’s just feeding it ‘stuff’. Knowledge and information doesn’t necessarily help renew my mind. Sometimes it puffs me up to believe I know a lot of useful ways of living life, even if I’m not actually living in light of those things! Something that reminds me of the reality we’re all facing is what helps me want to renew my mind in God’s truth.


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