Is Facebook becoming a little more Buddhist?

That is the story out on BusinessInsider today, with the headline: Facebook Is Injecting Buddhism Into Its Core Business So It Can Be More Compassionate. The idea is to combat the rise of bullying and other issues on the world’s largest social networking site. According to BI:

back in 2010, Facebook Engineering Director Arturo Bejar decided to do something about it, Noah Shachtman of Wired reports. After attending a talk about kindness at the Wisdom 2.0 conference, Bejar felt inspired to implement compassion into the core of Facebook’s business.

Bejar set up “compassion research days” and brought in academics from Berkeley, Yale, and Stanford to teach them the Buddhist-inspired concept of compassion.

Skeptics will be quick to replace the last word, “compassionate,”  in the BI title with “profitable.” Of course, in reading Shactman’s long article at Wired, one does see the altruistic possibilities at hand: 

It’d be easy to be cynical about this effort—to laugh at people who over- identify with a Bollywood starlet or to question why meditation teachers, the masters of directing attention, are working with the social networks that cause so much distraction. But when you sit with Bejar and his colleagues at Facebook as they review these reports—when you see all the breakups, all the embarrassing photos, the tiffs between mothers and daughters—it’s hard not to feel sad and awed at the amount of confusion and hurt. Over a million of these disputes happen every week on Facebook. If you had a God’s-eye view of it all, wouldn’t you want to handle that pain with gentle hands?

With all of the hubbub around the NSA recently, do we want a more compassionate overlord? I suppose the question I would ask is whether we want anyone with a God’s-eye view over millions of online discussions in the first place.

Is this just compassion-manipulation? 

Facebook is, after all, basically just a tool. People can use it for news, photo-sharing, chatting, etc. But once we all understand it and are familiar with it, it becomes our own – like language itself. Do we want an overlord removing words from our mouths, just so that we don’t use them offensively? Or is it better for us to offend, suffer, learn, and grow for ourselves?

Perhaps they could make the un-friend option a little easier (I’ve noticed many friends over the years ‘cleaning up’ their friends list, noting very positive results). Facebook is already artificially bringing us into contact with many people we would never meet -or at least keep in touch with- in real life. Wouldn’t it just be better to let us ‘fall out’ with people as we do in real life?

Pitfalls to manipulation

While Facebook’s intentions may be good (may be), one doesn’t have to search far to see their good intentions gone awry in the past: banning images of mothers breastfeeding, allowing hate-groups to rise and flourish, shutting down anti-hate-groups, and so on… I’m sure you could add to the list.

Not really getting it…

The article justifies this new invasive stance, saying “The basis of Buddhist compassion is that we’re all interconnected, and as Shactman notes, there’s no other place where that is more obvious than on Facebook.” The kind of connectedness we find on Facebook is, you must admit, a very shallow one. It’s a tad deeper than twitter, but really, the nicest thing I read on some days is something like, “you’ve brought up some good points here; there is more than we can meaningfully discuss on Facebook – let’s talk.”

The connectedness found in Buddhist practice is basically a 180-degree turn away from Facebook and all of the shallowness it promotes. This connectedness reaches down to common human values and potentials. This requires cutting through a lot of clutter in one’s own mind, a process that can take years of practice – practice away from Facebook and other social distractions.  Finding a meditation retreat via your Facebook friends: great. Giving Facebook updates during meditation sessions at that retreat: not so great. But again, this is something we might be better off learning for ourselves.

Shactman does leave us with one sobering warning though: don’t fall too much for the guru-culture (of either Buddhism or technology):

Steve Jobs spent lots of time in a lotus position; he still paid slave wages to his contract laborers, berated subordinates, and parked his car in handicapped stalls.

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