Still pondering the many wonderful comments to appear on this blog over the past two days, mostly in response to my post Of Death, Dementia, and Dear Old Friends. In that post I talk about using Facebook to (re)connect with old acquaintances and friends. Predictably, comments seemed to be about evenly divided between those who agreed with me about Facebook’s usefulness, and those who decried it as an ersatz form of relating. One comment in particular really caught my eye:
i used to look at facebook about the same way you do…as a way to casually communicate with people that i didn’t have a really strong friendship with. it was a good thing, or so i thought. sadly, facebook addictions tore through my family and we quickly learned that losing touch with those who arent dear to you is sometimes for the better. i now regard facebook as one of the great evils of the world.
The writer of this comment went on to apologize for the lack of capitalization, as he was using a cellphone!
Hmmm. “One of the great evils of the world” is a pretty strong declaration. I’m not surprised that some people might develop a compulsive or addictive relationship to Facebook — that’s easy to do with the Internet as a whole. But to me, that puts Facebook (and, by extension, social media in general) on a par with alcohol, gambling, television, and chocolate: clearly rather dangerous to those who are susceptible to abusive attachments, and generally speaking not worth the risk because the potential benefits are so slight. But I’m not sure such things need to be dismissed as “evil.”
Still, someone who has watched a loved one descend into the dark labyrinth of addiction might not be as forgiving as I am. What seems to be really at issue here is a basic question: what concerns should we have about the ways in which online relationships interfere with, or even replace, face-to-face contact? Is relating to others via the alienating hiss of cyberspace rather like kudzu, the invasive vine that has ravaged the American south and choked out so many native plants?
I’m an introvert by nature (and yes, people who know me casually may have a hard time seeing that, because I’m often quite gregarious in public, especially when I’m teaching, speaking, or working at the Abbey Store. But like a true introvert, I find such social times to be psychically draining rather than energizing, and I usually need plenty of rest in response to such times, enjoyable though they may be). What’s ironic is that, before social media, I generally had less friends and interpersonal contact than I do now. Of course, much of my interaction with people these days is driven by the fact that I’m a blogger and an author. But one of the reasons why I got on Facebook to begin with, was to share my writing with friends old and new. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is selling much more quickly than any previous book I’ve written. I’m sure part of that is because there’s a larger market for Christian mysticism than for Celtic or pagan spirituality — but I think part of the new book’s initial success is no doubt due to my online presence: chiefly this blog, but also the various social media sites where I have a page. So, for me, ironically, being immersed in Facebook-land leads to greater, rather than lesser, face-to-face time.
But not everyone brings to Facebook a body of creative work that might lead to new opportunities to meet folks. So I can certainly see where it could be a tool for isolation rather than expansion. I suppose at the end of the day Facebook really is like television or alcohol: we cannot make a sweeping statement about its intrinsic worth, but must always consider whether each individual’s usage of it is healthy or harmful.