Is Facebook Evil?

Facebook headquarters in downtown Palo Alto, C...

Facebook corporate headquarters. Image via Wikipedia

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.

A Gift for Lorraine
Seven Lessons I'm Learning on the Grief Journey
Rhiannon's Vigil and Funeral
Living with Hospice
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Steven Severt

    That was my quote. Now I feel like a star. So there is no misconception, I think Facebook, if the user is very careful, can be used for good, and I am a FB user. I just feel that Satan will speak to as many people as possible by any means. In this generation, there is no better place than Facebook to corrupt the world. I will post a full reply with specific details on my blog, but in the meantime I encourage you all to take a look at the percentage of American divorces last year that cited FB as one of the primary reasons.

  • maggi sale

    As I sit in my wee city flat surrounded by urban deprivation and all the attendant social ills that make venturing outside for an older woman, risky, to say the least, I feel totally connected to all who are important to me. In any one day I will speak to a ‘son’ in Mumbai; a ‘daughter’ in Pakistan; and friends,family and colleagues all over the world including a niece in Tajikistan. This may be on the joyful but ‘superficial’ level of current news and circumstances but increasingly it is taking the form of support, insight and guidance. Salma, my Pakistani ‘daughter’ from last year’s Global Exchange, watched her entire village and livestock being swept away in the recent floods. Facebook facilitated much-needed contact, support and fund-raising amongst the group who personally knew and loved her. When eventually she was re-housed in a flat near the city her response was truly humbling. Via her College Computer she informed us.” I am the luckiest girl in Pakistan because I can now go to college every day without seeking my older brother’s permission to travel!” I watch in awe as my current Chinese students are revelling in this form of instant contact that is still so limited in their own country. Like everything that man has invented, it can be used for ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but the potential for bringing people closer and increasing human understanding, can surely only be positive. I know that I personally feel enriched by having such access to your work and insights Carl and delight in passing it on to others in such an easy way.
    And I haven’t had to venture into the wilds of Ibrox to do so!

  • Carl McColman

    Steven and Maggi, I think the two of you are pointing to the depth of both light and shadow within social media. It can be used to bring people together… and to drive people apart. It’s yet another technology, and being a powerful one, perhaps a bit more dangerous than we are used to. But like all technology, ultimately we are thrown back to both the nobility and the brokenness within each human heart. How we use the technology seems so much a question of how we are tending to our own souls. Do we nurture what Matthew Kelly calls “the best version of ourselves,” or do we settle for the craven places hidden deep within our shadow? How we answer this question will shed much light on how we approach a tool like Facebook.

  • kissmyknits

    I have too many logins and pseudonyms. This is Tana, aka, brazenbird. I really need to clean that up. Anyway, regarding the post and Facebook; I am reminded of your post about television from last week. Again, it’s not the thing that is evil, it’s the way in which the thing is used. Facebook itself is not an evil entity and we know this because much good comes of it: renewed relationships, lost friends found, groups meeting for a common purpose, activism, and a general keeping-up with people in our lives. I wouldn’t know to pray for 99% of the things that I pray for if it wasn’t for Facebook and the ease with which people can get word out that they have a need.

    Is face-to-face communication better? Sometimes, yes. Always? Not necessarily. And definitely not when the other option is no contact at all. Our world is changing and rapidly so. We just have to learn to change with it in the most mindful way we can. It’s a steep learning curve, to be sure. Of course I’d rather meet Carl and many of the commentators here for coffee, face-to-face and have a meaty discussion about the topic of the day. But that simply isn’t possible. And years ago, neither would what we do now be possible. I consider my life richer because of the opportunity to log in and read and respond and engage. Do I need to be watchful of the amount of time I spend doing it? Of course. Do I need to be mindful that I am not ignoring a need that stands right before me? Yes. In every aspect of life there is an opportunity to seek and maintain balance. Facebook and online networking and online relationships are no exception.

  • Elihu Edelson

    One should remember a concept that came out some years ago: that media can be hot or cool. That way we can keep in mind what are he most appropriate uses of a given medium. Each has its pluses and minuses. There is a big difference between print news and TV news. I even find a difference between an e-book and a print book, though the content might be exactly the same. (I’m an incurable hard copy nut.) In a similar way there is even a difference between e-mail and Facebook. I use the latter largely for show-&-tell material: humor, social causes, video clips, tidbits on one’s doings, etc. One thing it is especially useful for is having images of my artwork online for people who would not have the opportunity to see the originals. (You can see my work at the open Facebook site, Edelson arts.) So, in the long run, I see pluses than minuses. I also note that it is having something of the nature of a fad in that the traffic has noticeably dropped off over time, at least for adults. Of course, these are personal observations.

  • BrotherDon

    I think that facebook is a good thing, but no doubt can have an evil twin. I found your first blog entry to be inspiring and I am going to get in touch with a friend from my Siemens days. Inspired by your columns and Ann K, another Siemens friend who I never lost contact with. But as usual, dear brother, you beat yourself up way too much. It takes 2 to reach out so the fact that you have not contacted old friends does not place that whole burden on your shoulders.
    Maybe these people really do not want to be in contact with anyone from that time in their life. Like our dear brother, they just want to be left alone.

  • Hollis

    There’s a flip side to every coin, including your comments on Facebook. (And I *used* to think Facebook was “evil”, but I’ve changed my mind.) To the poster who suggests that losing touch with people who “aren’t dear to us” night be a good thing… Facebook has given me an opportunity to stay in contact with people whose paths I might not otherwise cross again, people who have meant something to me in my life. I would like to be able to acknowledge them and greet them from time to time. In our increasingly global world, “face-to-face” has to be redefined. I may not be able to meet my friends in Turkey or Brazil for a quick lunch, but it’s great to be able to catch up with them through Facebook, which provides a richer interface (graphics, photos, videos, etc.) than plain old email. Fellowship has a rich and rewarding role in life, different from that of deep and intimate relationships, but valuable nonetheless. Facebook enables us to extend the idea of “fellowship” well beyond the Sunday church supper and local clubhouse, and I think that’s great. As for people who become addicted… I spend less time on Facebook every day than I spend brushing my teeth. I respectfully suggest I am addicted to neither, but both are extremely valuable and worthwhile. Viva Facebook!

  • Alyss

    I’m an introvert like yourself, but with a large social network of friends and family I like to keep in touch with. Facebook allows me to catch up and keep up with my friends and allows us to spend our face to face time talking about in depth things rather than the goofy things we share on Facebook.

    That being said, all screen media comes at a price. I make a habit to not even turn on my computer at home at least two or three nights a week because it eats into my reading, praying and hanging out time.

  • zoecarnate

    Hi Steven,

    I’m curious: How can I ” take a look at the percentage of American divorces last year that cited FB as one of the primary reasons”? Where might I access this information?

    I find it fascinating that someone could get divorced because of social media.