“Goodbye, Facebook! I’ll see you after Lent.”
A number of my friends have posted sentiments such as this in recent days, as sites like Facebook and Twitter now regularly sit in the top ten lists of what to sacrifice for Lent. Apparently engaging in social media is a more tempting vice for some people than fast food, sex, and sweets, and thus needs to be excised from one’s life for 40 days.
I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who feels that fasting from social media can be beneficial for their spiritual and relational health. Nor do I discount the value of the face-to-face experience. I recently led a discussion of E.L. Konigsburg’s Newbery-award winning children’s novel, The View from Saturday, with a group of middle-school boys. The book, which I loved, tells the story of what happens to four outcast sixth-graders when they begin to gather for a weekly tea party. The transformation that occurs for each character is not something you can imagine happening if they had conducted the party in a Google Hangout instead.
But the fact that social media is not an in-person relational experience doesn’t mean it has no value in community-building. For me, Facebook has proven very valuable in that regard. It’s a quick and easy way for me to keep on top of the daily events and news from those I care about. It’s much more likely that I will find out about someone who is hurting, who is in need of prayer, or who could use an encouraging word or deed, on Facebook than through any other channel. For example, I had no idea one of my church friends was suffering until I saw her recent update:
Please pray for 100% healing of my left eye. My ophthalmologist scraped off the exposed epidermis and patched my eye shut. I’m going back to have it checked on Monday.
In this way, social media actually facilitates the deepening of community rather than detracting from it. I discover personal news on Facebook and then follow up with that person offline, but the follow-up might never have happened without my first reading about it online.
Facebook is also often the place where I find out about updates well worth celebrating, such as last night when I discovered that one of my best friends from college no longer has cancer in her blood:
The doctors did a test on my blood pre collection to see how many cancer cells were in my blood…I got the results today: ZERO!!!!! I was so happy I cried.
Would she have shared her good news by calling each and every one of us who she knows is following her journey? Doubtful. But in an instant after she posted her update on Facebook, she had scores of relieved well-wishers celebrating alongside her. Celebrating virtually, yes—but no less meaningfully.
Using social media, as well as the Internet in general, has both its limits and its temptations. As an introvert, I can more easily keep people at arms’ length by engaging with them only via social media. I can also construct a false persona that is not a true reflection of who I am, presenting to the world an image that I carefully control. But then again, those same temptations exist in the real world, too. Social media, like any other communication tool, is just that: a tool. How we use it, for good or for ill, is entirely up to us.
I do continue to carve out space and time to connect with people offline, because I believe this is an equally important way to develop community. But when I do, I often have a head start in knowing what my friends and I will talk and share about because of what I’ve learned about their lives via Facebook. (For introverts especially, having that foundation of understanding is key to smoothing out the process of socializing!) And I also try to be intentional about what I share on Facebook: not just the good, but the messy struggles of my life, too:
House plumbing woes. Imagine the worst. Enough said.
Lastly, I am a deeply private person, and yet Facebook has enabled me to more safely share in a medium that is comfortable for me, which then opens the door for me to be more transparent offline when one of my friends asks me about something I have posted. Far from preventing me from leading an authentic life, I have found that Facebook actually helps me to do the opposite. Things I might never say out loud somehow manage to escape from my fingertips into my status updates, and I am grateful that I censor myself less on social media sites than I do in real life:
I don’t want to do want to do anything right now but to sit and weep and pray for those affected in Newtown. Just awful, awful news. I have a kindergartener and I cannot imagine my life without him. Just thinking about all those families breaks my heart.
Is there a time and a place from removing ourselves from the influences of media, social media included? Absolutely. But I appreciate what Henri Nouwen writes in his Lenten devotional Show Me the Way:
To live a spiritual life does not mean that we must leave our families, give up our jobs, or change our ways of working; it does not mean that we have to withdraw from social or political activities, or lose interest in literature and art… the spiritual life can be lived in as many ways as there are people… What is new is that we have moved from the many things to the kingdom of God.
The whole purpose of Lent is to draw closer to God and to a deeper understanding of His purposes. Using Facebook is one key way that I see His hand at work in the world and in the lives of people I know. And I “like” that aspect of social media too much to walk away from it for 40 days.