Community is incredibly important to human beings. Dr. Edward Diener of the University of Illinois did a study in 2002 that found that people who are the happiest (and who have the lowest occurrence of depression) are people with the most significant social ties. Though this observation comes to us from the world of the social sciences, it should come as no surprise to Christians who see detailed for us in God’s Word that we were never created to be alone. Adam alone in the Garden was the only thing “not good” about paradise in Genesis 1-2. The Christian life is described in terms of a “body with many parts” in 1 Corinthians 12. The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is meaningless apart from relational contexts where this “fruit” can be displayed. Community is important.
To a large degree, our desire for community is what drives people in a fragmented world to join social networks online like Facebook, My Space, and Twitter. Participation in these virtual communities has grown incredibly over the past five years. While many are moving into these virtual neighborhoods online, what have been the results? Has participation in online worlds satisfied our God-given need for connection with others? The results are mixed . . . depending upon who you ask.
Intimate relationships by definition are private. Think about your closest friends from days past. When you get together with them now, you have a level of intimacy because you have a shared set of experiences together that no one else really knows about. You laugh about memories from Spanish class in high school, participation in a summer mission trip, etc. and share a personal moment with an old friend, because no one else knows those things about you.
In a Facebook world, however, relationships are public. Your “friends” on Facebook now know a lot about you. They see your summer vacation pictures, learn about your favorite music, laugh at your clever “status updates,” etc. In a sense, information that 10 years ago would only have been known by your closest “private friends” now can be seen by the 1,000 “public friends” you relate to in your digital neighborhood. While this can extend the volume of our personal relationships, it also comes with a price tag.
One problem with Facebook connection is that it can allow us to “connect” with more people than we can legitimately “connect” with. Author Malcolm Gladwell talks of Anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research about the real possibility of people to be “over-connected.” Dunbar’s research had found that the size of all animals “tribes” could be determined by comparing the size of their neocortex to the size of their entire brain. When this number is applied to humans, it was determined that the average human could expect to only be really in “relationship” with about 150 people at a time. While God is obviously not bound by this number and could empower humans to have more relationships than this, it is interesting to think of this number compared to the size of our digital social networks on Facebook. If you have 900 friends, it is quite possible that you could be over-connected to the point that Facebook ceases to help you connect to others, and merely adds another piece of “white noise” to your life. Without the help of technology, the circle of our relationships is much smaller . . . probably closer to 150 than to 1,500.
A second problem with Facebook connection is that it could take too much time away from real face to face relationship. It is possible that we could spend way more time looking at a computer screen than looking into someone’s face. The current stats show that people around the world are collectively looking at their Facebook profiles 3 billion minutes a day! When our relationships have gone totally digital, it seems we have lost something in the translation.
A third problem with Facebook connection is that it is reaction based world. Facebook tends to make us performers and our friends the audience. We spend time posting things hoping for a reaction from someone . . . anyone! Real life relationships are way more specific and interactive. In real life relationships, people approach a friend and engage them in conversation. On Facebook, you wait to see who responds. In real life, we are placed in positions where we need to respond to others because of our proximity to them (i.e. we are talking to a hurting person, are we going to meet their need?) Online, it is far easier to ignore another’s cry for help because we assume someone else is meeting that need.
With all these limitations, then, why are we flocking online? In one 8 month period from August 2008 to March 2009, Facebook’s population DOUBLED from 100 to 200 million people. That is astronomical growth. Interestingly enough, the fastest growing group of people on Facebook are not college students (the original audience) but 55 year old women. Why are all these folks building “homes” online? I believe the answer is that we have lost our connection offline.
Current research shows that the average American moves every 3 years. According to University of Purdue Psychologist Dr. Will Miller, this means that we are all living in a nation of strangers. Though we all long for community, few of us really have found it. Even worse, we are isolated enough that we assume everyone else already HAS it, and really does not have room for us in their life. If you talk to people long enough, however, you begin to realize that when it comes to authentic community, most of us “still haven’t found what we’re looking for.” Frustrated by our real world experiences, people are going online to get their relational fix.
So, what are we to do? Should we cancel our Facebook accounts and retreat to sending carrier pigeons? Absolutely not. Facebook can be a GREAT tool for helping us connect to others, but we must view it as a relational enhancer, not a relationship replacement. Follow friends online, but see them offline as well. Have lots of “friends” online, but somehow still have your “tribe” that you are relating to offline, face to face. Running away from Facebook today would be like refusing to use a telephone decades ago . . . an action that can lead you to technical isolation in an ever changing world. Use the new tools of technology, just don’t allow them to innoculate you from your real need for community.
Those are my thoughts . . . what say you?
[NOTE: Various thoughts and statistics listed in this article flow out of a book entitled “The Church of Facebook” by Jesse Rice]