The dark and light sides of social networking

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Do you Facebook?

The question comes up often in conversation these days, as a practical matter (“Can I keep in touch with you through Facebook?”) or a more significant marker of where people stand on the distinctly un-private world of social networking. Rutgers student Tyler Clementi posted his intention to jump off the GW Bridge on Facebook after a roommate filmed him in a romantic encounter with another man and publicized the video via Twitter. The role of social networking—its ability to erode privacy and magnify teenage prank-pulling and name-calling into something much more insidious—has been one of the hot news topics in the weeks following this tragedy. One of my fellow bloggers on Christianity Today’s women’s blog went so far as to hold Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg partly responsible for Clementi’s suicide.

Do I Facebook?

I do, but not without some trepidation. Many of us educated, busy working moms and dads seem slightly embarrassed by our immersion in the Facebook culture. We wonder if we’ve lost all sense of propriety, balance, and privacy. When I go a day or two without checking Facebook (a rare event), I feel oddly proud, like I do when I forego dessert or turn the TV off before the fourth episode in a Law and Order marathon. I feel like I’ve avoided something unhealthy, a bad habit that feeds my more unpleasant traits—narcissism, nosiness, self-righteousness.

But I go back anyway, for many small reasons (promoting my writing, keeping up with school and community news, mindless distraction when my head aches from an intense bout of writing) and one big reason. Facebook has been a rich and rewarding tool for staying connected (or becoming reconnected) with people whose presence in my life is a gift. Those who don’t understand the appeal of Facebook say, “If I wanted to keep in touch with people I knew 20 years ago, I would have.” But would they? Do they?

Before Facebook, I had superficial relationships with a number of people whose friendships had been central earlier in my life—college roommates and friends, coworkers from my early jobs, members of a young married couples’ group at the church I attended in my 20s. I generally knew what they were up to—where they were working, the names and ages of their kids—but that was it. By reconnecting with many of these friends via Facebook, I now know much more about them, and vice versa. Status updates describing daily events—good, bad, and run-of-the-mill—give us a real sense of what goes on day by day in each others’ homes, workplaces, and families. Facebook has transformed a handful of relationships from “annual Christmas card” level to a more significant level of regular give-and-take.

Because I post links to all my blog posts on Facebook, I have online conversations with old friends about the complex topics I write on—parenthood, disability, reproductive technology, genetics, chronic pain. When far-away friends are coping with illness, difficult parenting moments, or employment troubles, I know about it and can offer good wishes, advice, commiseration, and/or prayers. Facebook reconnected me with the friend, now an Episcopal priest, who introduced me to The Daily Episcopalian. When he posted on Facebook that his daughter broke her leg last year, I could send him all of the “toddler in a cast” advice I have from my family’s extensive experience with broken bones. Through Facebook, I have listened to one friend’s radio show in Atlanta, watched videos of commercials and movie trailers featuring my actress friend, and perused photos of teenagers whom I once held as newborns.

Facebook’s value for reigniting and stoking the flames of old friendships became especially clear last week. I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer—a non-invasive, treatable kind. Despite the good prognosis, getting a cancer diagnosis at age 42, when I still have a preschooler at home and an impending book deadline, has been overwhelming. I struggled with how to tell friends near and far. No, I didn’t post the news on Facebook; too many Facebook “friends” are acquaintances or professional contacts who don’t need a blow-by-blow of my family’s medical crises. I told local friends either in person or via personal e-mails, and sent one group e-mail to far-away friends.

I received several phone calls and return messages, including one from a college roommate. Because we were both camped at our computers that morning, we ended up having a real-time e-mail conversation, sending new messages immediately in response to the ones we received. Her words of support and sorrow were so pitch-perfect that I ended up in tears, and told her so. In a return message, she told me she had news too. She is divorcing the man she married at a Christmastime wedding as I stood by their side in my bridesmaid dress. As we exchanged more words of grief (“Getting old sucks!”) and hope (“I have a wonderful family and will get through this”) I was aware that this online conversation—this real, gritty, meaningful conversation—would not be happening if she and I hadn’t reconnected through Facebook.

Online contact doesn’t replace personal contact. Our twentieth college reunion was coming up that weekend and my roommate would be there, while I would not. Our exchange made me even more hungry for an in-person visit than I was before. Social networking can enhance relationships, but it can’t replace the pleasure of talking with an old friend over dinner.

Social networking is one of many modern phenomena for which we don’t have clear guidance from Scripture. But there are hints of how we might approach it. We can follow Paul’s advice to think on those things that are life-giving and substantial over those that are distracting and destructive (e.g., Phillipians 4:8). The temptation to post clever status updates as a way to draw attention to my intelligence, wit, and the obvious rightness of my political persuasion, or to poke fun at opposing viewpoints, is real; I have succumbed to it now and then. Facebook certainly leads people to overshare, posting details of their lives that are either overly intimate or overly mundane. (My personal pet peeve: Parents who give play-by-play descriptions of a stomach virus making its way through their family. I have three kids. Trust me; I know how that goes.) Allowing Facebook to be a tool for relationship-building instead of a distraction requires humility, self-discernment, and discretion—qualities that are fostered by spiritual disciplines, honest relationships, self-examination, and confession, not by spending hours in online conversations consisting solely of clever one-liners.

Jesus lived in a way that celebrated intimate relationships but maintained boundaries between public and private. His life was structured around time spent in community—eating, working, preaching, and talking with his closest friends and strangers he met along the way. While Jesus challenged people, he didn’t air their dirty laundry. He spoke to the woman at the well about her adulterous liaisons; he didn’t climb on the nearest mountaintop to joke or preach at her expense. When he needed to, he separated himself from the crowd to give attention to his own spiritual and physical health. Jesus lived a very public life, but always with a focus on transforming relationships, not on trumpeting slick slogans selling his world view or exploiting the intimate details of his own or other people’s lives. I’m convinced that social networking can be a tool for intimacy as well as a temptation to use others for our own purposes.

One response to Tyler Clementi’s and other suicides is the “It Gets Better” video project, through which high-profile gay and lesbian men and women are telling teenagers struggling with their sexual identity to have hope. In the words of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, “God wants you to live in the light of God’s love and that light will take away all of this darkness…God loves you beyond your wildest imagining.”

Where is that hopeful message being shared, over and over and over, where it will surely be heard and embraced by a few despairing young men and women? On Facebook.

As with most human inventions, Facebook can foster intimacy or alienation, compassion or cruelty, substance or stupidity. The challenge is to use it for the former and avoid the temptation to participate in the latter. Facebook is no more to blame for Tyler Clementi’s suicide than the GW Bridge is. But we still have a responsibility to foster online communities marked by respect and appropriate boundaries, to use Facebook and other online tools as instruments of the light and not the dark.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

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