In keeping with the Catholic tradition of sacrificing something for Lent, I chose to give up Facebook. In the past, I’ve given up chocolate, sweets, dessert, beer, alcohol, caffeine, soda, (listening to) music. Forsaking a technological medium that seeks to connect people, and purposefully disconnecting from it, goes against the instant gratification of modern life. I still had email, cell phone, Twitter, a mail box people could send mail to (I received a postcard during that time). At one point, I consulted with a Lentor, to determine if I could view Facebook at all or just my own account. Consensus deemed that viewing Facebook through others to be OK.
As an aside, the term Lentor was coined at a birthday dinner when a friend had a question about not swearing. A different friend quickly intervened, heading off any moral quandary and designating himself as a Lentor, one who can determine the applicable boundaries of a Lenten sacrifice. I’m sure a priest could have served the role, but what lay person wouldn’t want to help set some tangible, real world spiritual chalk lines?
Facebook is pervasive
If Lenten sacrifices have blurry lines, then Facebook obliterates whatever constraints social communication had. For so long, communication remained tethered to the real world. Written letters, phone communication, voice mails, face to face, text messaging seems fairly grounded in comparison. In casual conversation, referencing Facebook is such a common occurrence that Facebook itself is the communication medium. Yes, its content resides on a digital cloud somewhere in California, but consider:
“… posted pictures on Facebook…”
“… on Facebook, [so-and-so] said [funny/stupid/innocuous/inane/sad/maddening comment] on my wall…”
“… received a Facebook invite for…”
“… just send me a message on Facebook…”
“… are you on Facebook?”
“… you can get our hours of operation on Facebook…”
“… did you see [so-and-so's] status on Facebook?”
[Insert entire recounting of Facebook realm drama here that ultimately makes its way in to every day life.]
While waiting for someone at Blue Mesa, I overheard two different conversations related to things occurring or having occurred on Facebook. It wasn’t the internet, a blog but a website that, as we all learned from watching the Social Network, put the social experience online. A website that stands to make money off electronic social interactions better than any blog ever did.
At a birthday party, I joked with an acquaintance that we weren’t officially friends since we weren’t Facebook friends. Since this occurred during Lent, I told her I couldn’t friend her right away.
“Can it wait until Easter Morning?” I said.
“Sure, I’ll be expecting a friend request at 12:01, Easter Morning.”
“What about after sunrise service?”
The Fear Of Missing Out
Facebook makes us more connected in a passive way, making it easy to see photos, updates and changes in people’s lives. It also accentuates something that’s always existed–the fear of missing out. That sense of anxiety when there’s something out there that we’d like to experience but are not able to for some reason or another, often due to simply not being informed.
In grade school, you’d figure out which birthday party you missed by hearing about it on Monday while hanging out by the monkey bars. Now, someone you don’t even know will upload a photo from a bar while hanging out at a bar with a stuffed monkey in the back room and tag a friend you know, alerting you of fun you never knew existed. Or were invited to.
The fear of missing out applies to keeping up with status updates and the miscellany of conversation commenting on photos, videos or links. We want to be part of those conversations, even if we’re lurking, passively consuming the updates. What if we miss out on something funny, or engaging or interesting? We want to know. This has been true for any media or form of communication. We’re social creatures, despite however much someone claims to be an introvert. We want to be connected to others and validated by others. I’m guessing there’s some evolutionary biology behind connection and validation. Survival of the species, perhaps?
Biologically, within your brain, you’re wired to become engaged with novelty, things that interest you. When something interests you (intellectually, emotionally or physically) your body will crank out various hormones to further engage you. Dopamine, adrenaline, oxycontin are a few, and to enjoy those activities more, we need a more novel or bigger hit of those activities. This is why relationships are hard work–the novelty of the initial attraction wears off, and then you have to work at maintaining that attraction.
And Facebook is an amusement park of attractions, the equivalent of a 100 different roller coasters of digital crack. It’s novel, interesting, engaging, relatively easy to consume and there’s always a reason to come back for more. A good drug dealer gets you hooked with free. All Facebook costs you is time. So a free means to engage passively with social connections leads to all sorts of things, one being the need to keep up with others so you don’t miss out.
In keeping up with others, there’s the opposite, informing others. Anyone who posts things to Facebook is a publisher, a modern day William Randolph Hearst, albeit at a much smaller scale, for a much more individual purpose.
Hearst is credited with saying to a photographer, “You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war.” Regardless, if he ever said it, the point is that what ever means is used, we can justify the ends to say something. We might not be selectively curating lolcat pictures or YouTube videos for war, but we selectively signal our interests and intentions by what we share or say.
Travels, growing families, melancholy thoughts, persistent witticisms, innocuous oversharing, politics, sports, gossip, social causes, personal happenings… Imagine whatever you publish to Facebook as a room in your own personal gallery. What’s that gallery going to look like? Curators discern what hangs on the wall at a museum with subject matter smarts and an intent to editorialize to show or say something.
Wouldn’t your Facebook postings do the same?
You know yourself (you should), and you want to tell people something, and you choose what you want to say.
You’re curating your own life. And we each have our own reasons for doing that.
But what about those that don’t reside on Facebook, or never post anything beyond setting up their page with a picture and basic information? I don’t think they’re missing out, despite the pervasiveness and growing necessity to communicate via Facebook. They have their ways of keeping in touch, getting whatever social interaction floats their boat and living life how they want to. Meaningful lives can still be lived without Liking or Statusing or Poking or Inviting or Messaging. Meaningful lives can still be lived with conversations, however infrequent they may occur. Meaningful lives are not defined by the content or quantity of Facebook updates.