Facing Facebook 

By Peter Heng

[Editor’s Foreword: Facebook is here to stay. Like email, which is also here to stay, Facebook brings both benefits and dangers for the Christian and the Church of Christ. It is, as such, important for us to think carefully about how we should or should not use it lest we fall into the trap of using it for the cultivation of sinful attitudes, or fail to use it wisely for the Gospel’s sake as our Lord’s commendation of the unjust steward would enjoin us to do: “for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Lk 16:8). It is to this end that I heartily commend this balanced, well-researched and edifying article by our brother. —JJ Lim]

The Phenomenon

What is it about Facebook? Here are some statistics[1]: “More than 800 million active users. More than 50% of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day. Average user has 130 friends.” You’re among the minority (45%) in Singapore if you don’t have a Facebook account[2]. Even governments are taking notice. At this year’s National Day Rally[3], Mr Lee emphasised, “[The] digital media is continuing to grow in importance… Our ministers have to get better at this… [The] government as a whole has to be more active and adept in engaging Singaporeans online.”

So what is it about Facebook that has made it so popular? I think the answer lies in the fact that Facebook meets—not fully, but in part—a number of basic human needs. First, it meets our need for identity. Websites that project the identity (real or false) of the creator have always been popular—remember the homepages that Gen X’ers used to create? Facebook made creating an online persona—complete with a real name[4], CV-type information, photos and a listing of friends—a piece of cake.

Second, Facebook fulfils the human need for companionship and acceptance. Searching for people you know and “friending” them is a key activity on Facebook. The sense of belonging is strengthened by creating and joining Groups.

Third, it is an outstanding platform for rapid and open communication. Update your status on Facebook, or declare what’s on your mind, and the ‘news’ is immediately broadcast to all your friends. Your News Feed on Facebook is personalised, giving you only news of/from your friends. Your Wall is the place for open ‘coffee-shop talk’ between friends.

The Dangers

There is nothing inherently sinful about our desires for identity, companionship and communication. Thus using Facebook is not in itself wrong. But Facebook facilitates, even encourages, sinful behaviours and attitudes, all propagating at breakneck speeds on the information highway.

The very act of constructing a Facebook identity tends to foment pride and egotism. This was an important factor in Facebook’s (known then as Thefacebook) early success at Harvard University.

Amelia Lester wrote in an early opinion piece[5], “There is little wonder why Harvard students, in particular, find the opportunity to fashion an online persona such a tantalizing prospect. Most of us spent our high school careers building resumes so padded they’d hold their own in a sumo match… [Thefacebook] is about performing… and letting the world know why we’re important individuals. In short, it’s what Harvard students do best.” The subsequent proliferation of Facebook worldwide shows that the allure and temptation is “common to men”.

What about the God-given desire for companionship and acceptance? Does Facebook promote a perverted fulfilment of this desire? Consider this description of Facebook’s early days[6]: “Thefacebook had a strong sexual undertone. You were asked to list your relationship status and whether you were interested in men or women... Flirting on Thefacebook became a sort of art form, though one feature—the poke—made doing so absurdly easy… A subtle form of stalking became almost routine… [Students] spent thousands of hours examining every nook and cranny of others’ profiles… The latent nosiness and prurience of an entire generation had been engaged.”

More subtly, social networking has redefined what it means to be a friend. “Facebook aligns friends of friends (of friends) based on thin affinity, either real or perceived. It is a fluidity of drive-by relationships. Maybe there was a reason, after all, for your college roommate to lose contact with you over the course of the past two decades. Perhaps you were not really connected in the first place.” [7]

What snares should the Christian be aware of when communicating on Facebook? For one, the status updates and the mini-blogging format encourage the posting of minutiae. Carl Trueman laments[8], “I am struck by how many Christians, pastors, professors, and laity, have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitters going.  How many millions of Christian hours are wasted writing this stuff, engaging in mindless blog-threads, and telling the world about personal trivia?” Posting a photo of my lunch on Facebook—something many users like to do, apparently—is not wrong. But we should at least ask ourselves if posting, consuming and commenting on trivia—potentially multiplied by the 130 friends that an average user has—is consonant with using our time wisely.

The immediacy and wide-openness of communications on Facebook can also be a snare. By default, whatever you write on your friend’s “Wall” is instantly visible to all his friends. Prior to the advent of the Internet and the now-ubiquitous mobile phone, communications were more deliberate, more thought-through. People had to arrange to meet up or write a letter to be sent off as snail mail. Even landline telephone calls depended on people’s availability at the right time and place. Emails changed that. People no longer had to wait for an audience to voice their opinions. It was wonderful. But it also gave us less time to chew over what we had to say. It could be argued that the quality of communications declined even as the quantity exploded.

What do you get when you combine the immediacy of Internet and mobile communications with the openness—but take away the anonymity—of the bulletin board? The Wall. A statement written on somebody’s Wall or in response to a post reaches a larger—and perhaps unintended—audience than an email would. Yet, because it is so convenient, we tend to be careless with what we write on Facebook. Much harm may result from this carelessness.

While we may not be guilty of any sin in using Facebook, we need to be aware of the temptations that it exposes us to, even as it fulfils our need for identity, companionship and communication. Fundamentally, Facebook appeals to the Self. “Facebook and Twitter exist to tell us how much we are ‘liked.’ And blogs, complete with sundry analytics, tell us how smart and influential we are.” [9] And when Self is elevated, God is displaced.

Redeeming Facebook

Notwithstanding the perils of social networking, it can be ‘redeemed’. Ed Stetzer points out[10], “While social media cannot replace real-life interpersonal relationships, they can assist in building real community by connecting people in ways that allow them to share both the big and small things of life. Web services such as Facebook allow people who might see one another only during church on Sunday, or midweek in smaller community groups, to continue to share aspects of life they would not otherwise.”

Social media also affords us opportunities for Christian witness. Stetzer again[11]: “[People] who use social networking choose to share more of themselves… [In] doing so, they have the opportunity to show the work of the gospel in their thinking, family, and lives.” In other words, let our posts reflect our Christian worldview, and we will exert a godly influence on our society. But if we are like the rest of the world on Facebook, we become like salt that has lost its savour and so are good for nothing (Matt. 5:13).

Albert Mohler argues that Christians cannot afford to ignore digital and social media, “because these are the media currently shaping the minds around us, igniting the interest of the public, establishing what our friends, neighbours, and fellow citizens understand as reality. Like the Reformers who seized the opportunity afforded by the Gutenberg Revolution, we must see the world of new media as an arena for Christian truth-telling. Our engagement with new media is driven by impulses that are evangelistic, missiological, and grounded in apologetics.”[12]

Impulses. In a way, that is the issue. Facebook is non-moral. But why are we on it? And what do we do with it? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. Are we on Facebook because everybody else is? Can people tell from our profiles that we are the disciples of Christ? Are our posts marked by meekness, kindness, joy and peace? “What’s on your mind?” asks Facebook. What’s in your heart? May we be so full of Christ that it shows in our posts. Let us ‘gossip’ the gospel and write ‘graffiti’ for Christ on the Walls of our friends, tactfully.

In short, let us do all that we do on Facebook coram Deo, before the face of God. Ultimately, His is the only face that matters (Num 6:24-26) and His the only friendship that counts (James 2:23; 4:4).

[1] http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics, accessed 24 October 2011.

[2] http://www.socialbakers.com/facebook-statistics/singapore, accessed 24 October 2011.

[3]xhttp://www.pmo.gov.sg/content/pmosite/mediacentre/speechesninterviews/primeminister/2011/August/ Prime_Minister_Lee_Hsien_Loongs_National_Day_Rally_2011_Speech_in_English.html, accessed 29 October 2011.

[4] “Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real first and last names so you always know who you're connecting with.” (http://www.facebook.com/help/?faq=112146705538576, accessed 26 October 2011).

[5] Cited in D Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010, p. 40.

[6] Kirkpatrick, pp. 91-93.

[7] John Muether, Virtual Friendship, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/virtual-friendship, accessed 15 October 2011.

[8] http://www.reformation21.org/featured/welcome-to-wherever-you-are.php, accessed 15 October 2011.

[9] R.C. Sproul Jr., There’s something wrong on the Internet, http://www.ligonier.org/blog/theres-someone-wrong-internet, accessed 15 October 2011.

[10] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/blessings-new-media/, accessed 15 October 2011.

[11] Ibid.

[12] http://www.ligonier.org/blog/after-revolution/, accessed 15 October 2011.