If you have fallen a little out of love with Facebook, it might be because of what’s missing. The observation has become cliché: where friendship is concerned, social media provide numbers, but not depth. Facebook supports a lot of chat about weekend plans, quirky cat behavior, hot weather, bad jokes — a network of thin connections – but not a lot of nourishment for the kind of friendship that sustains us when the sky is falling. We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us, Churchill once said. Is Facebook shaping friendship? Do we mind?
Facebook is designed to help us share information: what we’re currently reading, eating, hearing. But the sharing of information is not the same thing as the sharing of ourselves.
Not that sharing of information is a bad thing, of course, or hostile to deeper friendship; it’s just not enough. When we share our secret recipes, work frustrations, and well wishes after surgery, we stay involved in the tapestry of one another’s lives. When we share political satire, it nourishes our group bonds, and tweaks our friends who stand in need of tweaking. Facebook allows us to show a lot about ourselves, if we choose.
But the strength of our connection to Facebook often seems more like addiction to being in the loop than friendship. We habitually check for news updates. Have you ever fasted from Facebook? I did, for 72 hours. It required more discipline than I would have expected. This yearning to be connected in the digital universe does not feel like missing one another. Why is that?
The Atlantic has tackled the issue this month, in an article called “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?” The research seems to suggest it’s not that simple. One study by a grad student at Carnegie-Mellon finds that Facebook users who lurk, reading but not posting, may actually feel more isolated and depressed. “Liking” posts with a click, helps only a little; but writing and sharing posts has positive influence on our sense of connection. Another researcher, from the University of Chicago, claims all emotional connection on Facebook is “ersatz,” and social media can at best sustain established friendships, but cannot create new ones. He thinks that Facebook “lures us toward increasingly superficial connections”. The vehemence of some of these authors is striking. Facebook has touched a nerve.
CNN posted an op ed today suggesting the impact of Facebook on our psyche is negative. MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle is quoted, theorizing that Facebook damages our self identity, inviting a focus on approval-seeking instead of growing self knowledge. She thinks that constant status updates lead to narcissistic self-absorption. It is solitude, says Turkle, that nurtures deep friendships, and social media are instead always on — chatting. Is solitude possible on Facebook? What comes to mind for me are the spectacular nature photos that come across my newsfeed, supplied by friends old and new. I choose friends who value solitude. It is not so clear that Facebook is the cause of our constant superficial busyness, but it certainly allows us to neglect our spirit.
What does it take, to make genuine connections? Ethnographers are probably studying Facebook social life as we speak. Facebook communication takes place in an ambiguous, semi-public place, the wall. What we share might be visible to friends of friends, people we don’t know. We never know exactly who is reading our posts, until they comment. We meet through sharing of comments. Are the wall and newsfeed more like a coffee house, or a subway station? What could we do to make this virtual world more nurturing of real friendship?
Friendship: No matter where we are, we care about one another. Our communications are benevolent. Our interest is mutual. We want to know what our friends think.
The rules of the semi-public world of Facebook are vague at this point, but a few patterns surface.
3 possible ways to sabotage Facebook friendship:
1) Offer motivational quotes and statements of faith, if the only welcome comment is “amen”. This is called preaching. Not that there’s anything wrong with preaching; it is just not friendship.
2) Sharing with your entire Facebook friend list, what is really intended only for a few. Sending an inside joke to an outsider feels like a snub. You have invited us, even if you can’t see us.
3) Comment disrespectfully on a personal post. Humans are still vulnerable, even if invisible.
3 possible ways to cultivate Facebook friendship:
1) Ask for help, and accept it. People are often generous with input on tomato plants, movie recommendations, and words of support for difficult moments. When responding, make it authentic and personal, or give it a pass. A friendly bot is still a bot.
2) Share what inspires or entertains you, if you are open to comments. When people uncloak, they want to be recognized, if only for a moment.
3) Offer respectful disagreement. Disagreement makes for interesting conversation, if we are benevolent and use spell check.
Our yearning to be understood – for real friendship – seems unlikely to diminish just because we are online. That is unlikely to diminish either. We are challenged to shape our Facebook world to fit us, as our hearts are still in need of deep connection. This story has just begun.