I have to admit that I wasn’t unhappy when Facebook’s disappointing IPO performance dimmed the social media monolith’s glow just a little. I love my laptops and the Internet, I’ve made peace with email, and I’ve come to appreciate some of the attractions of YouTube. I even text now and again. No matter how hard I try, however, I can’t make myself sign up for Facebook.
It isn’t that I don’t think Facebook has its benefits – or that social media isn’t here to stay in one form or another. It does and it is. My 82-year-old mother, for example, has a Facebook page – and a smart phone with which to keep track of it. For her and many others, Facebook is a fun way to keep up with family and friends.
As theologian Albert Mohler indicated in a recent interview at Social Media Explorer, social media has benefits for ministry, as well. While I may eschew posting my entire life on Facebook, few people these days share my scruples. And since Facebook is where they turn when they want to know what’s going on in the lives of their friends, it seems only natural to turn to Facebook when they want to know what’s going on in their churches and elsewhere.
An article in the June Christianity Today offers another account of the benefits of social media, especially for distributing the Bible. According to Robert Crosby, because of today’s technologies, “billions around the world now have access to the Bible online, and not only are many of them actually reading it, they’re also actively engaging with the Word of God–and with one another in far-flung virtual communities across the planet” (emphasis in the original).
So I get it. If we want to reach people with the gospel, we have to go where the people congregate. And where they congregate today is on Facebook and in other online communities. As Mohler points out, and the CT article illustrates, Christians who are serious about reaching the lost can’t afford not to have a presence in social media.
But social media in general, and Facebook, in particular, have some negative aspects that – to me, anyway – at least partially offset the benefits. Steve Barrendse, an English and humanities professor at Columbia International University, sets out a baker’s dozen* of those in the May/June issue of Touchstone. In the form of an open letter to his students explaining why he isn’t on Facebook, Barrendse articulates many of my own reasons for not hitching a ride on the Facebook bandwagon.
The concerns Barrendse and I share include how Facebook feeds the narcissistic tendencies of its users – its younger users, in particular, I think – tendencies that are already too highly developed as Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell show in their 2010 book, The Narcissism Epidemic.
Another of Barrendse’s and my concerns is that Facebook is a source of “endless distraction.” As if people whose powers of concentration have already been diminished need any additional means of distracting themselves.
Two decades ago, Jane Healy wrote Endangered Minds in which she posited that the medium of television was actually changing the structure of children’s brains in such a way as to interfere with their ability to concentrate. In some ways, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is an updated version of Healy’s book with the Internet replacing television as the primary source of brain change with effects that apply as much or even more to adults as they do to children.
From my experience working with students and from the way my own ability to concentrate has taken a hit as I’ve engaged more and more with the Internet, I believe Healy and Carr are largely right in their conclusions. If they are, all the more reason that a source of “endless distraction” like Facebook should not be uncritically embraced.
I don’t deny that social media has its uses. I also don’t deny that it isn’t going away. In one way or another, I’ll have to come to terms with it. Maybe I’ll be persuaded to open a Facebook account for professional reasons at some point. Or, who knows, it’s even possible that someday I’ll succumb to the lure of a personal Facebook page, though I doubt it. For now, though, I think I’ll continue to abstain.
*My thanks to Touchstone for making this subscriber-only article available to my readers.