Last year, Elder Bednar gave a talk at BYU-I on a subject that weighed deeply on his soul. At the time, I read his words and felt a twinge of sadness. How could he fear something as useful and worthwhile as online social networking? Sites like Facebook have integrated themselves into the fabric of our society like gold thread in a brilliant tapestry, or like the deep, misty green of kudzu here in Kentucky. It has become a part of who we are.
Now, a year later, I still think that Elder Bednar was wrong. Facebook has and will permanently improve every aspect of our social lives. I wrote the following paper to illustrate why.
In the late hours of October 23, 2003, slowly getting drunk after being rejected by a girl, a Harvard undergraduate and computer programmer named Mark Zuckerberg was hit by a sudden cruel bout of inspiration. He was looking through a photographic directory (called a “facebook”) of his dormitory, and noted on his blog that some of the photos were so “horrendous,” that he was tempted “to put some of these faces next to pictures of farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive.” Hours later, he had successfully created a website, abandoning the farm animals idea, but instead comparing Harvard students with each other using hacked photographs and information. Just a few hours later, and after 22,000 page views, Harvard officials had traced the source of the website and shut it down, citing privacy concerns. Now, with more than 1000 employees and over 400 million active users, according to Facebook Factsheet, Facebook.com carries underneath its stark blue banner a markedly different statement of purpose: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.”
Many have voiced concerns over the use of online social networking tools, such as Elder Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He has called online presences “digital distractions, diversions, and detours” that could lead to difficulties in marriage, or a decrease in eternal, meaningful friendships. I can’t help but think that anyone who has a problem with Facebook merely doesn’t know enough about it.
If Facebook were a country, it would be the third-largest by population, just under China and India, and Facebook is now offered in 70 languages. Around 200 million users will log on to Facebook in any given day, and of these, 35 million will update their statuses. More than 3 billion photos are uploaded to Facebook each month. By October 2007, Time magazine’s Bill Tancer reported that, among 18- to 24-year-olds, social networking was the most-accessed type of web site on the Internet, outranking email, search engines, and pornography. In fact, Tancer quips that, statistically, it seems that when online social networking use goes up, pornography use goes down. What could appeal to young people more than the institutionalized voyeurism offered by online pornography? Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg said it best, quoted in Rolling Stone: “People are more voyeuristic than what I would have thought.”
But Facebook is not just a tool for prying into our friends’ lives. Facebook offers ingenious and simple solutions to many of the problems that plague our youth today. Previous to online social networking services, people had to make friends through personal, non-digital interaction. This was often painstaking, emotionally taxing, and slow. In order to learn another person’s interests and favorite activities, one had to have arduous conversations, feigning interest and engagement until the relevant information could be obtained. Human beings were needlessly confusing and multi-faceted. Facebook offers a better way. On each Facebook user’s page is an “Info” page. There, the user lists their personal characteristics, including interests and activities. Popular ones include “sports,” “music,” and “reading.” Mine says “songwriting.” I can easily go through my friends list and find other people interested in songwriting. Finding kindred spirits is easier and simpler thanks to Facebook.
Finding people with similar interests is one thing, discovering a person’s sexual orientation was even worse. It was socially demanding, and sometimes had to be done through roundabout means. This often led to embarrassment and offense. It required tip-toeing around the issue, carefully gauging a person’s affiliation through indirect personal queries. People went years without even declaring their orientation, deciding rather to personally cultivate and incubate those feelings for long periods of time. In the meantime, their casual acquaintances were left scratching their heads and wishing that the issue could be settled, so that judgment could no longer be withheld. However, on a person’s Facebook Info page, there is a section where he or she can publicly state whether they are interested in women, men, or both. Mine says “Interested in: women.”
Similarly, religious affiliation was once seen as a private dimension of one’s personality, and thus it was socially unacceptable to attain this information without grueling theological and philosophical discourse. It was not uncommon to have to hear a person’s entire life story and reasons for believing, in order to arrive at their religious affiliation. These traits were once very personal, carefully guarded, and sacred. Often, religion was left out of discussions altogether, for fear that one might be invited to a church service, Bar Mitzvah, or mosque, or that a controversial issue might be ignited in conversation. With Facebook, the process is streamlined, and the risk of controversial discourse is eliminated. Just check their Info box. Mine says “Latter-day Saint.”
Thus, important evaluations about a person’s character can be made with the click of your mouse. No longer must a person withhold appraisal until a clearer picture of their friend is obtained. It is now easier than ever to avoid the people you disagree with, and reduce complex social interactions.
In the past, people often found themselves longing for information about long-lost friends. Conversations about the past included references to characteristics and traits of their old friends, questions as to their whereabouts, and wishing that one could talk to them again, punctuated with sighing ruminations on how time flies. With online social networking, one can easily find out what these people had for breakfast this morning (and every morning). Each Facebook user has a white box on their front page that reads, “What’s on your mind?” One may type in their current whereabouts, opinion on the weather, or recent activities in what is called a “status update.” Below this box are the status updates of many of one’s closest friends. Some examples on my front page from my friends include, “meh,” “Babysitin [sic] my little nephews :),” “irritated…..,” and “oh life!!!” My own status says, “Does anyone want to come with my Arabic class to eat Mediterranean tonight?”
You might notice that these status updates seem simplistic and reductionist. This is by design. Many social interactions that existed previous to Facebook were seeped in over-stimulating meaning. Much time and effort were wasted by young people trying to understand and connect with each other. Young people’s hearts and minds caught fire as they participated in these exchanges. Should we really be over-stimulating our young people? Facebook offers a superior form of interaction through its “poke” function. Poke is a harmless, meaningless, effortless interaction, which undoubtedly leads to little misunderstanding, anger, friendship, or violence amongst our youth. On a person’s page, there is an option to poke them. Poke serves no function; Facebook merely informs that person that they have been poked. They then have the option to poke back.
Therefore, conflict is avoided through personal detachment. And when conflict cannot be avoided, it requires relatively little effort. Consider the following. In previous social interactions, confronting someone with a personal conflict or problem was a difficult task requiring great courage. One had to organize thoughts, plan a confrontation, and meet face-to-face with the object of their problem in order to work out a resolution. With online social networking, sending an angry email requires only the click of a button, and no face-to-face dialogue. People no longer need long nights of sleep to temper their emotions; one can now easily send a confrontational diatribe at 3 a.m., before rationality and a night’s sleep dull one’s emotions. And what if one receives an email like this from a friend? They are easily unfriended, or, in other words, removed from one’s friends list.
You see, before online social networking, “friend” was a poorly-defined term. Making friends required gaining the trust of others, sincerity and earnestness in one’s interactions, and perhaps several months of kindness before the title “friend” could be conferred upon another. Online social networking offers an instantaneous, digital, text-based solution to problem of friendship: redefinition and demarcation. Friends can be added through mutual interests, close proximity of location, or other friends. One could easily add or unfriend everyone from his or her high school. For instance, take Paul, the bassist from my last band, and friend-of-a-friend. Is Paul my friend, or isn’t he? It’s easy to tell: about four months ago he unfriended me.
This might have offended me, but I have 614 other friends. I can easily compare my prestige and popularity to other people on my friends list by contrasting the number of friends I have to the number of friends they have. Facebook’s statistics page says that the average person has 130 friends. Boy, am I glad I’m not that guy. However, embarrassingly, my wife has a significantly greater number than me: 943.
One might think that Facebook enhances friendships, relationships, and acquaintances. I would go one step further. Facebook replaces them with something even better: simple, streamlined friendship units. We are all now units on an interacting yet efficient grid. According to Facebook’s statistics page, the average unit spends almost an hour a day on Facebook. In this time, units read information on their friends’ walls, look through their activities, interests, and pictures, play games, join groups with others that have similar interests, and post links to other web pages. Units often check their Facebook pages several times during the day, and Facebook is now even offered on iPhones and other hand-held wireless devices, giving units the ability to check their Facebook pages everywhere they go, all day long, whether they are at church, class, or a friend’s wedding. There are more than 100 million mobile Facebook units, and according to Facebook Factsheet, they are statistically 50% more active on Facebook than non-mobile units. Perhaps one day, all people will carry Facebook with them, thus inextricably bonding us with our new virtual identities.
It should be plain now how Facebook transcended its cruel and dehumanizing beginnings in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room, and grew to be the most popular online social networking service. Elder Bednar is simply blind to the New Truth: Facebook is defining us, shaping us, and reducing us. May our now archaic system of human-to-human non-electronic social interactions stay where it belongs: the Stone Age.