The Escapist World of Social Networking
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And just as a reminder, this same Jesus, Whom God hath highly exalted, and given a name which is above every name, this same Jesus, that every tongue should confess as Lord, this same Jesus is Lord also of the Internet.
Social Networking is the new reality. Friends multiply daily, and rapidly. Whether we agree with it or not, our kids are involved. Some directly: they have their own Facebook page. Others indirectly: they hear their friends and cousins talking about their Facebook page. Like it or not, we are all affected by the Social Networks. They influence our young people, they entice our old people, they affect our ministries. Social Networking includes all the various ways of “connecting” or “communicating” via the Internet — including (but not limited to) blogs, forums, chat rooms, and so forth. But my intention is to deal directly with the issue of MySpace and Facebook. Before I begin, though, let me recommend a hilarious article on this subject… it illustrates through satire what I can only talk about.
Social Networking 101
As I understand it, Facebook and MySpace are more alike than not. Originally, Facebook was limited to the Harvard student body (A group of Harvard students invented it in their dorm rooms). It slowly expanded to other ivy league schools, then to college students (Facebook required an e-mail address with a “.edu” in order to join). Finally, in 2006, Facebook expanded to include high schoolers and eventually all users 13 and older.
MySpace, on the other hand, was created in 1999 by Tom Anderson, who (I’m told) is the first friend to join the network of every MySpace user. You might be interested to know that MySpace was acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for $580 million (that $580,000,000 in Russell Anderson terms) in July, 2005.
Most of the differences between the two are merely surface differences. From what I can see, there are differences between who uses them, how they are used, and the features that are available. More women use MySpace than Facebook (by about 4%). College educated, career-oriented, and suburbanite people tend to use Facebook, while teens and inner-city people tend to use MySpace.
Some have said that the more creative types tend to gravitate towards MySpace, and that the pencil-pushers and account handlers tend to like Facebook. That could be the result of some of the user-features of the two. MySpace allows more control of user profiles by the individual, enabling a user to be more creative. This design feature often leads to a very amateur and cluttered “look and feel.” Facebook profiles tend to be more uniform. Also, many MySpace users will use a pseudonym of some sort, or will attempt to hide their true identity. This has made MySpace more of a hotbed for sexual predators. I have not been able to verify this, but a friend told me that within the last six weeks, MySpace removed 90,000 sexual predators. As I understand it, Facebook will remove any user that they have good reason to suspect is using a fake identity.
As far as I can tell, these are the major differences between the two. And, as I said earlier, they are more alike than they are different. Both have a stated purpose — to connect people. MySpace is more likely to connect total strangers, while Facebook tends to connect people with mutual backgrounds. Both are all about promoting the self.
And both are highly addictive. The information I have on this is a little over a year old… but in October of 2007, MySpace and Facebook were both in the top 10 domains visited on the web. MySpace accounted for just under 5% of all Internet visits. Facebook for 1% of all Internet visits. I realize that this is old information. As I understand it, Facebook is quickly overtaking MySpace in popularity. but the point is that when you consider that these two represent just 2 domains on the Internet, the numbers are phenomenal. In addition, the people who frequent these places tend to spend hours going from one friend to another to another. It is the Internet version of bar-hopping.
Slumber Partying 101
At our youth camp this last year, in a discussion of these Social Networks, I made the comment that MySpace reminded me of a giant, virtual slumber party. In fact, I find the whole idea of young men frequenting these social networks to be very troubling — and I think it leads towards effeminacy. To further illustrate my point, Facebook has what is called a “status” feature, where users note how they are doing or feeling at any particular moment. MySpace has also added a “mood” option. It reminds me of those mood rings that people wore back in the ’80′s. You’ll have to excuse me if you did that, but I was always a little weirded out by guys who wore mood rings. Especially if they wore one on their pinky. And played the piano. Or wore leather pants. But that’s just me. I do think there is something very effeminate about a guy who wants the world to know what mood he is in.
But if we are to deal with the larger issues surrounding the virtual world of the Internet, we really must discuss the voyeuristic and escapist elements of Social Networking. We must understand that Social Networking is a cultural issue. It is but the next step in a culture consumed with itself. And, naturally, with amusing itself to death.
With that in mind, MySpace and Facebook are first and foremost voyeuristic. This is in keeping with the times, to be sure. We live in a supremely voyeuristic age. We much prefer watching to doing. We like reality shows. We love American Idol. We like to watch people try and we like to watch people fail. We like to watch the making of the next Elvis. And, considering the rampant obesity that afflicts our youth, we must be more into watching than into doing. Consider our fetish with pornography, with video games, with spectator sports. And, consider our fixation with MySpace and Facebook, a fixation that has made these domains million dollar industries.
There is something effeminate about all this video stuff… guys who are the big heroes on the virtual gridiron, who couldn’t stay in for a set of downs on a real football field. The Bible commands our boys to “act like a man” (I Cor 16:13). Among other things, this requires some real action on their part. It also requires diligence — associated with doing, not with voyeurism. What are video games associated with? Industry, or sloth? And what about Social Networking? Instead of video games and social networking, we must teach our young people how to play some real sports and real games, how to make some real friendships, how to be a real friend, and how to build a real friendship. In the realm of social networking, voyeurism meets friendship. We no longer try to be a friend. We now try to get friends. We try to “friend” people. We have become watchers of friendship.
Secondly, Fakebook and MyFace are escapist. Consider this quote from the New York Times online edition…
Facebook purports to be a place for human connectivity, but it’s made us more wary of real human confrontation. When I was in college, people always warned against the dangers of “Facebook stalking” at a library computer — the person whose profile you’re perusing might be right behind you. Dwelling online is a cowardly and utterly enjoyable alternative to real interaction.
So even though Facebook offers an elaborate menu of privacy settings, many of my friends admit that the only setting they use is the one that prevents people from seeing that they are Currently Logged In. Perhaps we fear that the Currently Logged In feature advertises to everyone else that we (too!) are Currently Bored, Lustful, Socially Unfulfilled or Generally Avoiding Real Life.
For young people, Facebook is yet another form of escapism; we can turn our lives into stage dramas and relationships into comedy routines. Make believe is not part of the postgraduate Facebook user’s agenda. As more and more older users try to turn Facebook into a legitimate social reference guide, younger people may follow suit and stop treating it as a circus ring. But let’s hope not.
We have all sorts of virtual friends… but do we have any real ones? Having lots of friends (which I understand is one of the goals of networking) hinders many from having any sort of real relationships. The social networking scene is the gathering place of the socially unfulfilled, where people go to escape reality, to escape friendship. Besides being effeminate, the escapism embodied in social networking is yet another form of abdication… a way of shrugging off duties.
When we think of real friendship, the kind that involves real people in real time in a real world, we have real duties and obligations that we really must meet. It has been rightly pointed out that virtual friendships, those that involve pixels rather than people, provide absolutely zero opportunity for fulfillment of those duties and obligations. That is not to say that people who have Facebook relationships never venture beyond the virtual and into the real, nor is it to say that they cannot. Just that neither Facebook nor MySpace require a person to venture beyond the profile. Facebook enables a person to escape loving his neighbor through long ‘friend’ lists.
Beyond that, Facebook is a place where a person can go to escape the pressures and responsibilities and problems of this life. If a man would have friends, he must show himself friendly. This requires him to do. But in the world of Facebook, one must leave the virtual on purpose, and enter the real world if he is to do his duty as a friend. Facebook provides fake friendship. Facebook friendships have all the depth of a spray-on tan. They look like friendship, but Facebook friendships are ended the way a spray-on tan is ended. One need not explain. One simply needs to delete.
If there ever were a day in which we need to re-learn the real-world work of friendship, it is in this day. Our culture is dying of loneliness and starvation. Ironically, we die this way in a day of ‘overpopulation’ and ‘overcrowding.’ We don’t know our neighbors, but we have thousands of friends. We haven’t done anything for anybody, but we have thousands of friends. We don’t love anybody, but we have thousands of friends.
Friendship, as we said, requires work. The man who attempts to escape the work of friendship in the real world will have no friends. A man that hath friends must give way. The self-centered will find few real friends. And yet, somehow in the world of Facebook, the most narcissist and self-absorbed among us are the ones with pages and pages of virtual friends. That fact alone should wake us up to the reality of virtual friendship. It is a form of escapism, and not true friendship.
Addictions Anonymous (101)
Besides the voyeuristic and escapist elements of social networking, these things are also very addictive. Those who spend a considerable amount of time blogging might have an idea of the addictive nature of the Internet. It is a difficult thing to put up a comment and then to walk away from it. And that is in a cross-section of the Internet that leans towards serious discussion and debate. How much more so is this true in a venue that calls, not for serious commentary, but for techno-grunts and lol’s and rotlmfho’s, and “like, cool, and stuff.” Virtually all of the features of the MySpace world encourage more MySpace. And we must remember that I Corinthians 10:23 and 6:12 apply to the Internet as much as they apply to anything else.
Finally, social networking is degenerative… it always tends towards entropy. Just like in the teen-aged slumber party scene (something that godly parents should conscientiously avoid), the conversation tends to move in a specific direction. We don’t expect to hear our teen-aged daughters, sleeping bags stretched across the living room, immersed in a discussion of William Shakespeare. Nor do we expect to find that sort of conversation anywhere in the social networks. I like this quote from Douglas Wilson in the most recent edition of his Credenda/Agenda, referring to what he called the Internet version of the slumber party (Facebook and MySpace):
“In any setting, when kids get together without parental direction and supervision, two things will happen – and they will happen for the same reason that weeds grow in your garden. The first will be that the conversation will drift downward into the silly and inane. Once that tone is set and established, some people will introduce some real sin. They will wait a bit to introduce it because teens steeped in the silly and inane are not equipped to stand up to real sin. Laziness is not preparation for battle, and so when battles do come to the lazy, they are usually short battles. Silly and inane conversation revolves around trivialities, superficial feelings, flatteries, flirting, and so on.”
This is the kind of thing that fills pages and pages of Facebook and MySpace. It is the reason why these places are so attractive. It is the reason why even adults, longing to escape their own miserable reality, enjoy the virtual world. It is the reason why these places are so addictive. And it is the reason why we must be on our guard at all times when we enter into the realm of the Virtual Relationship. Sin will be introduced. It is not a question of ‘whether,’ but of ‘when.’ At some point, that immodestly dressed girl is going to hit on your son. Or, maybe, on you. These sites do not move in a direction towards more sanctification and holiness.
As we interact on the Internet, we must remember that God promises to judge our every word — even the idle ones. Especially the idle ones. Is there a lawful use for Social Networking? Certainly… among family, keeping in touch, even for witness. Just that this is not the common use for such places. We must then set a watch before our lips (and our keyboards). And we must be sure that we do all things to the glory of God.
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