Facebook: Friends & Follies

facebookfriends_headerFor better and for worse, social media is here to stay.

| by Jamie Arpin-Ricci

Glancing at the digital time display on my cell phone, I paced the parking lot in eager anticipation. That very eagerness had apparently weighted my foot on the drive from Winnipeg to Duluth, as I had arrived well over an hour earlier than expected.

And then I saw the cars pull into the lot and park next to me. A grin burst onto my face as my closest and dearest friend in the world, Christopher, emerged from one of the vehicles, also grinning. We met in an enthusiastic hug, like the brothers we had become through our years of friendship. And now we were together to celebrate his upcoming wedding, a ceremony I was proud to have been asked to perform.

Other than the deep and meaningful friendship Christopher and I have forged over the years, this story might otherwise be unexceptional. However, there is one dynamic that makes our relationship rather unique: until that moment in the parking lot, Christopher and I had never met face to face, or even heard the other’s voice.

Our entire friendship began and flourished through the Internet. We “met” after I discovered his blog. We began to share e-mails, then chat almost daily through an instant message program. We supported each other through difficult times and celebrated our mutual joys through the creative use of various online social media.

As foreign and unlikely as such a story may seem, it is increasingly common in a time where technology is rapidly making the world a much smaller place. Basic access to the Internet provides people worldwide with access to a network (or audience) of billions. Central to this reality is social media—those programs, websites and technologies that empower users to dynamically relate to other users in a mutual exchange quite different than the one-directional broadcast of traditional media.

In other words, we are no longer mere consumers of media but participants and producers in our right.

Facing fact of Facebook

Few examples of social media are better known than Facebook. Boasting more than 400 million active users, more than half of which are active daily, Facebook is available in more than 70 languages (thanks to more than 300,000 unpaid users who help translate) around the world. More than 70 per cent of Facebook users live outside the United States, where the program originated, and despite popular perception, people between the age of 30 and 50 years old are the largest and fastest growing group active on the site. While certainly one of the most successful examples of social media, Facebook is just one of countless other mediums in use.

In the face of this reality, one thing becomes abundantly clear: social media is not only here to stay, but will increasingly impact our world, for better and for worse. The last thing we want to do as Christians is to engage (or dismiss) these technologies out of misunderstanding or ignorance. While this topic could easily fill an entire book, let’s take some time to look at both the dangers and benefits of social media in our day-to-day lives.

Perhaps the single greatest danger of social media is its addictive nature. While this may sound overly dramatic, several studies are revealing alarming trends among social media users, where the frequency of usage becomes compulsive. As these mediums are increasingly available through mobile technology such as cell phones or iPods, users are active at all hours, even while driving. In one study, almost half of users checked their Facebook or Twitter accounts at least once after going to bed. Interestingly, this trend is largely (though not exclusively) seen in users 25 years old or younger.

This not only represents a caution to all of us as potential users, but also highlights real concerns for parents, teachers, youth pastors and others responsible for the welfare of young people. While demonizing these technologies is both unfair and ineffective, we need to be very careful and involved in how young people are using such technologies. Many people have joined sites like Facebook for the express purpose of better understanding the realities, thus helping them to better navigate these challenges for themselves and their children.

It is also all too easy to become competitive in our use of social media. While the average Facebook user has around 130 friends in their personal network, others have significantly higher numbers. Unofficially, one’s status in social media circles is elevated alongside the size of your network, spurring many to raise their numbers by any means. In addition to becoming an unhealthy and prideful exercise in self-promotion, this also has the inevitable side effect of marginalizing and alienating those with lower numbers.

Among young people, social media has added sharp teeth to the already biting dynamics of peer pressure and cliques. The devastating impact of being publicly mocked, rejected or “unfriended” should not be underplayed.

While my friendship with Christopher is unquestionably genuine, we both recognize that our time spent together face to face has been invaluable. Neither would we suggest that such online friendships remove our need for local relationships. As we become involved in social media, we need to be careful not to allow it to consume a disproportionate amount of our time or energy. Like all media forms, be it television, film or even books, social media needs to be used appropriately, carefully and responsibly.

Good qualities

That being said, I am not convinced social media is an inevitable evil that, while having a few redemptive qualities, should be suspect. In fact, I would argue that the capacity for genuine relationships in the “virtual” context extends much further than many of us might imagine or care to admit. Sites like Facebook or Twitter, used properly, can be invaluable tools for community and mission in ways unavailable outside their unique contexts.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of social media is its ability to allow people, who would otherwise be cut off, to connect with a much wider community. Whether through illness or age, many who are housebound can still participate and connect to people all over the world.

For Christians who live in places where a local Christian community is not available, these mediums provide an essential and dynamic connection to the Body of Christ. Surprisingly, many people who identify as introverts (such as myself), who are less comfortable and often taxed in larger social settings, have found social media to provide an ideal environment to create and nurture relationships and social circles.

Again, I am not suggesting that such connections replace the essential need for physically present community, but neither do we use these sites in a vacuum. Rather, they serve as aids in the larger context of lives. Without question, these mediums provide much needed connection to thousands who might otherwise have been cut off.

Another exciting dynamic of social media is its capacity to broaden our perspectives of the world around us. Where our local context might provide only a limited view, social media can connect us with cultures, ideas and experiences vastly different from our own. This capacity to broaden our worldview is invaluable, especially for Christians who, desiring to meaningfully engage the world missionally, seek to avoid the damaging results of the ignorance and ethnocentricity all too common in Church history. Social media empowers average people from all walks of life from all over the world to share their unique perspectives and experience in ways unavailable through most of human history. It is truly a gift.

It is important for us to remember that, throughout history whenever people were introduced to a radically new form of media, the fires of opinion burned bright and hot. From the printing press to the Internet, these technologies have proven one thing for certain: that in the hands of people like you and me, they can be used for good and evil alike. While we cannot ignore the unique nature of each medium, neither should we be too quick to dismiss them because of the potential for abuse. Rather, we need to choose to responsibly use them in ways that bring life and glorify God.

Recently, my Australian sister-in-law wrapped up a fundraiser for her young friend, Toph, who at nine years old has fought cancer for most of his life. Through the creative use of Facebook and other social media tools, she not only raised close to $4,000 from people all around the world, she helped catalyze a vast network of prayer and encouragement for this young boy and his family. His smiling face, broadcast to us through Skype video chat from his isolation ward, brought us together—people from Canada, Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere—in a way only possible because of technology. Beyond the virtual labels, we all knew that we were truly friends.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci is a pastor, missionary and author. He writes regularly at his blog “A Living Alternative” (www.missional.ca) and can also be found on Facebook (www.facebook.com/missional.ca) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/missional). He and his wife live and serve in the inner-city community of Winnipeg’s West End.

The article above was featured in the special July/August 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.