I recently heard a rabbi trash Facebook, in no uncertain terms in his sermon, attacking the preeminent social network as a virtual mine for gossip and haven for people who have no shame.
I can understand why the rabbi, who presumably has never logged onto a social network to check it out, let alone updated his status or shared photos, feels this way, given what’s happening to America at this juncture: We’re giving up more and more of our privacy voluntarily even as we rage against Google, OnStar, EZ-Pass, Apple and, yes, Facebook, when we think they are taking it away from us.
At the same time, we users take a proprietary interest in Facebook’s user environment, protesting the dizzying format changes that keep reinventing the experience, as founder Mark Zuckerberg pretends these changes are made for user convenience, not to prevent complacency and boredom (or perhaps to make it easier for the company to aggregate data about users.)
Close to a billion people worldwide are now hooked on Facebook, which, from seems quite puzzling to the holdouts, who are increasingly looking like the dwindling number of original human beings resisting the plant-clones in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
It’s clear that Facebook, like any technology or process, has the potential to cause harm: People posting Too Much Information about their lives; reuniting former flames now married to other people; and yes, creating an unprecedented forum for gossip and defamation and opportunities for the dreaded “unfriending,” a form of social rejection that, in another form in centuries past, might have culminated with pistols at 40 paces.
But it’s also clear that quite a large share of the world sees its adding value to their lives.
The genius of Facebook is that it really requires no genius at all. If Zuckerberg had left the format alone from its 2004 debut, or only mildly tinkered with it, he’d likely have close to the same number of members, with only the live chat feature implemented in 2008 (to compete with AIM) adding any real value.
Although Facebook offers plenty of games and interest groups, its a medium whose value is enhanced entirely by the user. Just as the finest crystal chalice is worthless without a fine wine to pour into it, people who get the most out of Facebook are getting it because of the quality of their connection with their friends, which can be enhanced or watered down, depending on how you use it.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a near-24/7 party with hundreds of the people whose company you enjoy most, with the ability to block all traces of undesired people. Facebook gives you that.
But when we anoint Zuckerberg as the master builder of that party, we forget that we already had the building blocks within us in our connections to other people and the common values, interests and experiences we share that make those interactions so desirable.
So while Facebook can bring out the worst in us it can also bring out the best in us by reminding us of the value of love and companionship, shared interests and the necessity of connection.
Rather than dismiss Facebook out of hand, I wish the rabbi had instead emphasized in this season of thankfulness and soul-searching, that going to shul, spending quality time with family and friends, visiting relatives or doing good deeds together are a few ways to enjoy that sense of connection without ever turning on a computer.