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March 2014

Does Facebook Build Community?

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Facebook turns 10 years old today.  In that time, the site has gone from connecting students at elite colleges to connecting 1.23 billion active users who share nearly 5 billion items each day.  A number of commentators have offered reflections on the occasion, but most of the discussion seems to focus either on Facebook's future in the rapidly-changing world of social media or on Facebook's privacy policies (or lack thereof).  The thing that intrigues me about Facebook, however, is how it has changed our sense of community.

I joined Facebook on September 16, 2007.  I know this because I looked on my Facebook timeline.  That piece of information is preserved there at the beginning of six and a half years of comments about my life.  I joined Facebook at the urging of Jessie Newburn who, at that time, was co-hosting a series of networking parties with her friend, Cherie Beck.  Jessie and Cherie introduced me to the "Friend Wheel", a tool for illustrating the interconnections within your social network.  I was fascinated--I felt like I lifted up the back cover of my community and saw the wiring inside.  Jessie promised that Facebook would take this sense of interconnection to a whole new level and so I signed up.

I was not disappointed.  I spent my first year on Facebook discovering old friends and family members and re-establishing contact.  On Facebook, I had better conversations with my high school classmates than I had at our reunions.  I found friends from summer camp and friends from college and distant cousins and yes, former boyfriends.  For years, these people would at times come to mind and I would wonder where they were and what they were doing.  Facebook made reconnecting easy but what's more, Facebook makes it easy to keep tabs on all of these people.  Past friendships feel like current friendships now thanks to the Facebook newsfeed.

I continue to marvel at how Facebook weaves my connections together.  If I post a piece of news, I may get comments from my aunt, my college room mate, an acquaintance from a conference I once attended, a former member of my congregation and my next door neighbor.  For a brief moment, all of are in conversation with each other.  How else could that happen?

Facebook has also changed the way I hear news.  When I hear about a major weather event in the United States, chances are I know someone who is currently in the middle of that event and posting pictures on Facebook.  I have friends who weigh in on issues of public debate who have first-hand knowledge or academic expertise in the field.  The relationship behind our Facebook friendship, however thin, pulls me closer to the issues they care about.

But are these Facebook friendships "real" friendships?  I know that a guy I went to high school with just took a vacation to Mexico, but does that constitute a friendship in any real way?

I've heard plenty of people argue that Facebook has actually made us more isolated from each other than we were before.  The author Jonathan Safrar Foer gave the commencement address at Middlebury College last year on this topic and published a version of his speech in the New York Times in a piece entitled, "How Not to Be Alone".  He writes, "Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat."  Technologies that were originally intended to make it easier for us to connect with each other now make it easy for us to avoid connecting--we text instead of calling because it spares us the work of having a real conversation.  Foer writes, "Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity."

Social media can encourage us to just consume information about each other's lives without ever reaching out to support or inspire or comfort each other.  At times I worry that reading Facebook when I'm bored or lonely actually discourages me from reaching to friends more actively during these times.  If I didn't have Facebook, would I call or email a friend during those moments?

The truth is, Facebook is no substitute for extended, face-to-face conversations with our real live friends.  The experience of being heard, of having someone's undivided attention, is crucially important for real friendship.  In my experience, conversations on-line are always a thinner version of what happens face-to-face (although the movie "Her" does suggest that this difference may eventually be erased).

But the value of quick, newsy updates from friends should not be underrated.  Jessie Newburn was the person who introduced me to the idea of "light touch" social contact.  We need to have deep friendships in our lives, but most of us can't really maintain more than a handful of close connections.  The rest of our connections are much more superficial--we know that a neighbor just had a new baby, but we don't know if she is really happy with her marriage.  But that doesn't mean that relationship doesn't have value.  The quick conversation on the sidewalk as she passes by with her infant in a front-carrier leaves you both smiling and feeling a little more connected, a little less lonely.

Thirty-five years before Facebook, the people who planned the community in which I live designed neighborhoods in a way that encourages people to have a number of "light touch" social encounters every day.  I've been told that's the reason why no one in Columbia has a mail box--if we have to leave our house and walk over to a mail kiosk every day, there's a good chance we'll run into one of our neighbors on the way and have occasion to wave and smile or say a quick "hello".  The same thing is supposed to happen on the bike paths or at the tot lots or at the pool--and in my experience, this does actually happen.  And it does actually make me feel like my life is supported by a web of relationships.

Facebook--at its best--extends that web of connection across the globe.  I'm grateful for it.


Are You a Fan? Why?

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"You know something that makes our family different from a lot of my friends' families?"  Rosa asked me this question this week, musing out loud.  "We don't have a team."

Rosa started a semester of health class this week and for some reason the first assignment was to decorate a picture of a teddy bear with things that indicate your interests and activities.  Rosa said she colored in running shoes and added a violin.  But when all the teddy bears were hung on the wall of the classroom she noticed that most of her classmates' bears had on a Ravens or a Redskins jersey.  Some had Orieoles caps.  But not her bear.  Her family, she realized, doesn't have a team.

This is not, strictly speaking, true.  My husband Dan is clear about being a Yankees fan--a point of lifelong contention with his brother who is Mets fan.  Dan doesn't really follow the baseball season, but that doesn't matter.  His support for the Yankees is more a matter of heritage and identity than a current practice.  And Rosa's brothers, who were born in Boston, are of course fans of the Red Socks and the Patriots.  But it isn't what they lead with.  

We watch the Superbowl every year not because we're fans of the teams or super into football, but because we like to observe the occasion.  The commercials, the halftime show and the snacks provoke my interest more than the teams do.  The truth is, I don't really understand fandom.  How does someone come to identify so strongly with a team that they would fly a flag with that team's logo on their car?  I am trying to learn more about our experience of community, so I need to learn more about how professional sports inspire and cultivate a sense of group identity among their fans.

An article in today's Washington Post entitled, "What We're Really Worshipping on Sundays" sheds a bit of light on these questions.  The authors repeat familiar statistics about the decline in the percentage of Americans who are affiliated with a particular religion and then point out that affiliation with sports teams is on the rise:  "Fifty years ago, just three in 10 Americans considered themselves sports fans. By 2012, that proportion exceeded six in 10."  The authors then ask a provocative question:

Are Americans shifting their spiritual allegiances away from praying places and toward playing places?

Perhaps, the authors suggest, sports play a function in our that religion no longer plays in our current, multi-faith culture.  Sports stadiums bring us together like great cathedrals once did.  The colors and logos of sports teams give us a visual sense of unity in a ways that religious symbols cannot.  A city or a state can all celebrate their team without worrying about needing to give equal time to competing teams.

In short, sports are succeeding by the measures that have traditionally define success for religious institutions:  regularly immersing people in a transcendent experience and keeping them ardently committed over the long term.

If there is something in us that wants to be on a team, then I'd rather we all be sports fans than religious fanatics or political partisans.  If we want to scream and cheer for our side to crush their rivals, let's bring that impulse to a football game.  I want something else from my religious life--something that in the end isn't really compatible with fandom.  I want my religious life to help me become more compassionate, more loving, a better channel of God's peace.  I don't want to cheer for Jesus.  I want to follow him.  (On this point, I completely agree with Kyle Idleman.)

Now, time to make nachos....


Can We Begin to Make Our Lives Once More All of a Piece?

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Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.” 
-Pete Seeger

 A few years ago, I went through a training program on facilitating interfaith dialogue offered by the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.  The well-meaning leader of the training offered a model of how religions develop.  He said traditional cultures have religions that focus on story and rituals designed to reinforce a sense of tribal identity.  As cultures become more modern, the understanding of the sacred expands--instead of imagining that each tribe has its own god, we become monotheistic and believe that a single God is Lord of all.  The more advanced the culture, the more universal and less personal our understanding of God becomes.

I had heard this interpretation of religious evolution before, but that day in the training in Washington D.C. it hit me:  I'm moving backwards in my own development.  I used to be much more interested in musing about universal claims and ideas, things that were true for all times and places.  But over time, I've become more and more interested in particularity.  I'm engaged by insights that are true here and now, in this moment, insights that emerge in response to this situation in which we find ourselves.  I used to do a lot of dissection, a lot of deconstruction.  Nowadays, I see a lot of interconnection.

I used to want to become One with Everything.  These days, I am mostly interested in sitting around a fire and telling stories and singing.  To me, this feels like advancement.

I heard the news of Pete Seeger's death on Tuesday morning and I've been singing ever since.  I know a lot of Pete Seeger songs and so does Dan.  We grew up listening to his children's albums, sang his songs with our family on car trips and sang some more at summer camp.  When we were in graduate school, we kept singing with an amazing group of neighbors who gatherd a couple of times a month for "Music Night".  Between 15 and 40 people would pack into a house for a potluck meal followed by a couple of hours of singing song from "Rise Up Singing", a collection of folk songs, many of which we first learned from Pete Seeger.

I've got other great memories of singing in groups--caroling parties, summer evenings on our back deck, a pilgrimage on Iona when we sang at each stop, rallies large and small.  And, of course, worship services at KC and elsewhere.  Not all worship singing brings people together.  Sometimes it alienates a large portions of the people in the room.  Sometimes it aims to inspire or instruct, but not to engage everyone in the room.  But my favorite singing is massively participatory.  It is the best way I know of to find our voice together, to say something that matters, all in the same voice.

We'll sing in worship tomorrow, and with any luck, we'll slip in a Pete Seeger song or two.  Those songs speak the language of hope.

I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in - as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” 
-Pete Seeger