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.