ne late evening during the lull between Christmas and New Year’s I signed up for a Facebook (FB) account.
As the dwindling days of 2008 passed by slowly the timing just seemed right. I filled out some personal information, added an e-mail address, found a profile photograph, and sent out my first two friend requests. I was delighted to have found these individuals since losing touch with them over the years—other searches had not been successful. Twenty minutes later I was shocked to discover that not only had these people agreed to be my friends on FB, but 24 others wanted in too! One request led to another, and another, and now I am closing in on 300 online buddies, most of them people with whom I really am delighted to have reconnected.
Many write about Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild—and social networking in general.1 There’s even a Facebook for Dummies book on the market!
I am by no means an expert: half a year into using FB, certain aspects of this online phenomenon perplex me still, but I’ve also learned a few things—things that affect my life as a Christian. The following sections highlight some of what I’ve learned (or been reminded of) from Facebook.
Relationships can be rekindled, new friends can be made.
Two of my first FB friends were former schoolmates. With both I had gone through many of the experiences that have shaped me into the adult I am now. The joy still in my heart at finding them is almost palpable—and I delight in reading their updates and scanning their photos. In one case, I hadn’t seen or heard from the person for more than 12 years, but when we reconnected it was as if the time between hadn’t happened. I cannot imagine how I would have gotten back in touch with my buddies if it weren’t for FB.
But I’ve also made new friends, including an earnest Christian from Wales. I’ve grown closer to people who attended ConneXions99, sharing intimate, spiritual thoughts with some whom I knew before and others whose commonality with me was only in experiencing the event. And if the posted comments are to be believed, these liaisons have been mutually beneficial.
Proverbs 18:24 says that “a man who has friends must himself be friendly, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”* Being a Christian means I will extend friendship to others, and I believe that real friendships can be made and cultivated on social networking sites such as FB. And, just as it is in the real world, they can be grown and nurtured in cyberspace.
There are friends . . .
I had slogged through a work project during lunch one day. Finally finished I looked at my wilted, half-eaten salad. Wholly unappealing. With a sigh I clicked over to Facebook to check my inbox for a message from someone involved in the project. On a whim, I typed an update: “Tired, and craving chocolate. Just a little to get me to quitting time.” I left my office briefly, and when I came back I found a dark chocolate bar sitting on my desk. Bless that anonymous giver! That’s what I call a friend!
On a more serious note, through FB I have been a good friend, and I’ve been able to receive friendship. I found out about someone’s surgery through FB and was able to take care of some of their personal matters while they were recovering. And when I went through a crisis recently, more than 15 people prayed for me and offered help in ways that were humbling.
I’ve also learned that there are friends, and there are friends—meaning that, as in life generally, there are people whom you will be very close to, and there will be others with whom you stay mere passing acquaintances. One danger with social networking sites such as FB and MySpace is “friending” too many. Or being “friends” with people your friend’s friend’s friend knows. I’ve received more than a few requests for friendship from people about whom I know nothing, nor why they’d want me as a friend. And while I do want to extend myself to others, I wonder if there are individuals out there who are competitively collecting friends as they would baseball cards or Beanie Babies.
In a Newsweek online article Raina Kelley lists one of the “Seven Lies We Tell Ourselves About Social Networking” as “I Only Friend People I Really Know” (Feb. 20, 2009). She writes: “Stop pretending you have standards; you will friend anyone. You would accept Bernie Madoff if he asked. You want your friend count to be sky-high. . . . Admit it, you’re no better than I am—how many of your ‘friends’ would you invite to your house?”
Peer pressure still exists.
If you have journeyed into the online social network, you know that all is not sunshine and flowers. Indeed, there have been numerous tragic events that have occurred due, at least in part, to online relationships. Remember Megan Meier, the teen who committed suicide when a woman, posing as a teen boy, slammed her with severe criticism? Or what about the murders of several women linked to craigslist?
In addition to serious dangers, peer pressure still exists. While I still profess my Christianity, many of the people whom I grew up with do not. And they are all out on FB, passing drinks around, or taking raunchy quizzes and suggesting others do the same. While it isn’t the same as being shunned by the cool kids in a hallway for being a goody-goody, or being scoffed at for wearing a short skirt and red lipstick by Bible Club members, there is present an “everyone is doing it, why shouldn’t I?” sentiment.
There’s also a perceived pressure to have lots of friends—so much so that some even invent them in order to appear more influential.
But, on the flipside, the more people with whom I am friends, the wider the pool and the less I feel inclined to join in questionable activities. With FB’s more than 250 million users I can definitely find spiritually minded people interested in the same activities I enjoy. I can get involved in saving the whales, chat about bringing back vegemeat slices, or participate in religious movements.
I can fight the good fight!
Speaking about causes, many of my friends support (or at least claim to support) friends running for public office, survivors of tragedies, cancer research, the annihilation of world hunger, etc., through pages and groups listed on their profiles. They post notes about deep spiritual issues that show a hurting, searching world. They advertise and endorse spiritual retreats for young adults. They share links to YouTube videos of Christian musical groups—gospel, contemporary, bluegrass, and hymn-singing chorale performances. They suggest books to read; and they post magazine articles on topics that have the potential to greatly affect moral-minded people.
These causes appear to make a difference in people’s lives. One evening I was reading posts in a forum for a group that supports the friends and families of persons killed in motorcycle accidents. I recall one person talking about her brother who had been killed several years before: her words reverberated with anguish. Understanding group members’ supportive comments flooded in. They shared their stories and positive words of comfort. Just before I left the group for the news feed, I noticed the young woman’s last comment in which she remarked about her brother wanting her to remember him but live fully, richly, and happily.
In another group, I discovered someone from my past who needed a kidney transplant getting posts from friends volunteering to be tested for possible donation. So, yes, even in cyberspace these words from John 15:12, 13 have meaning: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
Connections can bring joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.
I’ve laughed and cried at some of the things I’ve seen in FB status updates alone. One friend mentioned that he was going to fix the economy, end all wars, feed the hungry—and all before his favorite show came on TV that night. Another friend pondered what to add to powdered water. Still another informed me that the roundest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Cumference. After a draining day, this comic relief is a welcome respite.
People also share sad news. One friend told me about her hysterectomy. Another shared the heartbreak of losing a child, and living with the loss: “Finally yesterday, we tackled the job of cleaning her room and reorganizing, something I have been dreading for more than two years. This is her room. It’s not fair, but life isn’t fair, so after much time and thought, I bit my top lip and moved forward. . . .
“I pulled out that little pair of pants with a tiger pattern. She had put them on her head on the day she died. Those little pants still had a piece of her hair in the waistband. I just gently folded them and placed them in a Ziplock. I labeled the bag and put it into a container to be kept for as long as I’m on this earth. . . .
“There are a few things I haven’t found the strength for yet . . . [but] God is still so good.”
Good and bad, triumph and tragedy—it’s reality, and it’s part of the FB world too. When I’m not distracted by the superfluous I can truly rejoice with some, share in pain with others—and I can pray for all of them.
As with anything in life, distractions abound in FB land. Have you seen the quizzes? How about the random lists? “Which Dog Breed Are You,” “5 Things I Hate Doing,” “What Transformer Are You,” “5 Places I’ve Lived” . . . I think the list is endless. Is it really important for me to find out which cast member of Gossip Girl I am most like? And what about gifts, games, and pokes? Or inane conversations on the news feed? As one friend wrote: “It’s like being in the cafeteria at college with everyone you ever met in your whole life.”
While I’ve done my fair share of playing in virtual communities, or sending people plants (and supposedly saving the rain forest at the same time), I have realized that these things are peripheral—and they need to stay out of the mainstream of life. If they aren’t marginalized, just like any activity or habit, they can obliterate time, a most precious commodity, leaving very little left for actually living.
Some lists have been profound. Take, for example, the “25 Random Things About Me” chain letter that swept FB in early 2009. “I would say that anecdotally I’ve never seen a note spread as quickly as this has on Facebook,” FB spokesperson Brandee Barker says. “What is really unique about this is it’s a really meaningful piece of content. Some of these notes are touching and frankly very insightful.”2
But these are what users make them—and there are many things on FB that I should avoid, especially if it cuts into time spent with God, family, or church members. If I can’t be a proud Adventist while running around in Mafia Wars, well, maybe I shouldn’t be playing.
I can share Jesus on Facebook; how is the challenge.
Facebook is about people and relationships. People use the site for social and business purposes, but it is possible for them to use it for spiritual reasons. In fact, many do (take a look around FB and you’ll see what I mean).
As a Christian, part of my business is witnessing to others. I can’t be a living, breathing witness for Him and it not be reflected in my online activities. Yes, Jesus is there. But, as in life, Jesus isn’t always the most popular guy. He’s got, after all, all those quizzes and status updates to contend with.
So how do I make Him a part of it all? For many, there is
a unique feeling of freedom when interacting online. People are trending toward lots of self-revelation. Sounds like the perfect place to talk about matters of the heart, matters of salvation. Maybe all that is required of me is courage and care.
Let’s swap stories.
I’m not using my real name with this article. It isn’t that I’m ashamed of what I’ve shared or ashamed of my FB page. But I’m still sorting things out, and frankly, I feel that protecting my identity protects my friends’ identities. Each individual out there is important, and I strive to take my contacts on Facebook seriously—giving appropriate feedback and really being a friend to these people who are important to me.
If you and I never meet in the FB world, I’ll look forward to meeting you in heaven—and I’ll introduce myself then! Your experience will be different from mine. Maybe we can compare groups and quiz results! Better yet, perhaps we’ll be able to share stories of salvation.
Catherine Lester is a pseudonym.
*Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1See the July 22, 2009, Newsweek Web Exclusive by Kurt Soller, www.newsweek.com/id/207843/page/1, for an article that encapsulates the history and potential future of Facebook. Also included is a video of interview clips.