A month or so ago, I presented a session at the annual Day of Encouragement held here on our campus. The session was entitled "Ministering to 'Digital Natives'" and I was pleased that quite a few people showed up. As folks were coming in the room, I was surprised and amazed how many of them I knew: one of my best friends in the world, a couple of colleagues from here at the college, several of my former students (both from my days teaching middle school, and my current prof life), a young woman who used to babysit our kids when they were little, church friends, and even my former youth pastor from my high school days in southern California. It was a weird mash-up of different parts of my life, all in the same room. I joked that this was a little bit like Facebook.
|Image by Jo Alcock [CC BY-SA-NC 2.0]|
Facebook is weird. It is a weird mash-up of people from different parts of my life. It can be great--a way to keep up with family and friends who I don't get to see often enough. Also, it's fun when someone reads a blog post that I shared on Facebook and comments to me about it face-to-face. But it can also bring about some strange situations, such as an acquaintance here in town that I don't actually know all that well asking me how a presentation at a conference was...when the only way they would possibly know I was at a conference is that I shared a photo from Florida. Or when I comment on a somewhat controversial topic, and friends from different parts of my life who don't know each other at all start getting into it in the comments.
Facebook is weird. I find that it has a magnetic pull on my attention. If I'm bored, or have five minutes until the next thing--not enough time to actually work on something else--my attention is often drawn there. And sometimes it's great: a video of my nephews that I don't get to see often enough being cute and hilarious, or a window into the life of my college buddy who now serves as a principal, or a great story about something incredible that happened in the classroom of one of my former students who is now teaching. But, honestly, it's not always so positive. While there can be some great stuff I get to see in those five-minute windows...sometimes I just get frustrated: maybe it's a political meme that gets my blood boiling, or I see vacation pictures of people I know galavanting across sandy beaches (as the snow flies outside my window), or pseudo-science conspiracy theories...ugh. And yet, the roulette wheel of not knowing what I'm going to get still pulls me in.
Facebook is weird. I recognize that the things I post on Facebook are a curated view of myself that I'd like others to see. I'm picking and choosing the particular stories to share. I'm selecting photos or videos I've taken to illustrate parts of my life. I'm posting links to things that promote ideas and events that I believe in. I mean, I almost always post links to blog posts I've written on Facebook, and I'd be lying if I said I'm not hoping that people will read them, and "like" them, and leave comments. And, really, I think that's what most people are doing on Facebook. Yes...it's a way to keep in touch with other people...but it's also a platform for self-promotion...and maybe even a way to try and influence other people.
Facebook is weird. Here is a company that exists to get people connected with each other...but for what purpose? For a long time, Facebook's stated mission was "Making the world more open and connected." Is that a good thing? Perhaps. But after some scandals in the past year set the company reeling, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO and founder) announced a new mission: "Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together." Now that sounds pretty great, doesn't it? But I'm left wondering about this company.
I've been using Facebook for about 10 years now. In that 10 years, I've willingly given this company a ton of information about myself. In fact, that's how Facebook is designed--we want to share...with our "friends" (because everyone on Facebook is your "friend")...but in sharing with my friends and family and frenemies, I'm also sharing with Facebook as a company. The old saying is, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." And the more recent addition is, "If your lunch is free...it's because you are on the menu." And that's the truth of it, really. Facebook might claim to be about building community, and bringing the world closer together. But let's keep this straight: Facebook is a business. Fundamentally, they are about making money. And where does that money come from? Advertising. And Facebook is an ideal platform--with mountains of personal information we willingly give to them!--to target ads specifically to specific people. I am on the menu at Facebook.
Right now, there is plenty in the news about Facebook, due to a pretty humongous data breach/exploitation by an organization called Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have mined Facebook data going back years and years, and used the information they gleaned for nefarious purposes. The story continues to unfold, but the fact that Facebook's stock has plummeted in the past few days tells at least part of the story--or at least how investors' confidence in the company currently stands.
This has me thinking about all the silly quizzes I took on Facebook over the years. Third-party developers could use Facebook as a platform to share their games and quizzes and apps, and the hand-shaking process with Facebook means that they could collect some user data in this interaction. (And that's a big part of how Cambridge Analytica siphoned up the user data they collected, apparently.)
I'll admit that this shakes my confidence in Facebook as a company too. I've already had my concerns related to the 2016 Presidential race in the U.S. I'm not the only one, either: a recent cover story for WIRED magazine (yes, I'm geeky) had an image of a beat-up Zuckerberg--an allusion to the beating the company has taken related to allegations of foreign interference in the U.S. elections, with Facebook being a major part of the meddling. And this just seems like the next punch for Facebook. will it be the knock-out?
|WIRED cover from March 2018.|
I had a weird experience recently where I had a conversation with someone about liturgical worship. I don't remember doing any particular online searches about this topic, and I certainly wasn't talking about it on Facebook. And yet...in the next couple of days, I saw several ads on Facebook about resources for planning liturgies, for groups promoting liturgical worship, etc. Weird, right? I don't tend toward paranoia...but it makes me wonder if Facebook is listening in through my ever-present phone in my pocket?
I've been sharing and sharing on Facebook for 10 years now. I've been slowly being conditioned (or conditioning myself?) to think that sharing personal information online is normal and acceptable. And this, in spite of the fact that when I was the tech coordinator for a K-8 school, I used to preach online safety to my students...starting with the idea that we have to protect our identities online, and not share too much about ourselves.
This has me thinking--and wondering--about the way technologies subtly change our thinking over time. Neil Postman has had me thinking about this for over a decade, ever since reading his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology in my M.Ed. work. Postman talks about how the very design of the tools we use tend to bend and warp our interactions with them, and thus our interaction with the world around us. Technologies condition us, for good or ill.
After a couple of days of feeling more depressed rather than more joyful after looking at Facebook, I decided to delete the Facebook app off of my phone. I'm not suspending my account just yet. (But I'm more seriously contemplating it today than I have in the past 10 years...) But I suspect I'll be more intentional about when and where I take the time to go scrolling through.
Hey, you know what's weird? I've already realized how often I pulled out my phone just to check Facebook. When I deleted the Facebook app, I rearranged the other apps a bit too. I've already caught myself about half a dozen times already with my thumb moving on autopilot to tap the Facebook app...before realizing it's not there anymore.
Facebook is weird. It has more of a hold on my life than I wanted to admit before, and now I'm realizing it. I think this will be an interesting experiment, removing the app from my phone.
Knowledge is power. How much does Facebook know about me? About you? How willing are we to continue to share away? I'm curious how this experiment in mindfulness about my Facebook habits will lead to new knowledge for me...