Yesterday I read an article published in the London Telegraph based on an interview with the head of the Catholic Church in England, Archbishop Vincent Nichols. The article recounted the religious leader's views on social networking sites like Facebook. It stated:
"...the sites are leading teenagers to build 'transient relationships' which leave them unable to cope when their social networks collapse. He said the internet and mobile phones were 'dehumanising' community life." The article continues, "He warned that the sites are contributing to a trend for teenagers to put too much importance on the number of friends they have and that this can ultimately lead to suicide."
It was especially interesting to me since I just published an article on the topic last month in Collide Magazine. Read the interview with the Archbishop--then my article below--and leave me a comment with your own thoughts.
The Evils of Facebook and Twitter
Interacting online is bad, bad, bad. It is impersonal, and you only do it because you are shallow and like to avoid real life-to-life interaction.
In fact, in the past two months I’ve heard this at least a dozen times from conference speakers and pastors, or I’ve read it in books, magazines or blog posts. It seems to be a belief people are increasingly adopting.
During a conference I attended recently, we were strongly encouraged in the opening session to lay aside blogging, texting, and tweeting during the two-day experience. “Just be in the moment—don’t let yourself get distracted,” the moderator challenged. The advice was evidently ignored because when we came back that night no one was allowed in the auditorium with their electronics. Happy helpers took our phones from us at the door.
About a week later I heard a pastor say, “I’ve been wondering why online communities are so popular. Maybe because it’s a lot harder to put your real arms around someone who smells like beer and vomit and pick them up out of the gutter.”
Then, I heard an author deliver a talk on how technology can trip you up. He told a great story about a time when he had to tell a hospital patient the awful news that they were going to die soon. A few days later he spent time just sitting with the individual as they contemplated their final days. “How could I have done that by email?” he asked the audience. “How effective would my ministry have been to my dying friend through Facebook?”
What? That’s like asking, “How effective would my refrigerator be at grilling a hamburger?” or “What would happen if I used my golf clubs to play tennis?”
Obviously, sending an email does not replace sitting with someone in a time of crisis. And being their friend on Facebook does not have the same level of intimacy as physically picking them up out of the gutter.
But these are straw man arguments made by people who are either afraid of the medium, don’t understand it, have seen people abuse it, or are just ignorant of the value. Whatever the reason, when I hear it I get a little embarrassed for the speaker or writer. It’s like watching someone early last century arguing against people who used cars to travel from place to place. “People who drive are trying to avoid the face-to-face interac¬tion you get from walking down the sidewalk and stopping to chat with the neighbors sitting on their front porch. Do you want to get places faster at the expense of spending time with people?”
If you heard that, you might pull the speaker aside and tell him, “Embrace reality. Don’t be so afraid of change.”
I’ve never heard anyone claim that social networking should replace life-on-life relationships. Quite the opposite—the time I spend in online communities enhances my real-life relationships.
Facebook significantly improves relationships that are no longer proximate to me (either due to geography or schedule). I’ve reconnected with people that I haven’t seen in decades, and I am now “closer” to them than I would have been otherwise.
Twitter allows me to learn along with people I respect. Each day I read dozens of challenging or inspiring quotes, Bible verses, or ideas from thought leaders. Churches are effectively using Twitter to encourage, inform, or challenge their members. This summer, a church in North Carolina is delivering a plan to read through the Psalms in 90 days through the Twitter account @summerpsalms. A New York church delivered a version of the Passion play via Twitter beginning at noon on Good Friday.
There are scores of secondary benefits to social networking, including a deeper connection with my teenaged kids and their worlds, quick feedback on what we are doing as a church, a glimpse into the minds of “outsiders” that think like the people we are trying to reach, and a significant turbo-boost to my learning.
People drive cars. It’s the world we live in. And a growing number of people have integrated Facebook and Twitter and other social networks into the fabric of their lives. In fact, Facebook is visited by more than 225 million people each month, and another 125 million visit MySpace. Twitter lags behind but was reported recently to be growing by 40 percent every 10 days—they added 17 million users in April of this year.
So if you haven’t taken the plunge, jump in. I bet that a balanced life of social networking will give you more time to invest in real-life relationships. See if I’m right.