I would like to dedicate this column to all my Facebook friends.
They are probably not aware that a year ago, I wrote a pretty nasty column about Facebook, explaining that I had not given it up for Lent (a trendy Lenten sacrifice at the time in certain Catholic circles) because I was not a Facebook user.
Well, allow me to come clean and announce to the world that today I am a user, and a happy one at that. Outside of one or two upleasant surprises (a 'friend' who became obnoxious, and a 'friend' who was an imposter for a real world friend), my experience thus far has been a positive one. It has even become a tool for evangelization: one more channel through which I can contribute to our collective effort at being Christian leaven for the culture.
That said, I am far from being addicted to Facebook. (Ergo, abandoning Facebook was not on my short list of good Lenten sacrifices.) And do I still see a serious downside to the social networking phenomenon in general? Yes.
Social networking will always be a double-edged sword. The danger of everything from Internet bullying to predation is an inescapable facet of 21st century cyber culture, something parents must deal with as they discern guidelines for their children's access to social networking sites.
In addition to those dangers, there are plenty of other risks inherent to social networking, especially for teenagers: the drain on attention spans, the potential to aggravate compulsive behavioral disorders and to aggravate the already intense proclivity to adolescent solipsism. I particularly worry about how social networking contributes to the generalized loss of capacity among teens and "emerging adults" (persons between the ages of 19-29) to engage in normal conversation: I mean, like, their ability to, like, sustain attention on a single matter for long periods of time, you know, for like more than three minutes.
Then consider this. The New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year for 2009 was 'unfriend'. To 'unfriend' someone is to remove them as a friend from a social networking site (such as Facebook). As benign and even amusing as this cultural factoid may seem, it sheds a great deal of light on the potential downside of social networking and the negative impact it can have the culture.
First, I fear it bespeaks the degree to which friendship has been emptied of substance, even as we place such a high premium on friendship these days that we coax ourselves into thinking we can form "friendships" with the click of a mouse. We obsess over being friends with as many people as possible only at the risk paradoxically of emptying friendship of its significance, cheapening it, and trivializing it.
And while the verb 'to friend' is something of a less commonly used neologism (evoking the older English form 'befriend'), 'to unfriend' -- a negative verb form -- is by far more common. That simple fact should give us much pause.
How does the possibility of "unfriending" a Facebook acquaintance impact our conception of human relationships -- even subconsciously? We have already been a quick-fix-pop-a-pill-make-the-difficulty-go-away culture for decades. Unfriending someone is the quickest fix yet. Mad at a Facebook friend? Click. Unpleased by a comment on your wall? Click. He's now your ex? Click. She wouldn't dance with you? Click. Unfriending, in the psychology of many, provides a scintillating new outlet for our most knee jerk, individualistic and selfish reactions to the basic challenges of being social animals by nature.
What is this all doing -- especially among teens -- to our whole understanding of human relationships? In so many ways, social-networking can potentially chip away at the full human reality of engaging in, working at, struggling with, building, and celebrating genuine human friendship.
Our culture is dangerously accustomed to multiple fragmentations: the conceptual severing of our lives into multiple compartments, the false separations of faith and politics, 'public policy' and 'private morality', the spreading of ourselves too thin in myriad activities, the fracturing of ourselves in sexual libertinage, and so on. Does not the ability to 'unfriend' someone at the click of a mouse only exacerbate our penchant to fragment our world?
I will ask my Facebook friends and get back to you on that.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).