How many people among your friends and family have a Facebook account? I bet the number is growing. About a month ago, my father announced his initial foray into the internet when he sent me a friend request. “I bought a computer today!” he emailed. It’s his first, and he’ll be 70 years old next year. No longer a fad of the teens and twenty-somethings, sharing information through electronic media is here to stay. Furthermore, Facebook is quickly becoming the preferred method for staying connected. Jesse Rice, author of The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community, wears many hats: writer, musician, counselor, speaker; but his passion is for people. According to his website, he enjoys helping people utilize technology in “life-giving ways.” In this book, he explores a person’s need to connect with others, how people connect, how our online connections impact real-life relationships and emotions, and how Christian Facebook users can redeem their time on Facebook.
Rice uses stories, humor, events in history, and his background in counseling psychology to help explain Facebook. First, Rice explains the three realities that are always at work:
1) There is a force that is capable of synchronizing a large population in very little time, thereby creating spontaneous order.
2) This spontaneous order can generate outcomes that are entirely new and unpredictable.
3) These unpredictable outcomes require the affected population to adapt their behavior to more adequately live within the new spontaneously generated order.
What’s interesting to Rice is that Facebook “is a radical example” of spontaneous order. In a very short span of time, “Facebook’s membership doubled from one hundred million to two hundred million people from August 2008 to March 2009…In the first quarter of 2009, five million people joined Facebook every week.” Why? As Rice explains, God created people with a deep desire to feel connected to the world and people around them. Without that sense of connection people begin to break down. It’s not just any connection, however, that we desire. What lies at the core of a person’s well-being is authentic, or deep, connection. These connections help develop a person’s sense of home. And it is this sense of home, says Rice, that Facebook is offering. Through Facebook, people create their own “homes” on the internet in which they can share bits of their lives, photos, updates, and play games with their friends. (I even played Mafia Wars for a few months because a “friend” relentlessly begged me. I’ll keep to myself how many “crops” shriveled and died before I finally quit Farmville). People feel comfortable sharing their beliefs, political ideology, favorite television shows, opinions, likes and dislikes. Facebook users can ensure their comfort in sharing these bits of trivia because they can “control” who enters their digital home.
New and Unpredictable Outcomes
These new “homes” on Facebook are affecting our “real” homes. Rice writes, “Facebook profiles do indeed serve as a kind of self-portrait. After all, Facebook allows us to arrange the elements of our page around its very simple framework, as though it were our own blank canvas. By the way we arrange our canvases, we can invite observers to notice certain aspects about us even while we keep certain other aspects hidden. We can highlight our successes and downplay our failures.” This sense of control in the connected world impacts individuals and “our shared relationships.” Rice explores some of the most recent articles and observations regarding the consequences of being so hyperconnected on one’s daily life and sense of self. Rice demonstrates wisdom in this area as he considers several unintended outcomes: the dangers of being “tethered;” the dangers of certain boundaries between people becoming “fuzzy;” the dangers of being always-on; living for the status update rather than simply living in one’s moments; and the co-dependency in not being able to make a decision without first consulting one’s friends.
The question Rice wants to answer is Is online community real community, or is it simply connection? To answer his question, Rice turns to an online conversation among several well-visited bloggers, Anne Jackson of flowerdust.net, Shane Hipps of Out of Ur, and Scot McKnight of The Jesus Creed. He also draws from the writings of Dallas Willard and Mark Scandrette. It comes as no surprise to Rice that the younger generations see no real difference between relating face-to-face with a person versus relating via electronic medium. To a young person, “It is simply another way of relating. After all, they have mostly experienced relationships as always having contained a strong online component. Theirs is a world where an intimate conversation is just as likely to take place over email (or on each other’s Facebook walls) as in the locker room or a coffeehouse or a church building…”community” is not understood as a dichotomy between “real” or “online” relationships, but as a composite of both.” Obviously, this attitude reflects an immature view of what it means to live in community. To combat the immaturity and lack of commitment to a real community, Rice offers several ways in which Facebook users can adjust their online behavior so that they maintain integrity and authenticity.
I appreciate Rice’s work in The Church of Facebook. Though it felt like it took too long to make a point, Rice uses interesting stories well. I can imagine the difficulty in writing something about the ever-changing internet world. Rice asks relevant questions, uncovers unfortunate realities inherent in online communication, and offers specific strategies for controlling internet use, rather than being controlled by it, that will be helpful to future generations of the web.