The Spirituality of Facebook

Shane Hipps (whose teachings I enjoy, and who wrote the book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith) wrote an article for Relevant magazine this month (Sept./Oct. 2010) about Facebook. The title/opening blurb is “What’s [Actually] on Your Mind? … Social networking is changing the way we think, pray and ‘like.’ But what has it cost us?”

As I said in my earlier posts, Hipps hits the narcissism angle, but I’ve already said enough about that. Except one final point:

He talks about how we spend a lot of time tweaking our profiles and building our online personas, which is the technological equivalent of looking at ourselves endlessly in the mirror. I take this with a big grain of salt. We need some measurement of what people are actually doing during their social-networking time for that to be credible. Are they really spending untold hours massaging their profiles and uploading new and more flattering pictures? Most of us, I suspect, spend way more time connecting with friends, family, colleagues and (yes) strangers—interacting, in other words—than designing an online persona. Sure, those interactions make up part of the persona, but that’s not really the goal of them. The goal is relationship and connection.

He also talks about the damage done to the attention span. I really can’t argue with that because I have experienced it myself. That said, I made it to the end of his article easily, which apparently makes me “an impressive and rare breed of human—an intellectual Navy SEAL.” A bit overstated, don’t you think? But I’ll take the compliment!

The other thing Hipps critiques is the way we can artificially create who we are on the Internet. He says, “This heavily edited and carefully controlled self easily hides certain parts of ourselves we don’t want others to see.” He is concerned about the spiritual implications of this split personality. Sure, Hipps admits, we do the same thing in “real life,” but sooner or later, people see through the facade. He argues that it’s harder to see through the artifice on the Internet. I think this is a very interesting point, and I want to say “Yes… and No.”

For one thing, the more we become comfortable with social networking, the better able we are to pick up subtle cues. Sure, on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog. But if that dog gets deep enough into online communities and interactions, the truth will inevitably poke through. We are still infants with this technology, but we are becoming savvier all the time.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t think anyone really believes that the people we interact with online are exact mirrors of the person’s “real” identity. Don’t you think? We understand that the Internet is a mediated experience, and we correct for that. It’s not really artificial if we mutually understand the rules… just as I’m not lying if I say “Fine, thank you” on a perfectly awful day to the stranger on the street who asks me how I am.

I would put it this way: Our online personas are not truly authentic—but we all know that. But that doesn’t make them inauthentic. Instead, I think our online selves can be aspirational. The personas we create online are reflections of the people we want to be. Which is a kind of authenticity.

I have purple hair on my Facebook profile, but real-life friends know I am pretty darn buttoned up. But that picture tells you something about me and who I want to be… despite the fact that the purple hair was for a Harry Potter costume party and came from a can of temporary spray I purchased at Hot Topic with two toddlers in tow.

An analogy: I am a big fan of the Happiness Project, and have a sheet on my bulletin board that includes some personal mission/values stuff, similar to what Gretchen Rubin advocates in her book and blog. The sheet contains my personal mission statement, twelve “intentions” or ways I want to live my life, a bulleted list of “things I’ve learned,” and a list of values I hold dear. It is my north star.

Now you might look at that list and think, “Wow, MaryAnn’s got it all together!” But you would be wrong. So, so very wrong. This is the person I want to be, and anyone who spends any time with me knows that I fall way, way short of that (hourly, some days). My actions don’t mirror that page of values very well. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that reading that page of values would tell you a whole lot about who I am. Same with our Internet selves.

If we’re going to talk about the spirituality of Facebook and other social networking sites in a way that’s positive and helpful—here might be one place to begin.


10 thoughts on “The Spirituality of Facebook

  1. MB says:

    I love your observations. (Well, I don’t ‘love’ them – that was overstated – I actually think they are well-reasoned. See, here’s the editing I would have done ‘in my head’ but instead have left it for everyone to see!)

    I had a very interesting experience this past week. I provided administrative support for a conference/class that I took a year ago for credit. This time around I was able to retake the assessment piece and get feedback on how I had grown over the course of the year. Of the twenty people who responded to my request for help with the survey, four of them were people I’d met online first and with whom I had later met and worked and collaborated and played. They have each known me for between 9 and 1.5 years. Two are in pastoral ministry (UMC); two are second career folks (one currently in seminary the other planning on next year – they are both PCUSA). The interesting thing was this: they assessed my emotional intelligence (that’s what the course was about) closer to my self assessment than any of the other people I regularly interact with in my face to face life. Two things occur to me: 1) most of what they ‘know’ about me is what I have revealed and 2) having known me for a while, time has tested that initial ‘knowing’. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I’m finding it incredibly interesting!

    I think the idea that we are spending inordinate amounts of time tweeking/massaging our profile or our ‘online presence’ is without foundation. While that may be true initially – I spend most of my social networking time, well, networking in the social and professional spheres of my life.

    Loving The Blue Room by the way!

  2. Teri says:

    I also think the whole thing about constant tweaking of our profiles if BOGUS. I spend the vast majority of my time on FB chat and in conversations about things people post, and some playing a stupid game or playing scrabble with friends around the country. I don’t know anyone who changes their profile pic every day or is endlessly messing with the boxes or layout.

    I do think that the whole business of being different online vs. face-to-face could potentially be a generational thing, too. I will freely admit that my FB presence is not exactly like knowing me in real life–for one thing it rarely contains any of the frustration of life–but I’m not seeing that same two-tiered thing in younger youth. Kids who are entering high school now are, at least when I have observed them, EXACTLY who they are on FB. tone of voice, expressions, topics, frequency (or not) of updates, relationships you can see…all the same. I also wonder if they’ll grow out of that as they get older, or if the kids who have grown up never knowing anything but 3G/web enabled cell phones are showing us what authentic online life is going to look like, if in an 8th grade manner…

  3. Katherine says:

    I totally get the aspirational thing. I think I’m generally much nicer online than in person. πŸ™‚

    But seriously: when I was in seminary, I was pretty active on the Over the Rhine fan boards. I realized, over time, that I had a reputation for being really sweet and thoughtful. I’m not completely sour and careless in real life, but I realized that I could try to hold myself to the same standards irl as I did online… after all, just as anything you put online is “out there forever”, so is anything you put out into the universe.

    It would be too simple to say that the internet has made me a better person, and really, Jesus should get some credit somewhere. Maybe my engagement with the internet was just complementary to my maturity as a person.

  4. Marci Glass says:

    And I think people have been “reinventing” themselves long before they had computers to help them with it. I remember going off to college in that far off land of Texas and thinking, “who do I want to be?” There was intentionality in the “profile” I posted at college.
    Ultimately, did the people at college see me any differently than my high school friends had? No idea. Doubt it.
    But I saw myself differently and I think that allowed me to live into myself more fully.

    I think, at its best, that facebook can function in the same way.

  5. lukeluke says:

    The only thing I would add to this is that the constant use of FB and the like, even if we are connecting with other people and learning about new ideas, can take us away from living in our own moment and letting those moments live on in ourselves and ourselves only. To me, that is a part of cultivating the spiritual life. FB encourages people to share so many details of their life, and that’s really not a bad thing, but it also makes it harder for people to just have an experience and let it be theirs.

    I know there are many people who continue to write in their own personal journals or who don’t feel the need to share every moment of their day, but I know from my own personal experience that I have found myself feeling the “need” to post something even though I didn’t have anything to say.

    To me, it’s that urgency of connecting that can diminish our contentment with the moment. And to me that is a cornerstone of spirituality.

  6. Erica says:

    Now here’s an interesting thought about the aspirational nature of online personas…what if we could think of it as a spiritual practice, that online we practice at who we want to be in real life? There’s a CS Lewis passage that I love about the role of imagination and play in the life of children: they dress up in part to pretend and practice at adult roles. He thinks there could be a correlation in the Christian life, that we dress up and play at being like Jesus in order to become the people God wants us to be.

    So, what if we all started going on facebook and intentionally tries to be the people God means us to be, even if we haven’t quite perfected it in everyday life?

  7. I love your identification of the aspirational side of FBook. I actually created a separate profile for my nom de plume, filling her friends list with authors and artists and others whom I find inspiring. Every time I log in as her, I am surrounded by reminders of aspects of my self that I want to nurture, as her own profile and updates present those parts of me that have to do with being a writer as well.

    As an added bonus, she speaks French much better than I do as well. πŸ˜€

  8. […] Posted by mamdblueroom in Politics and Culture. Tags: internet, narcissism, technology trackback In my musings on the links between narcissism and Facebook, I said: We need some measurement of what people are actually doing during their social-networking […]

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