Herd Immunity and Community on Facebook

Sometimes I think I’d like to write a book about the impact of technology on our spiritual lives. We have books about the psychological effects, but no book (that I know of—please correct me, for the sake of my workload) that looks at technology from the spiritual perspective and considers the negative AND the positive in a very deep and significant way.

Earlier today a friend sent a message on Facebook, expressing sympathy over the death of our Fat Kitty. I appreciate her being in touch, and I know she went through the same experience last year, so her message has special resonance. She’s a good friend, not just on FB but in my physical world. At the same time, there were so many kind messages last week that I wasn’t “keeping track” of who had and hadn’t commented. I was cared for in the immediate aftermath of losing our cat, just not by her specifically in that moment.

Same with birthdays—I received dozens of Happy Birthday messages on my birthday. I read each and every one of them and they made me smile. Together they became a significant source of happiness on that day. But I would not have been able to tell you who did and did not wish me a happy birthday.

I think we all kinda get this. Unless I am moved to write something really creative for someone’s birthday—and maybe even then—my greetings just blend into the happy din of well-wishes. And if I blow off the birthday thing altogether, few people would notice my specific absence. But what if everyone blew it off? There’s a sense of social compact there. I’m thinking about herd immunity—the idea that vulnerable folks are protected from infectious diseases by virtue of the vaccinated people around them. Herd immunity depends on people “following the rules” and participating in the system. But there’s a sense in which each person’s small act adds up to something that’s good for the whole.

I see two sides of this. On the one hand, I’m certainly not arguing that Facebook is better than, or a substitute for, physical relationship. (When I say physical I don’t mean sexual—I mean physical in the sense of involving our bodies: ears and voices in conversation, eyes and faces in our reactions, our taste buds in sharing a meal together, our hands as we touch and hug one another.) For birthdays I’m a big fan of greeting cards and try to send them to my nearest and dearest—Facebook is no substitute for that, nor for a phone call, a gift, or time with the person. So the Facebook greetings become problematic when we think that’s somehow sufficient to create really deep bonds of caring.

(There’s also the matter of the freeloaders! These folks never comment on people’s birthdays, yet they get to bask in the love as people express appreciation for their Facebook tribe. 🙂 )

On the other hand, the birthday greeting I leave on Facebook comes with no ulterior motive, because I don’t get anything out of it. I just get to be one tiny part of the love bomb—not its instigator, nor its leading lady. For the martyrs and the showoffs among us, this is a good practice of humility. It’s not a self-aggrandizing act that announces to the world Look what a good friend I am! (I mean geez, the site reminds you.) It’s just a small act of kindness that, when combined with everyone else’s act of kindness, makes a person happy. And there’s something lovely about that from the perspective of creating community in humble ways.

I’m still working on this, but what do you think?

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3 thoughts on “Herd Immunity and Community on Facebook

  1. Rachel Heslin says:

    I’ve heard Facebook get a lot of guff for Not Being A Replacement For Real Friendship, as if deep, personal friendship is the only relationship worth pursuing. There is a lot to be said in favor of general community, not as a replacement for intimate friendship, but as a blessing with a different set of gifts. In that way, these only vaguely personal birthday wishes, etc. do fulfill an important dose of warmth to help enliven the basic experience of our lives.

  2. Yes, thank you for my Facebook birthday greeting yesterday. I was part of something that absolutely made my day.

  3. Andy Acton says:

    There’s not any books that tap fully into how technology affects spirituality but a few that touch on it and could be used to frame or spark a discussion:

    The Church of Facebook by Jessee Neal

    Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps

    The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church by M. Rex Miller

    Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn From Facebook, the Internet and Other Networks by Dwight J. Friesen

    The Millennials by Rainer and Rainer (father and son co-authors)

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