Facebook: Social Network or Social Nightmare?

Yesterday I was at a training weekend for a Christian Summer camp I am helping lead for teenagers over in Wales. Our camp overall leaders are very tech savvy, and as such the main way our leadership team will communicate before the camp is through Twitter and Facebook. As part of the training, we were asked to make sure our Facebook timelines are in good shape, i.e. not too many embarrassing photos of parties or posts from unruly contacts.

That got me thinking if there was anything embarrassing on my Facebook site. Memories of a certain notorious Vicar reported in the press sprang to mind. Fortunately, after checking my page, I decided there was nothing on it that I wouldn’t be happy with people seeing.

Personally I use Facebook a lot, and am fairly indiscriminate as to which friends and contacts can see my timeline. As a Christian, it is very important to me that the image I present on Facebook is both an honest depiction of the fun-loving character I hope I am, and a good witness to Jesus Christ, who I follow. But then it struck me how absurd a creation Facebook actually is from a social perspective. In addition to making lots of money, Mark Zuckerberg managed to break the tightest social (and very British) conventions of mixing up our public and private lives. Instead of being able to live a beautifully compartmentalised lives where I can have civilised conversations about English novels and classical music with my parents, debate theology with my tutors, and invite my Bristol mates over for a game of poker; I risk inviting my tutors over for games of poker, trying to interest my friends from the pub in Tchaikovsky and Beethoven – you get the picture.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t just invent a social network. He invented the ultimate cyberspace social nightmare. He linked together people – people that should never have been in the same room together, let alone talking. Facebook became a grand virtual wedding party, only instead of being able to keep bawdy Uncle Joe and prim and proper Aunty Mabel safely on different tables as any respectable British Bride or Groom would, they are all invited to converse and argue over a simple status update such as “Roger Federer beat Andy Murray at tennis :-(”

Let’s take the dinner party analogy further. Suppose you have, say, 500 friends, that you invite to a party. (Remember this is just an analogy – don’t actually do this on Facebook unless you want your home trashed). In Facebook terms, this means 500 people can come and visit your virtual home – your “timeline” (used to be wall), look at your photos, read all your comments, and start the one thing that hosts at dinner parties all dread – conversation.

Of course, not all 500 people will turn up. Probably about 25 will accept the invite to drop in periodically to the party and check on what you are up to. But be warned, these will not be 25 of your inner circle of friends. They will be the Facebook addicts, a random selection of 5% of your friends, but invariably will including at least the following:

  • your mate you go out to the pub with on Fridays, a lady from church who prayers for you each week;
  • your extrovert friend who has 3000 Facebook friends and counting;
  • one work colleague (possibly your boss);
  • your vicar;
  • one liberal leftie political campaigner;
  • one right wing conservative who will argue with the leftie about everything,
  • one philosopher,
  • one friend you knew at primary school,
  • one of your old teachers;
  • one lady who has known you all your life and still remembers you as a ten year old,
  • your mum (who may be the lady who has known you etc…),
  • one games addict, who wants you to play Pizza Tycoon so he can win 30000 points and build a new pepperoni tower,
  • and saucy Sally. Saucy Sally is the well-intentioned friend who naively wants to play the equivalent of “spin the bottle” at your Facebook dinner party and has found an app which posts the tantalising question “Do you think Mark would look good in a tutu?” on your public timeline.

Suppose such people met in real life, at your wedding. You wouldn’t sit them at the same table, unless you had the constution of Chuck Norris or the patience of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But on Facebook, you sit them in the same virtual place, throw in the odd controversial topic such as “I don’t agree with the government on…” and try to clean the virtual blood and carnage off your timeline later. The Facebook host has to be the ultimate diplomat.

And for those of your friends that aren’t into conversation – be warned – there will always be some who want to browse through your photo albums (which means looking at every amusing picture you posted on Facebook in the past 6 years). Alternatively, they will be fascinated by all the places you have been in the past week (the shopping mall/the pub/at home/in bed), which Facebook has time-stamped to the nearest minute using a surveillance system that makes the one from the 1960s series of “The Prisoner” look positively blind.

As a Christian, it is very important for me to be a person of integrity. What this means, is I want what is seen of me on Facebook (despite my flaws and failings) to honour Christ. But the challenge is that it is impossible to be schizophrenic on Facebook. There will be sides of me that I am used to showing to some friends that will become visible to others through Facebook. Another challenge for me is that I am one of those people who has friends who are so polarised in their opinions that I very much doubt they would get on with each other in real life. Perhaps I was destined to be a diplomat.

I know people have different views about Facebook. Some people avoid it altogether (saving themselves a lot of time, unlike addicts like me). This is a bit like not hosting large dinner parties for peace of mind, which is understandable.

Some people are selective who they invite as friends. This allows for a more intimate, closer dinner party – but there is always the risk of those who are left out of the party getting miffed.

Others, the techno-geeks, have actually figured out how to custom adjust the settings on Facebook so that there are different levels of privacy. I suppose this is a bit like gagging Uncle Joe at the dinner party and putting ear-muffs on Aunty Mabel.

So, I guess I am a sucker for punishment, in that I like all my friends to visit my Facebook page, despite the occasions when they disagree. But as a host, when the cyberspace carnage descends on my timeline, I will reassure myself that it was not I that created this social nightmare – it was all of you who couldn’t get on!