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.