The last chapter I spent talking about real relationships. This chapter is all about fake ones.
If you spend any appreciable time talking about computer-related things with me, you’ve probably heard me talk about the evils of Facebook. If you haven’t heard this particular rant from me before, let me sum it up for you now. Facebook is an evil corporation; its only goal is to steal your personal information, track you across the Internet so that it can build a giant database of the things that you like, and then sell all that stuff to advertisers for a tidy profit. Its privacy controls are atrocious by design, and it doesn’t actually care about you in the slightest. All it has to do is keep its products (people) happy enough so that they don’t leave, because then it can sell its products (people) to its customers (advertisers).
Whew. Glad that’s out of the way. I normally get a bit more space to rant than that, but I promised I’d keep that to a single paragraph. The rest of this chapter is about a much more insidious way that Facebook (and the Internet as a whole) is “evil”, one that people don’t think about as much. Specifically, I claim that the types of interactions that Facebook encourages builds false relationships and a misplaced sense of identity.
What do I mean by this, exactly? Simply this: the relationships that I build on Facebook are not real; they are fake, at best a surrogate for the real thing, and the more time I devote to building fake relationships, the lonelier I become.
This is actually a very crafty thing; Facebook has been designed to scratch particular pleasure sensors in your brain. Think about what happens any time someone “likes” something that you’ve said, or leaves a comment on something you’ve written. Immediately a window pops up on the screen saying “So-and-so liked your photo!” and a cute little red notification appears at the top of the page just begging you to click on it. I don’t know about you, but whenever this happens to me, I get a tiny rush of adrenaline. Someone cared enough about me to like what I did! I feel great after this happens. And if it happens multiple times a day, man, I’m flying high. The only problem is, that’s not how real relationships work. You can’t build a friendship with someone by liking all their posts on Facebook. It just doesn’t work that way.
Now, you might imagine that in saying this, I would not have an account on Facebook, but you’d be wrong. In fact I do, and I’m relatively active. I eke a certain amount of pleasure out of posting cryptic one-liners and inside jokes that are hilarious only to me, and maybe one or two other people. One of my favorite comments to get from someone else is “You posted this thing on Facebook, and I didn’t get it at all.” Usually this comment is followed by an expectant stare, like they’re waiting for me to provide the magic flash of insight that will make everything clear. I don’t think they’re usually very happy when I tell them, “It’s OK that you didn’t understand it. You weren’t supposed to.”
But that’s not really the point — Facebook is great at a lot of things. It’s great for cryptic, snarky status messages that other people aren’t supposed to understand. It’s great for keeping track of people that I don’t see or interact with very often (someone once called these “Tier 2” friends). It’s great for sharing pictures and experiences, and it’s great for posting pictures of my breakfast. It even can be a useful tool for building relationships! I just have to remember that real relationships can’t survive on Facebook alone.
Of course, this problem is not endemic to Facebook; when I was in high school, and some in college, I was actively involved in an online forum community for fans of a popular video game at the time called Warcraft III. I spent hours on these forums; I would check them in the mornings before I went to school, I would check them during free time at school, and then I would rush home to see if anything new had changed, if anybody had responded to something I said.
It was a wonderful feeling. I felt like hundreds of people cared about me; I had a community that I belonged to where people understood me! See, these forums weren’t just about video games. People talked about music, about art, about relationships, about life, and it felt real to me. When I would post something, people would tell me how clever it was; or sometimes they’d angrily tell me how stupid I was. It didn’t really matter to me very much. People were paying attention to what I had to say. I felt valued.
I eventually spent enough time and became well-known enough on these boards that I was granted the position of moderator, and that was even more amazing. Not only did people respect me, and value the things that I said, but now I had power! I could ban people if I thought they were being offensive (or if I wanted to play a practical joke on them, which I confess I did a couple of
times), I could edit people’s posts. People had to listen to what I said. People had to do what I said. I was important.
Eventually (as is wont to happen with such communities), it faded. Peoples’ real lives intruded, and they left the forums. People that I considered friends moved on. And, of course, I started college and didn’t have time to spend on the boards anymore. It wasn’t until much later on that I realized an important lesson — it was all just a bunch of crap. I was living my life for the approval of a bunch of people all around the world whom I’d never met and had no vested interest in who I was as a person. I suspect that very few people (if any) actually cared about me as a person. I was just another forum-goer, granted maybe a clever and creative one, but nobody really important.
And herein, I believe, is the true danger of Facebook, and many of the other social media sites out there today. Facebook makes it trivial to invest in fake relationships. When I press the “like” button on Facebook, I am communicating to someone else, “I value you,” even if I don’t actually care. Every time I leave a comment on someone’s blog, I say “You are important enough for me to take time out of my day to pay attention to you,” when really I’m just seeking attention for myself. Look at me! I have an opinion too! Real relationships, the kind of powerful, deep relationships that I was created to be in, aren’t formed on Facebook.
I’ve tried a few times since my involvement with the Warcraft III boards to join other forums or online communities, but they never really work out. The veil has been lifted, and I just see a bunch of fake relationships, instead of real, life-giving friendships with people. And I’ve come to realize that sometimes I do this in real life, too. Instead of actually devoting time to a friendship for the purpose of bringing life and joy, I throw out a witty saying, or a profound poem, or a pretty picture, and hope that somebody will tell me how amazing I am. But that’s not real. When I live for the approval of other people, I only end up feeling empty and dead; when I live for the approval of myself and of God, I am full of life and joy.