The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Social Networking
J John, of the Philo Trust, writes here about how to make the most out of the internet and social networking.
J John says that "they carry the potential of both blessing and curse". J John highlights the many benefits of social networking, with particular emphasis placed on the advancement in communications and broadcasting. However, J John also points out that social networks and the internet can drain your time, create a world of unreality. Furthermore they often can be a way of avoiding interaction with the world and therefore increasing the number of isolated people. J John suggests that social networks can also develop friendships which are perhaps more void of quality that face-to-face friendships.
J John concludes by saying that we should embrace and exploit the goodness of social networks but be aware of and reject the badness.
J John writes...
"We need to view social networking sites carefully. Like the Internet, they carry the potential of both blessing and curse."
One of the most extraordinary contemporary phenomena is the explosive rise of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Facebook can be likened to a personal notice-board – with photos, news and comments – made visible to a circle of ‘friends’, while Twitter is a constantly updated listing of messages (‘Tweets’) open to all. Three figures give some idea of their scope: around 750 million people have Facebook accounts, around 1 billion Tweets are posted each week. Facebook and Twitter (along with YouTube) are influential and have been credited with aiding the downfall of political regimes. Births, weddings and – more troubling – suicides, are now announced on social networking sites. I am on both Twitter (@Canonjjohn) and Facebook. Yet for all their importance, the growth of these sites has been so subtle that we haven’t given much thought to how we should respond.
A longstanding test for something is whether it is ‘good, bad or ugly’. How do these sites shape up? There are many good things: Facebook has reunited lost families, broken down social barriers and allowed the sharing of joys and sorrows. It has helped the shy communicate and given the lonely friends. Twitter has permitted rapid sharing of news and views. There are many important uses for both and they have also proved to be great political and social campaigning tools. It's to their credit that both have been banned by some of the world’s most tyrannical regimes.
Yet there is also much that is bad. They have allowed cyber-bullying, online stalking and the ‘mining’ of personal information to facilitate crime. There are more subtle issues that are also troubling:
• Time: The sites can be very addictive; hours might be better spent developing real relationships in the real world.
• Unreality: Sites such as Facebook and Twitter inevitably distort truth. Safely hidden behind computers, people can post exaggerated or false information. Men boost their height and women reduce their age; everybody appears much more interesting than they are in reality. People can create an image of themselves in the virtual world (that they are wise, witty and surrounded by friends) and then slowly come to believe that this is who they really are. Deceiving other people is wrong; deceiving yourself is foolish.
• Risk: Entering the virtual world from the apparent privacy of our own computers, people tend to be reckless online, seeking attention by saying things that are outrageous or bizarre. But say something stupid online and the whole world knows about it in minutes. Otherwise sensible people may reveal more than they should (eg, ‘we are away on holiday for a couple of weeks’). Such disclosure is clearly fraught with danger.
• Isolation: Social networking can be a way of avoiding interaction in the real world. It's easier to manage relationships when the communications are lines of text and you can walk away from a conversation at the click of the mouse.
• Quality: Relationships made online are inferior to physical ones. In face-to-face conversations, the words are only part of the conversation: information is transmitted by expressions, tone of voice, gestures and other body language. On the web, these are all missing. Online dialogues are inevitably more superficial than those between flesh and blood.
As well as the good and the bad there is the ugly – the flawed or inadequate. For instance, there is no valid international legal framework to protect individuals from abuse on social networks. There should be better safeguards against data theft or misuse. And perhaps Facebook should not have chosen the word ‘friend’ for anybody to whom we give access to our pages. When Jesus told his disciples that he now called them his ‘friends’ (John 15:15) he meant something much richer than the Facebook term.
With social networking expanding so rapidly, how are we to respond? There are two simple responses. First is the optimistic view that Facebook and Twitter are an unmixed blessing that we all ought to embrace unreservedly. The problem is that sin can corrupt anything and the short history of social networks confirms that sinister motives are mixed in with the good. Second is the pessimistic view that these sites are so evil we should reject them entirely. This denies the good that is present and is also fairly futile because, whether Facebook and Twitter survive, some sort of digital social networking is here to stay. We need a middle road and I suggest five guiding principles. We need to be:
• Decisive. We should not just drift on to networking sites thoughtlessly. We must manage them and not let them manipulate us. Do we actually need to be on any such network? To go on Facebook or Twitter because everybody else does is not sufficient reason. If we decide to join online networking then what are we going to say? And to whom? What limits are we going to set? A schoolteacher may sensibly decide not to allow a pupil to become a ‘friend’. You might decide not to talk about your work or discuss your spouse. Take time to consider the issues, make your decisions and stick to them.
• Defensive. Think before we post or Tweet. Be wary about entering into relationships online. Ensure that what should be private stays private; the press has recently told of 1500 people arriving at a 16-year-old's birthday party after she forgot to set the privacy setting on her Facebook account.
• Discriminating. In 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 we read: ‘Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.’ Those principles apply to social networks. We need to examine everything to see whether it is good or bad and then uphold what is good and move swiftly away from what is not. Never use social networks carelessly. Where there is any hint of bitterness, nastiness or coarseness, then distance yourself.
• Disciplined. There is a danger of losing real friends while in pursuit of virtual ones. We must not become slaves to Facebook or Twitter. One of the Ten Commandments, the Fourth, is about ‘keeping the Sabbath’. An important application of the Sabbath principle is that there should be times when we stop doing even those things that are very important, taking a day’s break from what we do most days, otherwise behaviour can become addictive. To take a regular, break from Twitter or Facebook is similar; it ensures that you are not controlled by your social networks. Take a day, perhaps once a week, and just refuse to go on Facebook or Twitter.
• Distanced from the networks. Virtuality should never become more important than reality. If it's a choice between real, face-to-face or computer communication, then go for real every time.
We need to view social networking sites carefully. Like the Internet, they carry the potential of both blessing and curse. We need to be discriminating about them, not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of those about us. Let's engage with Twitter and Facebook but, as we do, let's appreciate the good and reject the bad.