In Defense of Facebook

I logged onto Facebook this morning and sinned.

Well, so I’ve been told by countless news articles, press releases and sermons. While our millennial generation has flocked to social networking, making it the hottest method of communication, others wax panic-stricken about how Facebook users (over 300 million of us) are devolving into socially awkward loners, whittling themselves into isolation against the glow of their laptop screens.

Instead of chatting with someone over coffee, they say, we sit alone and blog about our problems. We Twitter our way through church, noses in our iPhones, then don’t know what to say to anyone after the service. We find out about engagements and pregnancies first through Facebook. Our generation is too bloated with the milk of virtual interaction, so it goes, and we need solid social food before we degenerate into pixilated weirdos who can’t carry on a face-to-face conversation.

As a blogger on the Huffington Post writes, "[Facebook] is overcrowded with attention-starved grown-ups essentially screaming, "Look at me… look at me!" all day long. They change their profile photos as often as I change my underwear, and they’ve somehow convinced themselves that their lives are infinitely interesting all the time."

Ouch. I’d be offended, but my last status update explored the titillating subject of my Converse sneakers. Maybe the naysayers have a point. After all, Twittering to your husband will never be the same as giving him a hug. A stream of status updates does not a flesh-and-blood friendship make.

But Facebook, like it or not, is here to stay. The number of people who use social networking sites has doubled since 2007, and Twitter recently hit more than 7 billion cumulative tweets (go here to see a real time counter). A stumble through the graveyard of sites that have already come and gone (Friendster, Myspace) indicates that social networking is the main powerhouse in our culture’s new way of virtual life, so we’d do well to examine the upside. Is it really possible that Farmville can cultivate our souls? Can writing "happy birthday" on my friends’ walls be a spiritual discipline?

Perhaps. Social networking has some marked advantages:

1. It really does help you keep in touch. A 2007 study at Michigan State University found that Facebook boosted "social capital" for members with low self-esteem and low levels of life-satisfaction. Most of us have been pleasantly surprised to reconnect with a long lost friend from second grade or catch up with a long-distance cousin. Through Facebook, I’ve received party invitations, heard about high school reunion plans and found out that scores of my friends of yesteryear have relocated to New York, making it easy for us to meet up. In these frantically busy and digitally pulsing times, sometimes social networking can help us put the brakes on the rat race and take a few moments to make time for those around us.

2. It’s good for business. Any business worth its 21st-century cred these days has to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and several corporations are hiring full-time “social media directors” to manage their accounts. Yep, your re-tweeting skills could potentially land you a plush gig! As a writer, I use Facebook to link to articles I’ve written, which generates way more hits than if I abandoned it to the hope of idle Web surfers stumbling upon my portfolio. I even boldly Facebooked a New York Times writer I admire, and to my surprise he replied (he didn’t respond to my over-eager follow-up message to which I attached samples of my work, but I like to think he was too busy harvesting virtual raspberries).

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For those who often work alone, like freelancers or graduate students, social networking can be a valuable way to make connections and maintain a professional community. As career-minded young adults, who wants to miss out on that?

3. It makes you feel less alone. I know you’ve been there: it’s 11 p.m., you’re at your desk, bored and lonely. You keep constantly refreshing Facebook so that you see everyone’s status updates as they were posted 6 seconds ago. Suddenly, someone IMs you or comments on your page, and you’re feeling better. Does that make you attention-starved, or does it just mean you’re experiencing a unique facet of friendship?

“Creating [social] networks to ease the transition to new places can be hugely helpful to people, offsetting loneliness until new friends are made,” psychology professor Shelley E. Taylor tells Newsweek. The Facebook arena can be just as valid a place to practice agape and “turning the other cheek” as your office or your home. When you next log on, commit to reaching out to five people’s pages or profiles before you post news of your own.

Obviously, there’s the lurking danger of overdosing on social networking. Facebook is a useful tool, not a lifestyle choice, and it should never snowball into your only methods of communicating with others. But if you’re keeping a well-balanced emotional and spiritual life, don’t fret that Tweeting is sending you into a misanthropic tornado of geekdom. Sometimes all things—even virtual things—can be used for good.

Jessica Misener likes this. You can find her online at www.jessicamisener.com.

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