Every single day—whether it’s during an afternoon break from doing actual work, killing some time while waiting in line at the store or just goofing around while watching TV—I pull out my phone to see what’s going on with my friends.
Even though I may actually only “talk” to a dozen or so of the hundreds of “Friends” I have on Facebook, I have become intimately familiar with the details of people’s lives I barely know. Each day, images, short videos and witty quips from a network of people I have somehow become loosely connected with are chopped up by some robot’s algorithm at the Facebook headquarters, filtered and placed into one, infinitely long newsfeed for my enjoyment.
This is what community has become.
For all of the good it’s done in connecting us all, Facebook has redefined the way we think about community in a singular way: It’s turned us into a culture of lurkers.
Where actual community requires that its members compromise and meet certain social requirements (like listening, interacting, being in relationship), Facebook allows users to join a community on their own terms. With its filters, search tools and editing powers, it’s turned community into a product that can be customized by its customers.
We see, react and share only what we choose to. And, there’s nothing preventing us from standing on the sidelines and just lurking into lives we’re not involved in.
Real community is predicated on two-way communication: The delivery of information and feedback. Though social media applications like Facebook have plenty of tools that enable back-and-forth discussion, scanning a newsfeed and checking out profiles turns community into a consumer experience: It distills conversations into one-way updates, that are filtered into easy-to-consume streams.
Facebook understands that, first and foremost, they are catering to a society of consumers. Interactive media is revolutionary, but at the end of the day, nothing can replace the experience of sitting back and just watching. It’s why even though TV may take on different forms, it will never really change.
TV is a passive experience—not an active one. That’s why it works; it allows you to glance into interesting people’s lives like Walter White, Don Draper or Leslie Knope without actually being involved in small town politics, the ad business or the New Mexico meth trade. It’s convenient and entertaining, but most of all, it’s comfortable. TV is what we use to fill the empty space in our evenings; it’s what we gather around with friends, and keep on in the background of our lives. But what happens when you combine the passive, comforting experience of watching TV with the active experience of being a part of community?
With Facebook lurking, the lives we spend time following are real. In normal circumstances, seeking out someone’s personal business or flipping through their photo albums without any sort of real interaction—for no other reason than boredom or curiosity—would be downright creepy. But in the era of social media, lurking has become a part of the community experience. Like TV, it offers a way to fill a void, but unlike traditional media like television, it creates the illusion of community without the effort of relationship.
The problem is, community is supposed to be an exchange, not a product.
As a consumer experience, Facebook works perfectly. Like any good product, Facebook takes a task (keeping in touch through a community connection) and makes it easier (just scan their profile!). But when it comes to relationships, maybe it’s supposed to be hard. Maybe convenience and community are actually contradictory ideas.
In reality, community isn’t always supposed to be comfortable. Real community is messy. Real community is unedited. Real community involves taking time to actually be with people, even if that means finding time by making sacrifices. It means investing emotion into someone else’s life—even if you get nothing in return. It means getting hurt and getting involved. It means taking the filters off and embracing the parts of your friends’ lives that haven’t been cropped out of a picture or have gone unmentioned in a status update.
Lurking is comfortable and easy—and ultimately, that’s the problem.
In Romans 15, Paul writes, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up … May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine).
The reason why Paul instructs the church in Rome to have attitudes of “endurance” and “encouragement” in their relationships with each other is because he understood that community can be difficult. Relationships can be discouraging. They can be exhausting. Really getting involved in each others’ lives—not just through perusing Facebook updates—isn’t easy or convenient. But that kind of community serves as the perfect metaphor for God’s love for us. It’s the act of living this out—engaging in messy, painful, exhausting, rewarding, uplifting and life-affirming community, unfiltered by our own newsfeed preferences—that allows us to better understand our relationship with God: Paul continues, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
Looking at “Friends’” Facebook lives can help us know how our loved ones (and former classmates we haven’t spoken to in the better part of a decade) are doing, and keep us connected to people we don’t see often. This isn’t a necessarily a bad thing.
But when Facebook lurking becomes so convenient and so comfortable that it becomes a reason not to stay in touch, the virtual community risks substituting a real one. And real community is what we were looking for all along.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.