Facebook, efficient relationships, and the “performance of self”

I was watching an interview the other day with an author by the name of Sherry Turkle, from MIT, and she briefly mentioned a few topics I thought were worth discussing…

On my Facebook page, there is a small box that proudly proclaims how popular I am. “You have 182 friends,” it states. According to Facebook, my social life is represented in 182 tiny thumbnails pictures of my “friends” and my interests in life are tidily summed up on my “Info” page.

Every morning I wake up and scan my “News Feed” where an algorithm feeds me the latest news from my 182 friends. It determines what information I should see. I scan the page in 30 seconds, quickly perusing the latest news and minutia from my 182 friends’ lives. Feeling content that I have kept up on my social connections, I grab my lunch and head out the door.

In the evenings, I occasionally load images or messages to my Facebook page. Isolated from others, I carefully curate my latest photos, deeply thinking before I assign captions and “tags.” I consider how to phrase my status update, knowing that 182 friends may see my picture or my status. This thought gives me feelings of grandeur.

My entire social life has become incredibly efficient. In a matter of minutes, I have kept up with my 182 friends. This, according to many, is the “new” way of connecting socially.

With 600 million people “connected” to one another is this way, we have to wonder whether we will eventually forget how to truly connect with each other and our community. As an MIT professor has recently said, “there is a difference between the ‘performance of self’ and ‘self.’”

I would argue that true community requires a level of both privacy and intimacy that is not possible with “social” media. I think deep down, we recognize this. When I look at my “news feed” I do not see the following status updates:

  • I’m thinking of leaving my wife
  • I’m lonely
  • I’m grateful in an inexplicable way for the wonders of life.
  • I’m not sure how to parent my kids
  • We got into a huge fight
  • I feel a sense of contentment and spiritual peace.
  • I’m lost in life.
  • I don’t know what I believe.

These are the sort of intimate details that we only share with those who are closest to us. They’re not the sort of things we share with 182 near-strangers. And so our social media is actually filled with pointless statements:

  • I made brownies today
  • I finished my essay
  • I went for a jog today
  • I love “Glee!”

At the end of the day, we think we’ve had meaningful interactions, but all we’ve really done is publicly postured our lives; all we’ve done is played the role of ourselves; all we’ve done is talked about things that don’t matter. And we’ve done it in an extremely “efficient” way. We have reduced the work of community to a few words and mouse clicks.

True community is both more public and private than this. It is messy and inefficient. In true community, we learn that living peacefully means listening more than talking. It means keeping things to ourselves. It means only allowing the handful of people into our lives who we trust.

At the same time, true community is far more public than “social media.” We cannot curate an image of ourselves when we spend time with each other. Building a house, backpacking through the wilderness, or worshipping beside one another necessitates a certain level of authenticity. We get to see each other’s true selves. This means that true community requires a certain level of vulnerability and tolerance. We find that we must show our true selves — vices and all — to our family, our friends, and our immediate community. In that sense we are vulnerable and trusting in their mutual trust of us, despite our failings. It is these interactions that create the sinews and ligaments of community. And it is these interactions that can never be recreated on a social network.

1 Comment

  • Todd Johnson

    March 6, 2011 at 6:13 am Reply

    Well said son! Sometimes I am amazed at your depth and your mastery of words and your knowledge of the true meaning of words, ideas, and emotions. Then I remember you are Erik Thomas Johnson and I am not amazed at all. You are my son! Your bloodline is strong and true! Having said that, I admire you for who you are. You are your own man. And I truly admire that man! Todd Leroy Johnson

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