I was introduced to Facebook a few years ago at a faculty retreat. A residential life educator at Messiah College gave a presentation on this social networking site and encouraged faculty to sign-up. We were told it was a means of connecting with students and, more importantly, understanding their culture.
It did not take me long to sign up. I was very curious. There seemed to be a whole Internet community out there that I was missing. I have now been “on Facebook” for a little over a year and have 99 “friends.” At the encouragement of a family member, I even started a Facebook page to help promote my book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I am proud to say that the “Philip Vickers Fithian Fan Club” now has 46 members! (Feel free to join the club, whether you have read the book or not!). In the last year my brothers, sister, aunts, mother, and several Messiah College colleagues have joined Facebook. (Our college president even has a page). I have even had “Facebook chats” with my brother whenever we are both on-line together. Some of my friends and colleagues no longer send me e-mails, preferring to just send a Facebook note or write on my “wall.”
Every now and then I run across an essay that is critical of Facebook. For example, Christine Rosen has an excellent piece connecting social networking sites such as Facebook with what she calls “The New Narcissism.” I agree with Rosen. Self-promotion and self-expression is at the heart of the Facebook experience. Moreover, Facebook should be no substitute for real, face-to-face community. I have a few “Facebook friends” who I may pass in the hallway or sidewalk on campus and not even acknowledge with a “hello” because I would not recognize them in a public setting. I have students who “friend” me on Facebook who have never spoken to me, but perhaps have sat quietly in one of my large lecture classes–probably in the back row. As a critic of on-line education and a champion of local, face-to-face communities–Wendell Berry style– I hesitated before I joined Facebook. In fact, one of my former students was somewhat shocked to find that I had joined. As it turned out, my decision to join the Facebook community may have been influential in his decision to join as well. I often wonder if I corrupted him!
Facebook is no replacement for “real community,” but I have found it helpful to stay in touch with friends and family members who live far away. The more the professional middle-class in America embraces geographical mobility the more social networking sites such as Facebook have some purpose. While I seldom use Facebook to network with students or local friends, I do use it to keep up with those who I do not see on a regular basis.
I tend to use Facebook a bit differently than my students. I was thus struck by Tunku Varadarajan recent article in Forbes. Varadarajan discusses the differences between the way forty-somethings and college students utilize this social networking service. Here is a snippet:
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I belong to a cohort–the 40-somethings–that has a peculiar relationship with Facebook. It is a cohort that is entirely comfortable with computers, but which also has a memory of the courtesies and languor of the pre-computer age. We read a lot online, but also have newspapers delivered to our homes. We write e-mail as if we were born with the skill to do so, yet we wrote letters by hand until we were well into our 30s.
We don’t take Facebook for granted the way our children do, with their unthinking postings on each others’ walls, their casual use of the F-word on what is effectively a quasi-public forum, their postings of their own photographs in varying states of sobriety and decency. Facebook is a forum that we wish we’d had when we were much younger; so now that we have it in our 40s, we treat it with a certain self-conscious formality, a calibrated theatricality. When we update our status, we don’t just toss off the update with a casual hack-hack-hack of the keyboard; we think before we type, pondering the effect of the status update on its potential readers, and pondering, also, its impact on our image. This is solipsistic, yes; but it is also consciously gregarious–or, better, consciously non-misanthropic.
I could not agree more. I have entered into the Facebook world with a certain degree of caution. I seldom write on the “walls” of my “friends.” I only allow my “friends” to see my page. I seldom “friend” people and do not accept a friendship request from someone who I have not met face-to-face. All of this, of course, has a lot to do with my position as a college faculty member. I want to connect with students, but I also want to keep a healthy separation from their world. (If I was a college student I would probably think it was strange if my professor was “friending” me on Facebook).
Some of my students may not understand my hesitancy when it comes to engaging the Facebook world. That is the way I like it.