The Fourfold Problems of Facebook

July-August 2014By J. Jacob Tawney

J. Jacob Tawney, a husband and father of six children, writes from Delaware, Ohio. He has worked in the field of education for over a decade, first in the classroom as a teacher of mathematics and computer science, and now as a school administrator. He has also taught several classes in mathematics, computer science, and the philosophy of mathematics at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.

In 1985 Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, a critique of a culture that had been conditioned by television. Postman’s thesis is simple: In matters of communication, form and matter are inseparable. In other words, the content that is mediated is intrinsically linked to the medium of communication. Postman gives the example of children watching Sesame Street: While it may be true that the children are learning content, what is far more important is that they are learning how to learn. Programs like Sesame Street, he said, are “an expensive illustration of the idea that education is indistinguishable from entertainment.” This metaphysical foundation serves as a starting point for his investigation of how the medium of television presents content to the viewer and thereby influences his worldview. Postman pointed out that television had become the primary method of dispersing information in virtually every facet of life: politics, education, news casting, and religion. The inherent problem with television, according to Postman, “is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining…. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.”

Had he not passed away in 2003, it would have been fascinating to hear Postman apply his ideas to the increasingly popular and ever-present phenomenon of social media on the Internet. Social media can be defined as the array of websites and online “communities” — blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Instagram, and SnapChat, to name only a few — where members share information and ideas. This often involves setting up an online profile, compiling a list of “friends” or followers, and sharing photographs and videos in addition to written comments. How popular is social media? Postman noted that in 1946 only 0.5 percent of U.S. households had a television set, but by 1980 that figure had skyrocketed to over 98 percent. The statistics for social media are even more staggering: Facebook, by far the most popular of the many social-media sites, boasts over 1.1 billion members worldwide — and it has only been in existence for a single decade. Facebook is regularly rated among top sites visited on the Internet, and that doesn’t take into account the many people who access Facebook through an application on their smartphones, iPods, tablets, and other portable devices without having to actually visit the Facebook webpage. Social-media sites — Facebook primary among them — have achieved the status of what Postman called a meta-medium, an “instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well.”

Postman’s ideas about media are timeless, and many of his observations about television can be applied to social media. Postman analyzed how “forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms,” and how “definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed.” On that note, I’d like to spell out what this article is not. It is not an attempt to state that Facebook can be used for virtue or for vice. This is an obvious enough claim, about which little need be said. In fact, the virtue exercised by many Facebook users is precisely what makes the medium appealing. Rather, my aim is to examine the objective form inherent in Facebook, and the corresponding philosophical formation that occurs with frequent use of the medium, particularly when users are not properly grounded in the Christian philosophy of personalism.

The way I see it, there are four interrelated problems with Facebook:
1. The Problem of the Human Person
2. The Problem of Relationship
3. The Problem of Communication
4. The Problem of Romanticizing the Ordinary

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I was pleased to see the title of this article on the cover of the July/August edition of the Review. After all, it's high time someone addressed Facebook as something other than the salvation of humanity. J. Jacob Tawney has done a great thing: fire one of the first volleys across the bow on this issue, and I believe his approach is a solid one. However, I was left disappointed in the lack of development of his theme. I remember thinking as I read, "Yes, perfect...please hit this one out of the ballpark. I can't wait to email this to my friends..." but then sentences later, I would be thinking instead, "Eh...c'mon...develop that more. Hit on points b,c and d, too."
I believe more could be said about the degree of distortion FB inflicts on human communication. More could be said about its ramifications and implications for the future. While much is said about how the online forum violates or interrupts human communication and relationship development, much of the arguments could be applied to emailing, texting, or even certain styles of blogging. In other words, I believe the 'broadcasting' argument has teeth, but the author failed to bring them out as solidly as deserves to be brought out. Even his points about the disintegration of language (and its both immediate and long-term consequences in society) beg to be developed more.
The sickly thing about FB mainly is its predicative assumption: It is a good and indispensable societal thing to be pathologically self-absorbed under the pretense of being interested in others. While Tawney touches on elements of narcissism and vanity, I believe it is these that need to be truly investigated and condemned. For example, he makes an excellent point interpreting FB behavior to becoming gods. But, please! Draw this out for us! For example, having a god-like access to both comments and an audience, but lacking God's wisdom, purpose and humility, can produce despair of unprecedented proportions. It will no longer be just the poets wallowing in ennui about human 'uselessness'- an observation that FB has the power not only to grab hold of and distort by magnification, but also to create in the first place. How many years will pass before we have FB-classified DSM-V disorders based on the aforementioned? (As in...Uh...duh...people are really stupid! This humanity thing is really ridiculous. Look at us!) This is a serious reality! These are not things absent from the human condition, but FB has a unique way of capitalizing on these 'Fall flaws'...of presenting to us the apple in which we see only our reflection in the shiny skin so that we become mesmerized and drained of so many aspirations toward nobility. In other words, FB is the problem, but it is because of how acutely it cultivates and sustains vices (sloth, vanity, self-centeredness, etc.).
FB has reshaped, and continues to reshape, what it means to be a social human. But its hubris lies in its subtle, sinister evangelization not only that we are infinitely better off with/for it, but that FB is how it should have always been. It comes from what I believe is an arrogance amongst the techy crowd that has risen to an estate that rules over the human condition from their offices, shaping our pastimes, experimenting on us while we use their product, exploiting us for reasons other than just profit gain.
What's more, the FB forum is high school popularity contests on continuous steroids and exponential terms (it allows adults in this way to either revert back to immature forms of garnering validation, or to continue on in immature ways, but on a grandiose scale.) I don't believe this aspect can be fully escaped, even by those otherwise more mature adults who claim to be on FB only to keep in touch with distant relatives and friends. This is the reason they provide when, after complaining about FB, they refuse to think about getting off of FB. See, there is an addictive nature to it which is highly problematic. The trouble is that this addiction may not be to the validation one receives by being 'liked' for mundane activities or thoughts, but to the 'necessity' of the forum or else one is disconnected from the new humanity. It seems that FB (or at least its essence and platform) is not going away. Problematic as it is (catastrophically so?), what is the upshot? How do Catholics respond?
Posted by: eazilbauer
August 06, 2014 10:27 AM EDT
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