Volume > Issue > The Fourfold Problems of Facebook

The Fourfold Problems of Facebook

THE PRESCIENT POSTMAN

By J. Jacob Tawney | July-August 2014
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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