Thursday, January 24, 2013

Do You Get Facebook Envy?

Have you ever trolled through your news feed on Facebook, observed the seemingly perfect lives of your "friends" and felt that your own life wasn't as fulfilling as theirs?

If you've had such feelings, it appears you're not alone.
A study conducted jointly by two German universities found rampant envy on Facebook, the world's largest social network that now has over one billion users and has produced an unprecedented platform for social comparison.

The researchers found that one in three people felt worse after visiting the site and more dissatisfied with their lives, while people who browsed without contributing were affected the most.
If you attach much credibility to the postings of those Facebook friends who seem to use most of their posts to brag about how wonderful their lives, children, parents, spouses, children, and vacations are, I could understand how you might develop a case of "Facebook envy."

But my experience suggests that the postings of some on Facebook are the equivalent of the "perfect annual Christmas newsletter," that genre of perky self-congratulation and personal promotion that masquerades as a celebration of the birth of Jesus.

I stay on Facebook, for one reason, because it's a great way to communicate with members of our congregation on upcoming events and other news about the church. It also allows me to be in touch with old friends. (Our last high school reunion, our fortieth, was largely organized via Facebook!) I also see what's going on with the members of my extended family, with whom I would otherwise be in touch personally or by phone only sporadically.

I like Facebook. But I have seen some destructive things come out of Facebook usage.

For example, the very use of the term "friend" to describe people you follow and who follow you can create misunderstandings, anger, and hurt feelings when people realize that the person who the social media site has told you is a friend is really only an acquaintance or a business associate.

Unfriending a person can also cause considerable pain and misunderstanding. But there can be a variety of reasons for a Facebook "friend" to "unfriend' you:
  • The "friend" tires of your negative ranting about the state of the world.
  • The "friend" has reason to believe that you take her or his posts and turn them into gossip bearing little resemblance to what they've posted.
  • The "friend" may feel that you've portrayed yourself as a bosom buddy to him or her, intimating greater closeness than exists, reaping whatever benefits--psychological or otherwise--from your "relationship."
  • The "friend" considers you an acquaintance, not a friend.
  • The "friend" wants to simplify her or his presence on Facebook.
  • The "friend" wants to relate to you by way of a group, rather that at a more personalized level.
  • And, maybe, as the German research shows, the "friend" is getting depressed with your posts. (I can't imagine giving someone else the privilege of depressing me, but I can see that it's possible.)
Fortunately, today's Facebook offers options to those not wanting to exercise the "nuclear option" of unfriending others, which can create unnecessary hard feelings.

Truth is, Facebook, originally created as a "meet and greet" for college-age singles has, in some ways, contributed to the "adolscentization" of our culture. Sometimes scrolling down my Facebook news feed is like walking down the hallways of a high school. The vapid, pointless content is eminently scroll-throughable.

But there are good things about Facebook. Here's what I most appreciate and look for in my news feed:
  • A funny thought someone has just had. Just yesterday, a member of the congregation I served, posted that driving through the kind of snow we experienced in this area last evening made her think of the Milennium Falcon going into hyperspace. It made me laugh out loud, because I've often thought the same thing.
  • A thought about life or faith. My son is great at posting short paragraphs containing some new insight he's gained through his living, praying, working, and studying. I love it when people share things like that.
  • A link to an article someone found enjoyable or interesting.
  • A prayer request, whether offered for the the "friend" himself or herself or on behalf of others. In the past 72 hours, I've been able to pray for the moms of a number of Facebook friends who were all being hospitalized.
  • Announcements about births, baptisms, weddings, deaths, funerals, and other life events. These allow Facebook "friends" to be connected and to "rejoice with those who rejoice" and "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15).
  • Pictures and videos of life events are also often nice to see. 
  • Anything about the Cincinnati Reds or the Ohio State Buckeyes. ( I understand that these might not be everyone's cup of tea.)
Of course, posts like the ones above can be presented in different ways by different people. Some will go the "Christmas newsletter route," often the choice of people who are either so vacuous and self-deluded or so desperate to be noticed and counted "special" that, frankly, you're in danger of going into diabetic shock every time they post something.

Others will simply present slices of their lives to friends, acquaintances, and associates. On Facebook, as in all of life, it seems to me, it's best to just be yourself.

But not too much of yourself, please! One of my favorite passages in Merle Miller's oral biography of Harry Truman (a book that admittedly, may not be altogether reliable), involves a conversation Miller had with one of the thirty-third president's cousins. She was asked about life in Independence, Truman's hometown and hers. She said that she greeted people with, "How are you today?" But she most emphatically didn't want to know the answer. Let's be honest: Being yourself is good policy. But so is being your whole self with only a few trusted intimates.

If seeing a person with volumes of birthday greetings makes you envious--Remember wanting to be "popular" back in middle school and high school?--just ask yourself this question. Have you got a close friend with whom you can share anything? If so, that's worth more than a stack of birthday greetings on Facebook.

If you don't, remember that the best way to have a friend is to be one. And don't look for a friend on Facebook. Look for her or him in life. That's the best place to live.

Like most things in life, in itself, Facebook is morally neutral. It's a means of communication. And my advice to those who, like some in the German research, are brought down by the self-congratulation of many Facebook participants is simple: Limit your time on Facebook or leave the site altogether. Your life won't be any worse off for not being "on Facebook." It might be better.

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