Connecting in a Facebook World

The social network is worth even more now. But what value does it have in our relationships?

It seems like a week can’t go by without Facebook making headlines, whether it’s frustration with their privacy policies or buzz about new features like Timeline. Now, the social media site has reached another milestone with its IPO filing on Wednesday. The IPO, worth about $5 billion, makes many of the company’s employees overnight multi-millionaires. But these big numbers aren’t quite as staggering when one considers how much traffic Facebook gets. In December 2011 alone, the site had an average of 483 million daily active users. It seems there isn’t any area of life that the social network hasn’t impacted. But even with Facebook becoming pretty much ubiquitous and a nearly basic life necessity, it's important to regularly ask just how much it's changed our lives and our relationships—for better and worse.

Not Real Life

Most of the people on the planet are now using digital connections, from texting to email to social media such as Twitter and, of course, Facebook.We are connecting with others instantly and forming communities. Digital connections are also showing us how important people are to us, and how we constantly seek some sort of contact. This connection, especially social media, has an increased presence in our best friendships.

While social media can be useful to maintain connections and increase acquaintances you may have in common areas of interest, most people do not meet their best friends through social media. There are exceptions, of course, such as high school classmates reassuming friendships on Facebook, but for the most part, people simply meet their best friends face-to-face in some arena of life and then use social media to stay connected with those individuals. There are simply too many obstacles in starting up a close friendship over social media, such as the time involved, not being able to know who the person really is and understanding the life context of another person.

Once you have an established friendship, digital connection—especially social media—is essentially neutral. It is not fundamentally good or bad in its essence; rather, it is a magnifying glass. In best friend relationships, social media makes good things better and bad things worse.

When people have a healthy and honest friendship, Facebook is a great way to stay in touch because it is so convenient and efficient. If you have five minutes between meetings, you can post a comment on a friend’s wall and read something she has written about the kids or a trip she is on. I personally get a great deal of satisfaction out of communicating instantly with people I know around the world. It solves many of the problems of not being able to see or talk to someone you are close to. It does not tend to be all that substantive and personal, but it’s a good, social connection.

The other side is true as well. If a relationship is struggling, it is hard to fix it over digital connections. Anything negative or confrontational seems much worse when you read it. In fact, I tell people to simply not confront each other digitally at all, as it is so easy for the responder to feel attacked or judged. Also, this sort of medium allows us to hide. We can present aspects of ourselves that are not true, or conceal parts that we don’t want the other to know about. It is a simple matter to construct a persona that is not really true.

Suppose, for example, that you are struggling in a relationship, but don’t want to be a downer for your friend. In that case, you’ll tend to post pictures and chatty information, without getting to the heart of the matter. If you will be talking to him or her soon, that is one thing; you are simply waiting for an opportune conversation. But if you are avoiding the negative information, you are not helping your relationship develop. That doesn’t mean you should convey it online. It means be intentional and find a time to be personal and present when you do.

Instantaneous Dependency

Another negative aspect of social media that affects friendships is the problem of not taking the time and effort to reflect and think of your own experience. We all need to have space to think our thoughts and feel our feelings. That is how identity is formed and maintained. People need to know what they think and feel about anything from a movie they just saw, to a stress they just underwent at work, to a family struggle with a sick child, to what they learned from a Bible verse.

When he taught Timothy how to live, the apostle Paul also told him to, “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Timothy 2:7). David told the Lord he would “meditate on your precepts and consider your ways” (Psalm 119:15). Reflection, meditation and thought require a certain amount of being separate from others so that we know where we are. It doesn’t mean that our opinion is final. It is simply where we have landed so far, and now we can use our relationships to clarify reality for us and bring a new and better perspective into play.

When people are not able to do this, they go to others to receive reality, not to clarify it. In the psychological world, this is called a dependency issue. They depend on others’ external views and are afraid to trust their internal ones. Children go to parents and ask them, “Which friends should I invite to the party?” Their dependency requires that they get information from Mom and Dad, which is internalized over time; then eventually, they will make their own decisions. But some adults go to their friends and, before they have really thought and deliberated for themselves, will ask, “Should I date this guy?” “What job should I take?” or, “Should I move?”

The reason digital connection poses a problem here is because of its convenience, and because others are so willing to help and give perspective, not knowing that this might be a bad idea. You can simply ask the questions you haven’t processed for yourself, and rely on input from your friends.

Keeping It Real

Some friends are local and easy to meet with face-to-face; others are not. Email and social media are helpful with the latter. But face-to-face has not yet been matched, even with features like Skype. Being physically in the same space with someone else gives you access to words, tone, eye contact, body language and many other ways of communicating.

Bottom line: People need the personal nature of face-to-face. Even with the contributions Facebook has made to social interaction, the most valuable connections are those that don't depend on app updates.

Adapted from How to Be a Best Friend Forever: Making and Keeping Lifetime Relationships by Dr. John Townsend,  © 2011. Published by Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., Brentwood, TN. Used by permission. Purchase the book online at Tell us what you thought of this chapter on Twitter @WorthyPub #BFFandsocialmedia



lydiakate commented…

Thanks for a great article! It affirmed my decision to deactivate my Facebook a few weeks's the best decision I've made in a while. I was pretty much addicted to it, and realized it wasn't healthy for me. Not only was it sucking up all of my time, I realized it wasn't making me happy. Seeing other people having fun without me, or even logging in and not having a notification was getting me down (as dumb as that is, it's true). Since I quit it a few weeks ago, I've had so much more time--I'm actually reading for fun, something that hasn't happened since I started college a year and a half ago! I would definitely recommend a Facebook fast (short or long-term) to anyone.

Brandon Lazarus


Brandon Lazarus commented…

This article isn't saying anything new. That's because it doesn't need to. I constantly need to hear this same message. Social media is a wonderful tool but it can also become a wonderful waste of time.

I am also one of many in chorus of people saying that I need to spend much less time on Facebook, twitter, etc but still want to maintain use of them because of the networking and good conversations that can come from them. I am more of a fan of twitter than Facebook since it is used more to link people to articles, blogs, etc while Facebook is more of a black hole of information.


Anonymous commented…

This article addressed relevant communication issues and was reasonably well written. Where it did fall down though was on several grandiose non evidential statements. This being said, the writer made decent points on the danger of digital confrontation and dependent people being susceptible to a warped reality. I did not appreciate the generalized affirmations such as "most people on the planet are digitally connected." This is perhaps true for the top 10 percent of resourced nations among the privileged western world, but globally the "nearly basic necessity" of having internet access is very rarely available.



Esteban commented…

Just read the words Anon


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