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Probe Ministries > Related Articles > Related Articles on Media


Facing Facebook: Social Networking and Worldview


Byron Barlowe

Written by Byron Barlowe

It seems like everybody is on Facebook! At 350 million members worldwide and growing exponentially, this social networking community would be the third largest country in the world! One hundred million Americans,{1} including 86 percent of American women, now have a profile on at least one social networking site, nearly double from a year earlier.{2}

"...Twitter has radically changed the face of online communication. This year alone [2009], usage has grown by 900 percent….”{3} But kids prefer the ever-popular YouTube video-sharing site. Two-thirds of Internet users around the world visit blogs and social networks, making it more popular than email. And older users are flocking to social sites. So this is about you and your friends, too, mom and dad!

So what is social networking? At a social site like Facebook.com, when you find another member, you click a button that says “Add as Friend.” Now, you and that person have a connection on the Web site that others can see. They are a member of your network, and you are a member of theirs. Also, you can see who your friends know, and who your friends' friends know. You're no longer a stranger, so you can contact them more easily. As the website Common Craft explains, “This solves a real-world problem because your network has hidden opportunities. Social networking sites make these connections between people visible.”{4}

“These applications have given users an entirely new dimension of interactivity on the Web, as people are able to share videos, photos, links, ideas, and information at a heretofore unseen speed and with uncanny ease that enhances the Web experience of every Internet user.”{5}

But some push back. “It’s just trivia, a waste of time,” they say. Silly games and self-centered platforms where folks can parade their lives. There is some truth in that charge. But it’s important to understand such a powerful, widespread medium and seek to redeem it.

One commentator said, “Time bends when I open Facebook: it’s as if I’m simultaneously a journalist/wife/mother in Berkeley and the goofy girl I left behind in Minneapolis.”{6} But the accessibility and immediacy is not always good or profound. Be ready to have your life history, long-lost friends and personal ghosts pop up in unexpected ways through social networking. In the same way, the future could be at stake with each post and link you put up: Whatever goes online, stays online. One’s reputation will be marked for years to come by her online life for good or ill.

However, the meteoric rise of social networking has occurred for good reason. In Facebook, Xanga or MySpace, research shows that we extend current relationships online. It can all be very trivial or fairly meaningful, depending on how it's used. In this way, social networking is not unlike meeting up at a coffee shop or at the back fence. Younger generations are known to be more conversational than older ones. In my middle-aged circles, many seem to have written it off prematurely.

We’ll explore some worldview implications of social networking through the insightful book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith.{7} Using a grid introduced by media professor and technology prophet Marshall McLuhan that traces media’s culture-shaping influence, we’ll briefly assess how this technology enhances our capabilities, retrieves lost ones, makes obsolete other things, and reverses into unintended consequences. In other words, we’ll ask and partially answer basic questions like: What will this blossoming media change? What am I giving up if I use it? How can I control it for myself and my kids? Will it end up controlling me—or has it already?

“Hanging out” online, for all its similarities to in-person conversation is fundamentally different. And those differences are sure to change not only our socializing, but our worldviews—maybe even our faith.

“The Medium is the Message”

McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message,” meaning that the content of media is overshadowed in its influence by the influence of the very medium (technology) through which it is communicated. Hipps believes media has been a fundamental change agent of culture, even faith. We’ll explain and explore a bit McLuhan’s grid of change and how it applies to social networking.

In discussing social networking sites like Facebook and their effect on people, it’s helpful to look back at other media to see their culture-shaping influence. Note that I didn’t write “the content of other media,” but rather, “other media.” For example, before Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press, faith was passed down orally and through imagery like stained glass windows and church icons. The concrete stories from the synoptic Gospels ruled the day; the Apostle Paul’s deep, abstract letters were virtually ignored. Then, print technology unleashed a new way to think and even to believe—an emphasis on individual faith accessed through critical reason. This print phenomenon retrieved the abstract, doctrinally rich letters of Paul from the dusty shelves of history. This, in turn, ignited the Reformation, writes Shane Hipps. One result: the church transformed from a highly communal body into a mass of individuals and put religious mystery largely out of touch.

Hipps writes that, in its extremes, the influence of print reduced the gospel to incomplete abstract propositions and made many Christians arrogant about what we can know with certainty. [This is what some in the emerging church conversation react against, but we cannot pursue that topic here.]

Perhaps less controversially, Hipps shares the maxim that any media—social networking included—changes its users in a similar way print technology did. Marshall McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message.” He meant that the medium itself does more to affect people than even the content that it carries.

The adage, “We become what we behold”{8} seems to hold forth in social science and neurology, as well. Brain scientists are finding that exposure to and use of media of any kind changes the brain’s wiring, so there’s more at stake here than just bad content or how we use our time.{9}

While writing this transcript, I had to fight to get alone and maintain focus. I consciously avoided the distraction and fragmentation my mind easily undergoes while Twittering (or “tweeting”) and Facebooking (see, social networking even spawns new verbs, like “friending”!). The social networking experience is like walking around at a party filled with friends in various conversations: lots of brief comments, retorts and jokes. My need for individual, abstract thinking was at risk at the “Facebook party.” (Ironically, I was in the abstract writing mode regarding a very different sort of medium: non-abstract, simplistic, disjointed, visually based, online digital "communities.")

New media may bring us to and keep us more “in the moment” and in touch with real people, all good things. But so-called virtual communities may create very unreal relationships. Not to mention a loss of in-depth thinking, conversation and fellowship to build current relationships. Two years ago a commentator wrote regarding American youth on social networks, “The rules of relationship are…being rewritten, and…are being shaped by a distinctly media-centered worldview rather than a Christian one.{10} However, things may be changing, at least among Australian youth, where “they want more connections with their friends that aren't digital, that are tangible. They're starting to question the authenticity of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. They want technology to assist rather than dominate the way they communicate."{11}

David Watson is an entrepreneurial “pastor” exploring the legitimacy of online shepherding. He believes it’s a general relationship issue not confined to online participation: “Any time you are not fully present with whatever community you happen to be with—whether online or offline—you can hurt people…. We just notice the online stuff more because it is new and people tend to spend lots of time with new things before they figure out how everything balances out.”{12}

So what’s the big deal? Most Facebook, MySpace or Orkut members aren't changing their entire view of reality, truth, God or mankind based on interactions with online friends. No, it's not the obvious pitfall of cults or wild philosophies that people usually deal with day to day anyway. Under-the-radar ways of being and communicating can incrementally change who we are. It’s the subtle way that our view of life changes that concerns me most. Are moment-by-moment Tweets dumbing us down in various ways? Have we come to expect meaning in 140-character bits? Twitter shows the flow of life in tiny chunks some call a lifestream. But are those snippets, especially when seen intermittently, meaningful?

Media swirls around us and we become immune to the white noise. But McLuhan was a master at stepping back to study what is going on with media to see how to cooperate with and thus handle the vortex. Churches and ministries love to jump on new technologies to share the old, old story—but before diving in headlong, we need to remember McLuhan’s warning: we become like the media that we use.

Social Networking Redeems and Resurrects Good Things

What is the technology of social networking enhancing and bringing back from disuse? What are some redeeming characteristics of this new phenomenon? They include renewed friendships and acquaintances, helpful networking made easy, ministry possibilities and relational fun. Mainly, it enhances real-world relational communities.

McLuhan stated that new media always “enhances and retrieves” good things. For example, we long for the days of chatting with neighbors on the front porch. Social networking restores this dynamic to a surprising degree. One writer reflected, “It could be . . . that Facebook marks a return to the time when people remained embedded in their communities for life, with connections that ran deep. . . .”{13}

Reconnections frequently happen too. One former neighbor messaged me on Facebook, “Are you the Byron that lived beside us 25 years ago?” She was thrilled to know I was still walking with Christ and asked for prayer for her drug-addicted brother. She’d located me out of the blue a quarter century later and seven states away through the wonder of social networking.

Social networks have great potential for ministry. Yet Shane Hipps’ primary message for Christ-followers in Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith is that simply broadcasting the gospel message in an old style into this new medium will not be effective. The medium itself changes the way people perceive and receive the message.

Social media are not a kind of broadcast medium, but rather a conversation medium. Online social ministry pioneer Paul Watson tells incredible stories of fruit borne online. He shepherds groups who stay current on Twitter and Facebook. One online community of Christ-followers raised funds over the Internet for a non-Christian tarot-card-reader to take her premature son to a hospital half a state away for medical treatment. A blogger, a practicing witch, warned her visitors not to harass Watson after he privately initiated prayer regarding her health issue.

Campus Crusade for Christ uses Facebook for campus ministry. They recently stated that 66 million students are active Facebook users. That’s three times the population of Australia! In an outreach training video produced by Campus Crusade, the camera pans an empty library and the question “Where are the students?” flashes across the screen. Then it shows a computer lab chock-full of kids, most logged into Facebook, MySpace, Twitter or YouTube. Another banner reads, “The average college student spends three hours on Facebook each visit.” Going where the people hang out is wise! But Campus Crusade knows you can’t just post The Four Spiritual Laws tract on Facebook and be effective. Long-term engagement with a live person or social community is required to make a positive difference.

If relationships are healthy, they can be helped online. “A study published in 2007 in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication suggested that hanging onto old friends via Facebook may alleviate feelings of isolation for students whose transition to campus life had proved rocky.”{14}

A Christian apologist wrote regarding social networking and the Internet, “We should note well Thomas Morris’s ‘Double Power Principle’–‘To the extent that something has power for good, it has corresponding power for ill.’”{15}Next, we’ll discuss the downsides of social media.

Social Networking Makes Obsolete and Obscures Other Good Things

What is the technology of social networking making obsolete, obscuring or obliterating? Taken to extremes, how might it make its users regress rather than progress? What other troublesome dynamics does it create?

Studies show that people tend to continue and expand their real-life relationships online. But people can be fooled. Nothing replaces face-to-face contact. Hipps writes in Flickering Pixels about mutual friends of his who live very nearby but who had not seen each other in months. They communicate online daily, yet their relationship has deteriorated. Hipps commented on so-called virtual communities: “It’s virtual—but it ain’t community. . . . Meaningful, missional Christian community” should consist of several essential things:

1. Shared history or experiences that help establish a sense of identity and belonging

2. Permanence or relational staying power—“it’s how you get shared history.” Members of a transient community never get shared memories.

3. Proximity—“you have to be with one another in order to create the kind of meaningful connections to have community.”

4. Shared imagination of the future —a sense of “We’re all going in the same direction.” Hipps says this is the one thing you get automatically with online social networking—people flock together who already share a future vision. But it’s not community just because of that. If online “friends” are not able to meet together over time and share life experiences as they work toward a common vision, then it’s just an online affinity group.

“Electronic culture disembodies and separates [yet]. . . . most of us. . . believe our technology is bringing us closer.”{16} The Bible exhorts believers not to forsake group gatherings.{17} Why? Because corporate worship and teaching, personal shepherding, mutual encouragement, even non-verbal signals are irreplaceable. We can take our cues on being physically present from the incarnation: God’s most powerful gospel medium was the Man, Christ Jesus.

Technology always makes something obsolete. It seems probable that too much online use compromises our ability to concentrate and think abstractly and form a coherent argument. Given a steady diet of fragmented imagery and spontaneous status updates, a new generation is losing the ability to think through issues from a coherent framework. “Through YouTubing, Facebooking, MySpacing . . . people take in vast amounts of visual information. But do they always comprehend the meaning of what they see. . . ? They are easily manipulated as students, consumers and citizens.”{18}

Another endangered characteristic is deep conversation. Within the space of 140 character status updates and Tweets, all hope of profound, meaningful dialogue seems lost. Instead, images rule. “. . . Image culture is eroding and undermining imaginative creativity” which is “extremely important to our functioning as healthy, creative people.”{19}

Social networking can steal your time. A friend recently told me that his wife’s use of Facebook is hindering their family time and communications. This is likely a widespread problem. “2.6 billion minutes are used daily by the global population on Facebook.”{20} If you already struggle with addictive tendencies or wasting time, think twice about launching into this absorbing lifestyle change. Get help for your online habit if it’s destructive as you would for any addiction.

Balancing Social Networking, Keeping a Christian Worldview in Mind

What are some more guiding principles for using social networking (and the Internet)? How do users balance their lives and retain a Christian worldview in a social networking age?

Remember Narcissus, the mythological character who was so enamored by his own image in the pool of water that it eventually became his undoing? Most people focus on his self-absorption. But the point Hipps makes isn’t how stuck on himself Narcissus was, but rather his inability to perceive and control the low-tech medium of a reflective pool. He seemed oblivious to what was going on, as people tend to be regarding the media maelstrom that surrounds us. “When we fail to perceive that the things we create are extensions of ourselves, the created things take on god-like characteristics and we become their servants.”{21} Media intake stealthily becomes idolatry.

The legendary Perseus, on the other hand, realized the power of a medium that if put under his control, could destroy the deadly effects of staring into the eyes of Medusa. Using a shield as a mirror, he deflected her deadly gaze and turned it into a chance to kill her. Even ancient Greek pagans understood the difference between these two fictional characters: Narcissus became enamored and then ensnared by a medium; Perseus, on the other hand, stepped back, realized the mirror was just an extension of his eyes, and so was able to master that medium. This echoes biblical commands to guard our heart and mind and not be conformed to the world.{22}

Remember, we’re not really talking about what content goes on your Facebook page. Rather, it’s the hidden power of the Internet and social networking that concerns us. Count the cost each time you use it.

One good use of the immediacy of Twitter is intercession. I got stuck in Delhi, India on a mission trip and tweeted a prayer request through my cell phone that in turn updated my Facebook page. Instant access and 140-character-long brevity can be good.

More advice from this worldview watcher trying to redeem social networking: read widely. Read deeply. Keep those parts of your mind and soul in shape while navigating the quick communications of social networking.

Guard your time like a night watchman. Guard your heart and mind like a jealous lover. Set “no unclean thing” before your eyes{23} and if others try to, take down that post or don’t follow them. Also, guard against not only physical but "psychological nudity.”{24}

Mix into everyday wall posts some meaningful thoughts, worthy articles and video clips that cause people to think. Become a fan at the Facebook or MySpace pages of organizations like Probe. Link to articles at Probe.org, Bible.org, or some good cause to help fund.

Balance is key: not everything is worthy of immediate broadcast or attention. “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”{25} Trivia can be genuine but tiresome.

Reach out: post a Scripture, share your faith.

As Shane Hipps said, “The most important medium, the most powerful medium is you, you are God’s chosen medium to incarnate the hands and feet of God in an aching world. . . . The more we understand [the hidden power of media], the more we can understand how to use our media rather than be used by them.”{26}

Notes

1. Facebook Reaches 100 Million Monthly Active Users in the United States," InsideFacebook.com, accessed December 14, 2009, posted December 7, 2009. http://bit.ly/bQXlRV
2. Aliza Freud, "SheSpeaks Second Annual Media Study," http://bit.ly/dD7xsG
3. "Teens Use Sites to Expand Offline Relationships, Avoid Twitter," The Future of Children Blog, posted Aug. 4, 2009, accessed Feb. 4, 2010, http://bit.ly/9X3J9C
4. Social Networking in Plain English, Common Craft, www.commoncraft.com/transcript-social-networking-plain-english.
5. "Equip," Christian Research Institute, Vol. 22, Issue 5, Sept/Oct 2009, p. 1.
6. "The Way We Live Now: Growing Up on Facebook," The New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein, March 10, 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/03/15/magazine/15wwln-lede-t.html.
7. Shane Hipps, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, Kindle Reader version.
8. Hipps quotes McLuhan on this adage often. See this video clip: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnXoPQHPnlw&feature=related
9. Doidge, Norman, M.D., The Brain That Changes Itself (Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2007)
10. Stephanie Bennett, quoted by Byron Barlowe, "MySpace: Parents and Kids Wisely Navigating Online Social Networking," www.probe.org/culture/myspace.html#text20
11. "Everything old is new again for Internet-weary young adults," News.com.au, posted July 14, 2009, accessed September 23, 09, http://bit.ly/bNQNBY.
12. David Watson, Reaching the Online Generation blog, posted July 16, 2009, http://bit.ly/96N04E.
13. Orenstein, The New York Times Magazine.
14. Ibid.
15. Hank Hannegraf, Equip, CRI, p. 3.
16. Hipps, Locations 981-987, 2015.
17. Hebrews 4:12
18. Weeks, Linton, "The Eye Generation Prefers Not to Read All About It: Students in Film Class a Microcosm of a Visually Oriented Culture," Washington Post, posted 7-6-07 , accessed 9-27-09, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/05/AR2007070502055.html
19. Hipps, Locations 718-725, 2015.
20. Hank Hannegraf, Equip, CRI, p. 2.
21. Shane Hipps, Flickering Pixels, Kindle Version, Locations 269-75, 2015.
22. Proverbs 4:23, Acts 20:31, Romans 12: 1-2.
23. Psalm 101:3.
24. Byron Barlowe, "MySpace: Parents and Kids Wisely Navigating Online Social Networking," www.probe.org/culture/myspace.html#hanging.htm
25. Proverbs 29:20, NIV.
26. YouTube video of interview by Rob Bell at pastor's conference posted and accessed at www.internetevangelismday.com/christian-communication-blogs.php on 9-27-09. YouTube text: Rob Bell interviews Shane Hipps about his new book Flickering Pixels during the 2009 National Pastors Convention in San Diego, CA. March 09, 2009.

© 2010 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Byron BarloweByron Barlowe is a research associate and Web coordinator with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.S. in Communications at Appalachian State University in gorgeous Boone, N.C. Byron served 20 years with Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), eight years as editor and Webmaster of a major scholarly publishing site, Leadership University (LeaderU.com). In that role, he oversaw several sub-sites, including the Online Faculty Offices of Drs. William Lane Craig and William Dembski. His wife, Dianne, served 25 years with CCC and now homeschools their teenage triplets.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

Probe Ministries
2001 W. Plano Parkway, Suite 2000
Plano TX 75075
(972) 941-4565

info@probe.org
www.probe.org
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