Writing to the choir: Facebook and ‘the new scourge of writing’

Out from a brief blogging hiatus I come to draw attention to Lisa Lebduska’s recent piece – ‘The Facebook Mirror’ – and the dangers that the social media leader poses for writing and writers:

‘Facebook presents far more danger than the cultivation of lowercase first-person “i”s and emoticons :). The real threat posed by Facebook is not that it ruins writers’ ability to punctuate or encourages them to replace words with pictures. The problem with Facebook is that it nurtures one of writing teachers’ greatest foes – the teenage fantasy that writers write only to themselves and to those who are just like them.

Although Facebook is properly classified as “social software,” it is more accurately categorized as mirror-ware, a whole new kind of social that consists only of us and our self-projections. And it is that mirror, that seductive invitation to reflect us and only us back to ourselves that damns us.

On Facebook, we post pictures to represent ourselves: our best, shiniest, toothiest, happiest/sexiest ponderer/wanderer/adventurer. The fairest ones of all. Or we post some other person or object as icon. Puppy, baby, six-year old self. The poor person’s version of identity airbrushing. To deepen the portrait, we post our status, likes and dislikes – bananas, skiing, taxes – and photo albums of grand vacations, graduations and celebrations. To our walls we announce opinions, as they come. What we find good, stupid, evil, sexy.

Facebook writers expect homogeneity from their audience. All readers read the same observation, and insights in the same way, regardless of who they are, what they know, what they need to know or even what they seek. Facebook writers do not select, shape or color moments and thoughts for particular readers. They trade the pleasure of imagining the absent reader for the imagined adoring gaze of selves. And they expect their friends to “like” their posts, pictures etc. immediately, and to shower them publicly with praise.

With Facebook, we don’t need to explain why Obama should be elected or gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry or a hundred seagull photos merit viewing. If birds bore our friend Gerard, too bad. If Gerard didn’t vote for Obama or has a male partner, that’s too bad, too.

Although our Facebook friends include those we haven’t seen in years, decades, even, we can pretend that they share our experiences, our views, and our general disposition towards life. No justification, no explanation.

On Facebook we never think outside the four walls of the self, and we need never imagine readers different from us. We expect neither argument nor curiosity nor challenge. Just a thumbs up or down.

Teachers spend years working to broaden students’ intellectual worlds beyond their own virtual backyards. We challenge them to discover ideas that come from individuals who might be very unlike them; people they would never conceive of friending, or if asked to friend would be more than likely to ignore. Or who don’t have computers.

So is Facebook truly the new scourge of writing? Maybe not. Like all tools of such ubiquity and power, Facebook must be recognized for what it is – a medium that invites carefully polished reflections of our favorite self. But writers generally write for readers other than that self. We need, then, to provide contexts that allow our students to know and consider those readers. How often do we ask students to hear, read and truly understand a viewpoint different from their own? How often do we expect them to think of someone, anyone, other than themselves? The ability to imagine a perspective other than our own – the idea of an audience consisting of curious minds rather than adoring fans – defines our most effective writers’.

While I’m not buying everything at Café Lebduska, there are some important implications here for pastors and teachers (and theo-bloggers). Too few of us, it seems, intentionally read literature which challenges profoundly our own worldview and practice and, at least in the circles most commonplace to me, seek and/or create opportunities to speak into hostile environments where swords might be sharpened by the wrestle (Eph 6.12; 1 Tim 1.18; 6.12; 2 Tim 4.7) rather than dulled by the all-too-common proclivity towards the cozy, the monotonous and the pedestrian – what Lebduska names ‘the teenage fantasy’ and what I simply call ‘the boring’. There are, of course, those who seem to go out of their way to speak only to Babylonians, and sometimes preaching to the choir, as it were, might be just that too. For what it’s worth, it seems to me that the focus for most pastors/teachers/theo-bloggers should be given to bearing witness to the for-ness rather than against-ness announced in the gospel, but there remains an against-ness which must be discerningly spoken as well. Moreover, there can be no question here that both strategies are undertaken in love for the other and for the truth. But if Ernest Hemingway is right when he says that ‘there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed’, and if the great Salvation Army preacher Samuel Logan Brengle is also right when he avers that ‘the great battles, the battles that decide our destiny and the destiny of generations yet unborn, are not fought on public platforms, but in the lonely hours of the night’, then there remains something poisonous about the Facebook ‘mirror-ware’ which threatens to undermine, at the very least, the task of the writer, and preacher.

And speaking of mirrors, it’s not as if they’re all destructive; for there is, of course, another mirror where those so called might look – namely, into the mirror of our election, Jesus Christ, who is both our friend and enemy, and who both thumbs us, our ministries and our statuses ‘up’ and ‘down’, although the later only that he made do the former (Rom 11.32).

 

12 thoughts on “Writing to the choir: Facebook and ‘the new scourge of writing’

  1. I’m not a Facebook user though I know I’m in the minority amongst friends and family. I even have much to learn about the simple (or so I thought) pastime of commenting on blogs.
    I’m an admirer of Ernest Hemingway’s writing and like the quote. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

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  2. Initially when Facebook swished through my circle of friends (and friends I hadn’t heard from in a long time) I thought it was a narcissonian hurricane. Then as I continued to interact with people near and far (geographically speaking) on FB I began to see the merits of social media. I believe those who criticize FB for not measuring up to higher standards of writing, expression, communication have set a too high standard for this digital medium.
    Now I see FB not as I hoped or even demanded it would be – a well polished, high brow communication tool – but instead for what it is – a party that is still in motion, a party that never ends. People interact and talk amongst themselves with a different ethos at a casual gathering than they do in a structured classroom. FB is not a classroom.
    Jason, I appreciate how you cap your remarks with Christ. I am refreshed that all discourse is subject to Him and has the capacity to draw us in toward Him.
    thanks
    MarkO

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  3. Facebook may be a lot of things but it is not nearly as one-dimensional as this. I think of the Seinfeld episode where “Relationship George”is threatening to take over “Independent George”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxuYdzs4SS8. Rather than a homogenous choir, your audience is mostly likely a swirling mass of diversity.

    One would hope that if you have friends from elementary school, college, work, and the neighborhood, that Facebook would pose a very unique place in which there is a great deal of diversity and opinions. And, you would also hope that these people would challenge bald assertions from time to time, which is true for me.

    It’s a lot more of an honest space then the comments on blogs or newspaper articles. If I want to say something and I know my Grandma will be shocked and my ex-college roommate angry but it will also give hope to my friend from Scranton, I need to choose my words carefully and judiciously because these are my friends and I care about them. Sometimes a polished self is better than the alternative on the internet.

    No doubt there are plenty of dangers to Facebook and I appreciate your reflection.

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  4. I’m not an expert on Facebook, but I started at the clamoring of my children. So, I view the “social networking not as a mirror of myself, but as a way of another opportunity to connect with family and close friends. I can comments on my daughter-in-law’s latest artwork or my grandchildren’s newest pet. I don’t believe that FB has to be anything more than a tool to maintain contact with friends or family.

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  5. It’s a pity some readers read this post as a slag against Facebook per se. I too appreciate FB’s benefits, as does Lisa Lebduska. Hey, we both have FB accounts.

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  6. I also agree with your comments to a point, I ‘got into’ Facebook as a tool for my work, I work with teenagers, and I guess it has many, many facets. ‘Likes’ and ‘dislikes’ are indicators for some, but in my observation, for most it’s simply a form of communication. By people having ‘friends’ of all ages, races, creeds and colours, facebook opens the door to, albiet superficial, relationship and accountability to people we might not spend that much time with. Facebook seems to be a great leveler of people with young and old on there and entitled to have their say. Amongst my circle of ‘friends’ there have definitely been some vigorous debates about comments put up by some, which have been fascinating to observe. Facebook enables the superficial stages of relationship to continue, and holds the door open for deeper relationship in other venues, and for that, it’s not a bad tool! There does need to be room for ‘me’ somewhere, however I agree the temptation is to be caught up in FB all the time and begin to derive our self-worth through a medium that was never intended for such use.
    Not a bad way of circulating material, food for thought, information that might never have circulated so quickly before though!! Maybe the writer/preacher becomes equal with his or her audience through Facebook, and could enable continued discussion on topics that are written/preached about?

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  7. Love this post, it is a favorite!!! Thanks for your well written reflections. You spoke to some of the grumblings that I had been feeling over some of the content I have been recently reading within facebook.

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  8. Does this remind you of any particular social/analytical theories? Maybe, Willaim James’ “I” and “Me” theory albeit I haven’t spent much with him yet. I heard, somewhere along the way, that an individual projects a number of different “me(s)” while it is the “I” that is truly self. In relation to your post might there be a focus on “me” vs “we;” rather, “you”?

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  9. My last sentence didn’t make much sense and the more I try and rephrase it the more it confuses me :)

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  10. In order to prove your argument wrong, I am disagreeing with you…this is no long mirror-ware.

    First, You make a lot of assumptions about what Facebook is and isn’t. It is just a tool to be used how the user wishes. Because you don’t appreciate how people use this tool doesn’t make the tool right or wrong. A hammer can be used to build a home for someone without one, or as a weapon to do harm. Just because I saw someone using it as a weapon doesn’t make a hammer a bad thing.

    Second, you place judgement on self-expression. What is a blog? What is a tattoo? Self-expression doesn’t need to create two-way dialogue, or be created for the purpose of others.

    Third, you make a lot of assumptions that aren’t actually built off of anything:
    “Facebook writers expect homogeneity from their audience. All readers read the same observation, and insights in the same way, regardless of who they are, what they know, what they need to know or even what they seek. Facebook writers do not select, shape or color moments and thoughts for particular readers. They trade the pleasure of imagining the absent reader for the imagined adoring gaze of selves. And they expect their friends to “like” their posts, pictures etc. immediately, and to shower them publicly with praise.”

    Really? Is this what Facebook writers do and don’t do? Every Facebook user?

    I know that my critiques may seem harsh. I appreciate you expressing your viewpoint, and am sure that you appreciate an opposing viewpoint.

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  11. Wow, this post seems to have generated a lot of discussion, as all good subjects should in my opinion. Jason, thanks for highlighting that this post is not a slag on Facebook, it may have been easy to make that assumption with some of the language used. For my two cents worth I think anything of merit has lasting value whether it is on a blog, in a book or on the stage etc I would hope Art transcends all our self imposed limitations and stereotypes.

    I think this article does draw some assumptions that are a bit harsh though, for example, I think quite carefully about what others may perceive from what I post and I have a lot of friends who uses it as a platform for creating debate and stimulating discussion. LOL it could be argued that such postings are indeed all about us and having people think we have something valid to say – thus being about the self, but even all the great literary works have a lens of the author themselves who may or may not have overcome their own bias to a certain degree. I don’t believe this in itself makes the work invalid. I would want to say God’s bias and God’s revelation of self in the bible is critical for me in understanding who God is and I welcome that no end. Writing that is meaningful whether it is chaucer or a four old at pre-school will convey something to its readers – Facebook to me is simply another vehicle for conveying that meaning. Some will resonate more than others, but thats ok isn’t it? Since when are we the literary police for the masses?

    “The problem with Facebook is that it nurtures one of writing teachers’ greatest foes – the teenage fantasy that writers write only to themselves and to those who are just like them.” –

    Facebook is a tool that lets you put pen to paper and disseminate it quicker, if anything a dumb post will come back to haunt you and teach you that people do actually read what you write – rather than a foe it could in fact be a friend and provide a helpful critique on our often misguided ideas ( prob like my rambling post now LOL ). But I welcome the feedback and it may in turn make me think of things in a better light and inform my latter rambles….Peace.

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