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What’s the use of Facebook?

I am half way through watching The Social Network (with my daughter…!) and can already see why it has won awards. So far the most interesting observation is that Mark Zuckerberg aimed to replicate online the sorts of social things that people do in real life. In the film this arises from a conversation with his friend, who is wondering who is in a relationship with whom, from which Zuckerberg adds the ‘In a relationship’ feature to his programme.

So what are the kind of ‘human relating’ things that we can use Facebook for? Here are examples of how I have used Facebook in the last few weeks. What about you?

1. Building relationships beyond my immediate (Christian, churchy) circles of friends
I am very conscious that as an ordained person in a theological college environment, it would be possible to live in a bubble. So being FB friends with other people outside this context is a good connection with reality.

2. Building community within St John’s, at church and with St John’s alumni
At a practical level, FB is a great way to keep up with what is going on in people’s lives—far more easily and efficiently than in other ways.

3. Modelling lifestyle
I aim to comment (in status updates) on the different things I am doing—involvement in other ministry things and organisations, but also what I am doing with my children and holidays. My hope is that the pattern of my updates reflects a balanced life engaged in the world outside college, and including disciplined and healthy patterns of living.

4. Engaging in theological and ministerial discussion
A few weeks ago I was involved a discussion about Schleiermacher’s characterisation of Jesus’ ‘God-consciousness’ and whether the Romantic reaction against Modernism in preference for the affective in religion was helpful or damaging to Christianity. More recently there has been a lot about sexuality. These kinds of discussions, unlike an open forum, attract perhaps a dozen or so comments, but usually then peter out, which makes them manageable. If your status is open to comment by friends of friends (and not just your own friends) it is interesting to see how quickly the discussion includes people you might not normally be in conversation with.

5. Engaging in small research projects
I have a MTh student doing a part-time dissertation on the anchor and other nautical metaphors. So I simply asked of any nautical metaphors in hymns anyone knew of, and ended up (with five minutes’ work by me, and in about 3 hours) with 30 comments, giving complete coverage of hymnody, and was even passed a searchable index of Songs of Fellowship. I made the student a FB account, and made him my friend, so he then had access to all the information. This is sometimes termed ‘cloud intelligence’ and it is a very powerful way of pooling expert knowledge of all kinds.

6. Making resources available.
On holiday in Greece, I photographed a mosaic from a villa at Corinth, posted it on FB in an internet cafe, and an American friend used it the following week in his academic teaching; it was a mosaic he had written a paper about, but did not have his own up to date photo. Next time I visit Greece I will invite requests for particular photos—another example of cloud intelligence.

7. Developing academic links
As more and more people promote their blogs through FB, this is becoming quite a significant alternative to—or perhaps supplement of—subscribing to blogs directly.

don’t use FB for admin, such technical questions about essays in college, since I cannot guarantee to check FB with any particular regularity. It is great to be able to be away or busy for a while, and simply ignore FB without much sense of missing out.

It seems to me that the strength of FB is that it offers an open-but-controlled forum for disseminating information, but in a distinctive way. The control is person by person, in contrast to a discussion forum where, if I join the forum, I have little control over who can read and comments on my comments. In fact, this precisely reflects Zuckerberg’s original aim of replicating social experiences online, and explains why FB has grown so rapidly—in the main, people do on FB what they have been doing in real life, but with the power of online connectivity.

What about you?

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4 Responses to What’s the use of Facebook?

  1. Emlyn March 1, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

    I tend to think of Facebook as like living in a village. Sometimes I wander around to see who’s there and maybe have a chat. Sometimes I answer the door because someone wants to talk to me. Sometimes I go out to see someone. And sometimes I just stay indoors.

  2. Emlyn March 1, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

    I’m wary of saying this because a. I’m not a prayer giant and b. Jesus told us to pray in secret. But Facebook is a great prompt for arrow prayers on behalf of people in my peripheral vision.

  3. Sheila bridge March 1, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    I agree with everything you say and given that you were talking about what FB is good for, it’s perhaps unfair to challenge you. But I do sometimes have to challenge myself that FB might not be the best way to build community and build relationship and that sometimes you just need to go and have a cup of tea with a person rather than simply drop them a ‘thinking of you’ line in response to a post. FB appeals to my need for speed but real people often benefit most from a slow and patient presence

  4. Ian Paul March 2, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    Sheila, I think you are quite right. Living in St John’s I am meeting people all the time, and I guess I see the relationship-building aspects as supplementing rather than substituting for things that happen ‘IRL’. That is one of the reasons why I rarely accept friend invitations from people that I haven’t in fact met IRL.

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