By Terrell Clemmons
Facebook tapped into two universal human desires: to belong and to connect.
The Facebook story began on a late October evening in 2003 when Harvard University sophomore Mark Zuckerberg sat down to his computer to have a little fun. By all accounts an ace programmer, Mark began writing a blog post and ended up creating a website. Each residence hall at Harvard maintained an online directory, called a facebook, of student photos. Mark, admittedly “a little intoxicated” and blogging as he worked, hacked into all the directories, copied the photos of the females, and built a little website where other students could rate them. He named the site Facemash, and when he was done building it, he e-mailed the web address to a few friends.
It was a sophomoric prank, no more boneheaded than a million that had been pulled before—except that a prank on a computer connected to the Internet has the potential to spread virtually instantaneously. Facemash went live on Halloween and logged 22,000 hits in the first two hours. Women on campus were furious, and Mark was disciplined by the university, but the debacle had demonstrated two things: (1) that college students had a voracious appetite for viewing photos and reading information about other college students, and (2) a website that allowed them to do so was a powerful tool.
Mark put the Facemash brouhaha behind him and went back to work. But this time he built a legitimate site—no stolen photos or ill-advised remarks.
The following February, theFacebook went live. (The prefix “the” was later dropped.) Available to Harvard students only, it was instantly the new cool thing. Nobody seemed to care that the precursor had been offensive. There was still an element of voyeurism to it, but this time users signed up voluntarily and supplied their own information and photos. Mark had added features that college students chronically wanted to explore and publicize. You could identify your “Sex,” what you were “Looking For,” and your “Relationship Status,” turning Facebook into the de facto real time directory of student relationships. In two weeks, 85 percent of Harvard undergraduates had signed up. Mark quickly expanded Facebook to more universities, and its user base grew by leaps and bounds.
Timeless Human Desires
Facebook had tapped into two universal human desires: to belong and to connect. For centuries, Harvard social life had been dominated by exclusive clubs and societies with secret traditions. Facebook transcended their exclusivity and widened the boundaries to encompass the student body at large. On Facebook, everyone—high and low, smooth and awkward—could belong to a common community.
What neither Mark nor his initial investor-partner Eduardo Saverin had anticipated was the addictive nature of the thing. Students didn’t visit the site once; they came back again and again, updating their profiles, changing their pictures, and most of all, adding new friends. It moved a sizeable portion of campus social life from bars and parties to the Internet. Checking your Facebook when you woke up became the student equivalent of reaching for the morning paper. Facebook became both a noun and a verb. “Facebook me when you get home,” meant, “Look me up, and let’s connect online.”
From Cool Community to Wild, Wild West
In 2006 Facebook became available to anyone with a valid e-mail address. This diluted the belonging-to-a-community feel of it, but by this time Facebook had so taken root in the social landscape, its spread seemed unstoppable. Last February, Wired magazine’s John C. Abell wrote, “Facebook is so integral to daily life that, for all intents and purposes, it is the Internet.”
Except that it isn’t. Facebook runs on the Internet, not vice versa. What makes Facebook valuable to users is not any product it manufactures or service it provides per se, but simply its popularity. At last count, it boasted 800 million active users worldwide, about half of whom log on daily. “People spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook,” according to the site’s online Press Room. For the moment at least, Facebook is an online mecca.
But people are fickle, and users could move on to something else overnight. In early 2011, FoxNews technology columnist John R. Quain predicted that Facebook had reached its apex and would go down from there. What started out as a “fun place to digitally cavort and post silly, unflattering pictures of one another . . . quickly transformed into a miasma of lurking dangers, threats to our personal security and safety, and a great way to get fired—or worse, prosecuted for goodness-knows-what.”
Quain went on to offer a sampling of known Facebook activity.
Jilted partners use Facebook to stalk the objects of their unrequited love. Mean girls use it for cyberbullying. Avaricious divorce lawyers use it to skewer fighting couples and tip the balance in child custody battles. The police use it to catch criminals. Criminals use it to find out when victims are away from home and rob them. With FB friends like these, who needs FB?
What used to be the new cool thing has become a two-way pipeline to a cyber Wild, Wild West. “Everyone should be a little more cautious about the ‘social’ part of social networking these days,” Quain advises.
Facebooking First Principles
Here are two guiding principles for Facebook use I ironed out for myself after a rough and tumble break-in period. The first has to do with how you conduct yourself. The second has to do with how you treat others.
First, if you’re going to be on Facebook, figure out why you’re there in the first place; then act accordingly. For me, Facebook is primarily about relationships. I can connect with family and others, including friends from as far back as grade school. Sometimes when I’m online, one of my daughters (or one of their friends) will open up a chat window just to say hi. That’s priceless to me.
I also use Facebook to get news. I can keep tabs on what’s going on in my friends’ lives, and through Facebook groups I can bypass the mainstream media outlets to get and share news on specific subjects, along with commentary and some lively discussions. As in any human interaction, though, discussions can turn into verbal brawls. It takes discipline and tact to engage, moderate, or disengage with an eye toward edification and strengthening relationships, not damaging them.
People also use Facebook to promote a business or a cause or to connect with interest groups that can run the gamut from extreme sports to recipe exchanges. However you approach it, if you define worthwhile objectives and set boundaries accordingly, your efforts will better serve your purpose.
Second, remember that behind those clean, blue and white profile pages are real people carrying out the desires and intentions of their hearts—for good or for ill. Treat them as you would like to be treated, but don’t assume they’ll return the kindness. In the Facebook universe, “Friend” means nothing more than “someone who has agreed to be connected to me.” Facebook connections may help cultivate friendships and community, but they’re no substitute for live interaction with living, breathing people.
The Measure of a Life
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Touchstone, 2004), author Stephen Covey advises, “Begin with the end in mind.” Digital connectivity has changed the way a lot of things happen today—from college pranks, to news discussions, to recipe swaps. But to paraphrase an old saying, the more some things change, the more other things stay the same. People will always want to connect with other people and find communities of belonging. And human hearts will always love and remember people who treat them as valuable ends in themselves.
Either we love things and use people, or we use things and love people. Facebook can be used for a variety of legitimate purposes, such as networking, communicating, and advertising. The questions to ask are, “What is my purpose for using it?” and “At the end of my life, what do I want to be known for?” Then begin with the end in mind.
Terrell Clemmons is a freelance writer in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The Facebook Spectrum
Sometimes it seems there are basically two types of Christians on Facebook: those who post a Bible verse a day and join every Christian group they read about, and those whose online lives are indistinguishable from unbelievers. Most of us should (and do) fall somewhere between the two.
Here are some questions to help you determine or reevaluate your Facebook strategy:
• What is the main goal for my Facebook interactions?
• How many of my Facebook friends are Christians?
• Will I find ways to share my faith offline with my unbelieving Facebook friends?
• What role will Scripture and prayer play in my profile and interactions?
• What will I do when it appears one of my Facebook friends may be in trouble?
• What will I do when one of my friends is struggling with a faith-related issue?
• What will I do when one of my friends posts a viewpoint that goes against Scripture?
• How will I express my personal joys and struggles to my Facebook friends?