Flaws With “Flaws”

Alex Golub’s recent essay in Inside Higher Education came at an interesting time, since I’m giving a talk about technology and ministry to Duke Divinity students tomorrow. Alex speaks with the authority of a digitally-indigenated academic, not just a “sky is falling” oldster peeking between the slats of the digital blinds; if he has something to say about problems with Facebook, I take him seriously.
Nonetheless, I harbor reservations about Alex‘s critique. He correctly notes that Facebook positions itself as a mediating portal that insulates users from the full-scale Internet, which neither of us likes (“mediating,” that is, not “the Internet”). He resists the forced binary option of “friend”/“not-friend”; again, that makes sense to me. With the money FB generates, you’d think they might be able to devise a sliding scale from “contact” or “acquaintance” to “soulmate,” with concomitantly varying degrees of self-revelation. I affirm Alex’s objections here.
He also has reservations about friending his students, and he worries about the relation of academic power to his Facebook presence. If, as he proposes, one envisions Facebook as a device for “blog[ging] safely about the antics of your adorable cat or the incredible evil of your department chair without either of them finding out unless you add them to your friends list.” But both these concerns sound a dissonant note for someone as keenly attuned to the different chromatic scale of online interaction as is Alex.
The problem arises only to the extent that one invests in the notion that Facebook should be the sort of safe haven for feline antics and departmental griping that Alex posits. That drawback depends on people’s supposing that FB (or any other technology) obviates the need for discretion and discernment about what you say to whom. So long as one doesn’t succumb to that supposition, Alex’s main Facebook “flaw” falls flat. He alleges that “[Facebook] claims to offer privacy but only magnifies dilemmas of publicity,” and that “It offers us a world in which we do not have to stand up and be counted” — but again, Faceboook hasn’t reached out and waterboarded me into talking trash about my department chair. If I friend my department chair (and as an untenured itinerant, I don’t even have one of those any more), I don’t say anything I wouldn’t want her to hear. Not a Facebook flaw, a rule of etiquette.
I friend people I regard as friends (or people whom friends have specifically urged me to friend), not strangers or people that people think I might like. I say things that I would say in front of anyone on my friends list, or anyone I’d be likely to friend. I don’t reveal personalia that would interfere with my pedagogical or clerical vocations. And I probably make mistakes, but that’s because I’m a fallible critter, not because Facebook made me do it.
Thus, when people whom I like and trust asked me to cite 25 random things about myself, I selected peculiarities that anyone might easily elicit from me if we were conversing casually. I do not participate in truth-or-dare revelations about affections or erotic intimacy (I recall one that asked questions about one’s “favorite body parts” to observe on others; I really do not need anyone to be wondering whether I’m especially intent on what they’re saying, or I’m indulging fantasies about aural sex). (No, that’s not an actual disclosure of an attraction to ears, it’s just a joke.) I friend students, colleagues, publishers, parishioners — and I watch my tongue, as the Epistle of James saith:

the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

This is one of my favorite paragraphs in Scripture, partly because it has such bizarre clauses (what in heaven’s name does he mean by “the cycle of nature”?), partly because it’s very true — and partly because it comes as an amplification of James’s advice, Let not many become teachers, because we will bear judgment for both our errors and those we transmit to others. Teachers (and clergy) may use Facebook as a venue for online conversation, but Facebook’s friend/not option doesn’t render James’s wisdom passé.

6 thoughts on “Flaws With “Flaws”

  1. Re “sets on fire the cycle of nature”: OK, I will go out on a limb and suggest that “the cycle of nature” is the creation of a new life, and that the tongue, being so full of nerve endings, blood vessels, and so on, is most likely the perfect instrument for inflaming passion, which most of us may know as “French kissing.” Which of course can lead to even more hellish passions and culminate in a pregnancy. The writer doth put it delicately and obliquely, in the manner of his time and taking into consideration his audience, no doubt. A small member, indeed.

  2. Hi AKMA!

    I think there are two things to be said here.

    First, I do think there is something in the notion that friending mechanisms in social networks forces a disambiguation of human relationships which are not normally so unambiguous, and that this is not necessarily a good thing — even a mechanism with many categories is still a mechanism with categories that are either on or off. I think this might be an interesting point about how people and machines categorize. But maybe not.

    Second there seems to be a couple of points here about comportment. Facebook would not have a ‘flaw’ if 1) If we live actual lives where we already censor ourselves as a ‘rule of ettiquette’ such that we do not say mean or nasty things to people both in public and in private — you’d have already dealt with this issue. Also it would not be a flaw if, 2) you never thought or felt anything mean or nasty about anyone, ever, and thus could live a completely transparent life.

    In other words, if you were a priest or a saint, I suspect Facebook would not look very problematic! But few of us are the first, and none of us are, alas, the second.

    That said, I do think that the public life of the cleric is actually a very valuable role model for professors as they try to understand the mix of connection and distance they have with the communities they service — something that I learned from you years ago, and which I still consider a gift you gave me. I think over time I’ve also come to appreciate the value of Christian aspirations to moral perfection and unconditional love as well but… I am not yet willing to give up the therapeutic values of griping with one’s friends, both online and off!


  3. I am not yet willing to give up the therapeutic values of griping with one’s friends, both online and off!

    Speaking of which — oh, but I’d better take that offline….
    Thanks for thinking back at me. I agree that even a sliding scale of friendship isn’t a “natural” expression of how we negotiate self-revelation in non-digital environments, and I don’t at all presuppose that binary Facebook friendship options (or machine-mediated graduated alternatives) would be “a good thing.” I do think that we’re adaptable critters, and that a social milieu in which friendship signifies “someone I entrust with my Facebook self-revelations” might not be as bad as it is unfamiliar. You could probably think of dozens of aspects of PNG culture that would make me uncomfortable, that I would deem “not a good idea,” but that don’t bother you much; I want to keep open the possibility that online categorizations of discretion might bear a practical resemblance to such unfamiliar cultural practices.
    As to clerical perfection, you and I are very well aware that I’m not there at all. Still, I tend to restrict my steam-off-letting to contexts in which I’m not susceptible to the dangers of gossip in the age of digital reproduction. After all, one of my trusted Facebook friends could always copy-and-paste my intemperate characterization of colleague X or student Y into a zone of the Net not covered by FB’s privacy firewalls. So I usually don’t blast away online at people who frustrate me — partly out of my aspiration to sanctify my character, but partly just out of plain collegial etiquette and pragmatic self-protection.
    From this perspective, the “flaw” in Facebook (or the problem of self-censorship) involves plain old self-control and the consequences of the weak will. Rather than rehearse what Paul and Aristotle said about that stuff, I’ll return to thanking you for both the original provocation (by the way, my presentation last Thursday about digital tech for church leaders-to-be went well, a result with which your incitement to think hard played a significant role) and for returning to season our discourse with further savory reflections. Aloha, Rex!

  4. On 1: I think my point is not just that Facebook is an unfamiliar cultural form, but that identities and relationships in face to face interaction are ambiguous, polysemous, and constantly being renarrated. Fixing and disambiguating them via the social graph the underlies facebook involves disambiguating and fixing them. I think in this way Facebook is similar to government attempts to solidify, concretize, and regulate the identities of indigenous people — in both cases institutions claim to be merely reflecting the relations and identities of the people they enregister when they are in fact transforming them by casting them into a novel and less flexible form in ways that can be pretty pathological.

    On 2: I take your point to be that 1) integrity and self-control are solutions to the problem of Facebook, as they are in a wide variety of life and 2) Facebook is, in essence, as public as a public blog and no one should be fooled into thinking otherwise. On #1: point taken: perfect(ly controlled) people will never have to worry about Facebook. And it is good to be reminded how many problems in life a heaping of integrity will solve. On #2: I think we agree on this — my point, after all, was that in the end I prefer to have a public blog rather than fool myself into thinking Facebook has managed to become both digital and semi-public. Is our desire for a semi-public virtual space flawed, or are spaces that promise to deliver this to us a problem? Perhaps both. But I think you would have to agree that with its privacy features and SNS affordances it does in fact present itself, and appears to others, as a solution.This, it seems to me, is a flawed promise.

  5. On 1: Yes, FB does assign fixed relations to the fluidity of polysemous physical-world relationships. At the same time, we’re voluntarily participating in the network that FB defines for us; in a more desirable possible world, FOAF might have taken off and cultivated a richer environment for characterizing relationships (though even that will fall short of adequately describing the difference between my relation to my present dean and my relation to my former dean, for instance). That’s part of my argument that we’re inhabiting a different social environment when we play in Facebook’s yard; the kind of constant negotiations that overwhelm us when we encounter an unfamiliar culture oblige us to wonder, “Shall I gripe about my dean here, or is it a Bad Idea to bellyache in this environment?” But after a while, we get accustomed to the choice of limiting one’s circle of “friends” (and letting off steam among them) or extending one’s circle of “friends” and maintaining a more reticent tone.
    On 2), although I balk at your invocation of “perfection,” I think we’re getting at compatible points by different routes. For someone who years for the promise of online semi-privacy, FB is an imperfect approach. I’m not convinced that people ought to measure online affordances by the extent to which they replicate familiar physical-world conventions, but it’s certainly true that FB doesn’t offer a safe online environment equivalent to the faculty lounge, the confessional, or a locked diary.

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