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.