It always helps one’s cause when the Pope backs you up.  I’ve been collecting thoughts and opinions for an article about the digital generation for some time now, and after reading the Holy Father’s message for the 43rd World Day of Communications, I realized he had written the piece for me.

A few years ago, as my relatives, friends, and colleagues began joining Facebook and other social networking sites, I delayed joining the craze, wondering if it was just a passing fancy.  Years later, it is harder and harder to refuse their urgings.  Their arguments seem tempting.  It’s a good way to stay in touch.  It’s a good way to find old friends.  It’s the best way to reach people.

Perhaps those are all valid.  I still refuse to jump on the bandwagon, even though it appears to have parked.  I share the same privacy concerns that many have voiced, but my foremost concerns pertain more to the very nature of these sites.

A few beginning points to clarify.  I don’t believe using Facebook or MySpace is wrong, nor do I deny that good things can be done using either.  My aim in this article is not so much a condemnation of social networking sites as much as an attempt at a reasonable discussion about the effects of these sites on my generation.  I am not going to discuss the practical dangers, such as cases of stolen identities, nor particular extreme cases, such as the MySpace suicide.  I will not speak about the time-wasting aspect of these sites, partly because this attribute belongs to the Internet in general.  Lastly, I want to reiterate that these are observations from an outsider.  While I have not been living in a hole, and therefore have heard lingo bandied about in conversation, I am still primarily an outsider with little experience of the ways of these sites.  My apologies that I don’t have a working knowledge of various Facebook “apps” or still don’t understand the purpose of poking someone.  Additionally, I have even less knowledge of MySpace; as a result, my critique is mostly based from Facebook observations, although one probably will find most observations translatable.

Pope Benedict begins his message with a discussion of the benefits and blessings of our technological age, ranging from personal and familial to scientific and social.  Turning to the widespread popularity of new forms of communication, the Pope declares that this desire for communication and relation is natural and inherent in the human person.  This desire for communication, the Pope tells us, is not anything new, nor is a response to these new technologies.  Rather, the new technologies fill the void present in young people’s lives.

Speaking as a young person of this digital generation, I do not hesitate to say that these sites are the response of a generation starved for community.  A majority of my generation has been deprived of a family, whether by divorce or by our activity-crazed culture. The son or daughter who only sees the back of Mom’s head as she takes them to the next practice or club meeting looks to feed the relational needs of their human person outside the family—these days, in social networking sites.

Pope Benedict continues, drawing upon a theme close to his successor’s heart.  Man’s desire for communication causes him to reach beyond himself and, Benedict says, “In reality, when we open ourselves to others, we are fulfilling our deepest need and becoming more fully human.”  John Paul II reminded us of this with his famous phrase, “life has meaning to the extent that it becomes a free gift for others.”

It is this aspect of the Facebook world that troubles me.  Is it a good way to keep in touch with old friends and to find new ones?  Is it true communication, true friendship?  I don’t believe it is.  Pope Benedict has the same hesitation when he cautions that in “reflecting on the significance of the new technologies, it is important to focus not just on their undoubted capacity to foster contact between people, but on the quality of the content that is put into circulation using these means.”

It is vital to remember that words mean something.  It is a detriment to our modern culture that our vocabularies are shrinking and words are used lightly.  What is friendship?  In speaking on friendship, John Paul II said, “I desire a good for you just as I desire it for myself, for my own ‘I’.  The content and structure of friendship can be summed up in this formula.  It brings out the element of benevolentia or goodwill (‘I want what is good for you’), and also the characteristic ‘doubling’ of the subject, the doubling of the ‘I’: my ‘I’ and your ‘I’ form a moral unity, for the will is equally well inclined to both of them, so that ipso facto your ‘I’ necessarily becomes in some sense mine, lives within my ‘I’ as well as within itself.  This is the meaning of the word ‘friendship.’”

Friendship is self-gift.  It is living for another in a relationship of sacrifice.  Most anyone would agree that a relationship in which one party never gives or sacrifices for the other lacks love.  A self-obsessed person cannot be a friend.  A friendship is not a friendship if it is not rooted in self-gift.

In observing friends and colleagues communicating via Facebook, the idea of self-gift is markedly absent.  The entire concept of Facebook is the ability to announce your doings with utmost personal ease. While there seems to be communication, it is merely interplay between individuals observing, skimming, and responding—alone and at their convenience. (While sounding similar to email correspondence, there is in email correspondence at least the small “self-gift” of the personal communication, singled-out for an intended recipient, rather than a universal message for a few hundred people.  Of course, any form of communication can be abused.)

Many people use Facebook to keep in contact with old friends.  While this may sound perfectly innocent, it is not hard for an outsider to see that Facebook gives an artificial sense of relationship where it does not exist.  Let’s look at three friends.  Mary is Facebook-less.  She tries to keep up regularly with her old friends, Colleen and Lucy, whether through personal emails and phone calls, or even an occasional hand-written letter.  Colleen and Lucy both use Facebook and continually try to get Mary to jump on board.  While in conversation one day with Lucy, Mary comments that she hasn’t spoken to Colleen in two weeks but needs to call her soon to catch up, especially since she just started dating a boy from back home.  Lucy proceeds to gush about Colleen’s new boyfriend, telling Mary how adorable he is and how well he treats Colleen.  His friends seem great, too, she assures Mary, and he comes from a good Catholic background.  Mary is happy for Colleen and asks Lucy when she talked to her last.  Talked?  Oh, she hasn’t talked to her for a few months.  But she’s now Facebook friends with the new boyfriend and his friends and she’s seen pictures of them and read their walls.

Who has the better relationship with Colleen?  Lucy seems to know more about her life these days, but has she communicated with her?  Where is the self-gift?

What is self-giving about uploading some pictures for your friends to look through (by themselves) or changing your profile from “single” to “dating” to announce an update in your social life?  Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer a phone call or email when my friend is expecting a baby, not a cute message as their status. And call me selfish, but I’d like to think I am significant enough to at least merit an email when my friend is engaged, instead of finding out by stumbling upon someone else’s note on their wall or seeing a picture of them flashing a diamond ring.

Perhaps the people who rely on their profile to convey news to me aren’t my close friends.  Then why do we call them “friends?”  Again, words mean something.  There is very little in the social networking communication system that warrants the term “friendship.”  I was happy to see the Holy Father seems to agree with me:

“The concept of friendship has enjoyed a renewed prominence in the vocabulary of the new digital social networks that have emerged in the last few years. The concept is one of the noblest achievements of human culture. It is in and through our friendships that we grow and develop as humans. For this reason, true friendship has always been seen as one of the greatest goods any human person can experience. We should be careful, therefore, never to trivialize the concept or the experience of friendship. It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation.”

And haven’t we all seen this trend?  The person walking next to you on the sidewalk is too busy texting or “twittering” to smile at you and say good morning.  Your son or daughter prefers to sit in front of a social networking site instead of sitting at the dinner table with you.  Your colleague seems to prefer to write on someone’s wall instead of eating lunch with real human beings.

While the Facebook world did not create the world’s inability to create true relationships, it surely is not helping things.  People who have difficulties forming true friendships are turning to the internet, where they can collect friends and feel accepted.

We are more than individuals, mere matter.  We are persons, comprised of body and soul.  One of the great gifts of Christianity to the world was the concept of “person.”  A culture based on the concept of “person” carries with it an understanding of the dignity of that person, of responsibility, and of virtue.   Today, our culture celebrates the “individual.”  John Paul II, in his work Person and Community, explores this difference.

“The human being is always an individual within the human species.  But this individual is a person, and the species is a collection of persons… People are social beings, and so they have an innate tendency not only to form interpersonal relationships but also to create societies and communities….  The basic question that must be resolved in social morality is how to create a system of relations between the individual and society that results in the fullest possible correlation between the person’s true good and the common good that society naturally seeks.  To attain this correlation in practice is no easy matter.  On the one hand, persons may easily place their own individual good above the common good of the collectivity, attempting to subordinate the collectivity to themselves and use it for their individual good.  This is the error of individualism.”

I do not think it’s a stretch to say that Facebook glorifies the individual.  It is not a community of persons, but a collection of individuals.  We can only be truly human to the extent that we give ourselves to others.  John Paul reminds us, “If we cannot accept the prospect of giving ourselves as a gift, then the danger of a selfish freedom will always be present.”  When we lack this gift of self and live in “selfish freedom,” we remain isolated individuals, incomplete.

While I do not deny the possible benefits of Facebook, it worries me to see the impact it is having on my generation.  People already starved for community are seeking it where it cannot be found, and those who are lucky enough to possess a community falsely believe they are nourishing it in a place where it is more likely to become artificial.

As usual, Benedict does not end on a critical note, but gives us hope.  While he does not promote the new forms of communication unreservedly, he does not condemn them either.  Just as his predecessor called the youth to higher things, Pope Benedict calls my digital generation “to introduce into the culture of this new environment of communications and information technology the values on which you have built your lives. … It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent’.”

I firmly believe this evangelization requires an analysis of the deeper needs of the digital generation and a greater understanding of the impact of social networking on that generation.  While I will not be joining the Facebook craze anytime soon, I don’t think my real friends will hold it against me.  I may have to buy extra cell phone minutes and more stamps, but I think it’s worth it.


One Response to “The MyFace Craze and the Digital Generation”

  1. […] Oct I may have the reputation for shunning the benefits of technology, given my opinion of Facebook (which may seem hilarious since I’m sitting here blogging), but I had a moment last night […]

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