15 January 2013

The Church of Facebook

I grew up in a good Lutheran church. Well, really in a little house four blocks away, but you know what I mean. It was the church where my parents were baptized and married. We went almost every week, and I could count my non-Lutheran classmates on one hand throughout elementary school (hello, Shannon Welch, you crazy Catholic girl). For the most part it was a good place, for community building and taking care of one another. Often prayers during church were the first place we would learn that someone was sick, and it was through church that help, in the form of hotdishes or snow removal or visits to the hospital or whathaveyou, was most often organized.

But I have, as an adult, left the church. There are many reasons, and that's not really what this post is about;  my mom is still active, and it provides her with lots of necessary community and spiritual goodness, most of the time. I no longer believe in an all-knowing or all-loving god, or any higher spiritual being at all, so it seems disingenuous to spend much time in church.

So for me, in all honesty, the community of Facebook has replaced church.

I'll let that sink in for a moment. Some of you, no doubt, are thinking me a blasphemer. I'm okay with that.

For me, Facebook provides a central place where I can interact with many of my favorite people. I have, according to my Facebook profile page, 183 friends. I find that number startling, really. (My mom's church only has 50 active members, now). Many are people who never post anything, and may well never even log in, for all I know. And I've blocked some people, and unfriended some people, because I just didn't need their particular vibe in my life at one particular time or another. Kind of like sitting in a different pew at church, if you will, or leaving the narthex early to avoid running into someone you're tired of, perhaps.

My friend Tenessa, who probably has 8 million Facebook friends, is very good at moderating conflict and getting disparate sides to come together civilly (she really should be the president. Of the United States, not Facebook. Though if Facebook needs a president, she'd do that well too). I am not so good at that. I tend to call bullshit when I see it, and then sometimes scream and gnash my teeth, and sometimes leap before I look, and so I'm certain that I have, at one time or another, had more than 183 friends, but I have alienated them, and they blocked or deleted me. That's okay too. I didn't want to sit in their pew anyway.

I try not to overuse Facebook. There are times when I should be playing cards with V instead of perusing articles posted by my Aunt Shirley, or I should be vacuuming the carpet instead of playing MonsterWorld or GnomeTown. It's not always easy. But when I log in after I drop V off for the first day of school, and see my friends who are parents posting their kids' first day of school photos, it warms my heart. When I sit down after V's bedtime and see photos of my cousins' dogs, who live in Seattle, I feel less lonesome. When I need advice on who to call in this town for after-hours plumbing, I get five to ten responses, often in conversation with one another, within thirty minutes.

Just in the last 24 hours, these are the conversations in which I participated:

  • Red Delicious Apples Desperately Need Renaming, with which I concurred.
  • Ultra-sound and sex determination, in which I shared our experience with fetal V.
  • Gone With the Wind vs. Game of Thrones, in terms of reading over holiday break, and how much war each book contains.
  • A flow chart about the Prince song "When Doves Cry."
Other important social duties I performed or information I gleaned today:
  • I wished my friend Chad Smart, with whom I grew up, a very happy birthday.
  • I discovered that my friend Debbie, who grew up in England, just learned who Mr. Rogers is this month
  • I found out $haun shares a birthday with Lou Ferrigno. 
  • I tried to help Tenessa deal with some nasty vertigo (I suggested she pretend she's on an ocean cruise, because it's sort of like seasickness)
I also enjoyed my friend Terry's weekly tribute Garbage Day; updates from sites to which I subscribe, like NPR and mental_floss and Planned Parenthood and the Plains Art Museum; and an article from the New Yorker reposted by Terry of Garbage Day fame. I was invited to two different events this weekendThere were many other things, too, in my feed today, including some I would like to spend more time on but I decided to write this post instead. 

And sometimes Facebook has direct, tangible benefits. When Shaun was sick, in the past, I could put a notice out on Facebook that I needed help with childcare, and often more than three options would quickly be offered. When Sarah and Robby were fighting the flood in their backyard in '09, we used Facebook to coordinate meals and support. When my washer died on Christmas Eve two years ago, I posted it on Facebook as a "hey, this is what sucks in my life today," more than anything. Charlotte in West Fargo offered up their extra set if we'd come pick them up (and I love them still, Charlotte!). Just this week, I lamented my lack of a Bedazzler (tm) and my Aunt Shirley told me she had something similar just waiting to come to live with me. It seems like magic, doesn't it??

It's not a perfect church, the church of Facebook. But I've found what feels to me a good balance, with people who are loving and funny and bright and good, most of the time. Many of them are people I haven't seen in years and years (more than ten, in some cases), or people who live so far away (like Seattle, or London) that I just can't physically see them at all. And sometimes, it makes reunions weird: we had less to talk about at our 20 year high school reunion, because we all friended each other on Facebook before hand, so there was a lot of "So, anything going on you haven't posted on Facebook? No? Huh." I don't agree with all my friends on all things, and if I were a better person I'd weather even more conflict and grow and learn from it. But right now, Facebook provides me with a community that is supportive and smart and and often hilarious. I like it a lot.

And I don't even have to sit in one of those uncomfortable pews. 


Jonathan Hamlow said...

As one of the dwindling holdouts standing on the listing deck of mainline Protestantism I must say I find the idea of replacing an actual intentional community (regardless of its ideological underpinnings) with a virtual one fairly depressing (particularly one that is being run as a capitalist enterprise with the specific mission of monetizing social relationships). I don't think it's necessarily such a great feature, for example, to be able to simply remove someone from your "church" with the invisible click of a button because you don't care for what they add to the experience (a feature I admittedly apply on Facebook without qualms).

Ever read E.M. Forster's odd (and eerily prescient) foray into science fiction, The Machine Stops? I think I understand well enough why the church is a receding influence in culture (and headed for rather a cliff if the statistics on general lack of belief among the Millennial generation hold true)... Indeed I can't truthfully express regret over the failing grip of the Christian hegemony. But I do not think that the church has been replaced by anything half so functional in terms of intentional community. And the mostly binary division of life between home and job is poorer for it.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan...I would like to meet you and have a chat...I like how you expressed yourself very much...I by the way am not on Facebook...but having known Languishing since she was a wee little one I want to say publicly that I love this beautiful woman and have always appreciated her thoughts, which I don't always agree with, but it doesn't disminish my appreciation for her. By the way Jennifer, a fine post it was....Kathleen A.

Jennifer said...

I like you both, and by the way you'd be hilarrrrious together.

Jon, I agree that it's not much of a replacement, but as my home church recently rejected a call by a vote of 24 to 22 for a gay pastor, and several of the members were adamantly, unapologetically homophobic, I have a sensitive spot for physical churches that's a lot like a bruise.

And I agree about the capitalist nature of Facebook, and I have serious misgivings about the entire enterprise. But without Facebook, I would not have any connection to you at all, I'm afraid. Not because I don't love you (I do) or hold your friendship dear (again, I do), but because we live far apart, and my work and the choices I make don't allow for quality time with every person I love and hold dear. Perhaps, barring Facebook, I would have motivation to do more to physically reach people I care for. Or interact more in my own neighborhood, where I frankly find my neighbors mostly annoying rednecks.

Perhaps, in the end, I just need to move, and many of my problems will be solved. Or we all need to found a non-profit online community. But I'm not currently capable to do either of those.

Jonathan Hamlow said...

And I should say that despite my personal entanglement (and history) in the church I still find it a deeply problematical construct. And for that matter I hold my nose over the privacy hijinks and sponsored crap just like everyone else and use Facebook to stay connected to the far-flung. And its easier to decry the replacement of in-person community when you live in an urban center. The true erosion of in-person intentional communities though is a thing that genuinely saddens (and sometimes alarms) me. I also sometimes wonder if it's really possible to maintain such a thing without some sort of basically enforced ideology.

There have been attempts at a non-commercial, ethical Facebook - probably most notably the Diaspora Project. I even got in there fairly early (just a month before the sad death of its young co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy) but you know it is the usual bootstrap conundrum, there's nobody there. My presence on Google + (not that I'm much less leery of Google than Facebook) limps along because I'm heavily mired in the Google ecosystem anyway but I just logged into Diaspora for the first time in I'm sure over a year and it is a pure ghost town for me, the few connections I have there clearly aren't using it either. I guess you could argue I should be evangelizing for it but who's got time for that? In any event, Jennifer I hope you know my comments weren't meant in any sense as criticism of you personally, or even Facebook in particular.

Kathleen, I don't think I know who you are? But I'm quite easy to find.

Jennifer said...

I knew how you meant your comments, Jon, and took them as such. It is a complex beast, this Facebook, and Internet, and cyber-world we live in. There's part of me that's certain it must be a passing phase, and we'll resume intentional, physical communities soon. That's the part of me that's teaching The Handmaid's Tale and The Road, though, which make me hope that community could, in the end, prevail in some way. (The books don't give me that hope, but I like to pretend we can change the endings...)

And Kathy is my mother's best friend from college, and so I find the very fact of the two of you intermingling in the comments of my blog kind of miraculous.