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Re-Thinking Facebook

You probably have Facebook. I’m not basing my prediction on any data collected from formal research on how college students spend their time.  I’m not assuming you have Facebook after looking at library computers and taking a cursory glimpse at what YU students really do during reading week (though I may be guilty of such accusations). And I certainly am not stereotyping Commentator readers as the kinds of YU students who regularly use Facebook. The only reason I can confidently guess you probably have Facebook is because two-thirds of all Americans do. 200 million people. That’s two thirds of the country’s entire population, including those too young to use a computer and those too old to try and learn. Imagine how many Americans in their late teens and early twenties have accounts. Factor in the other 600 million users worldwide, and you’ve got yourself a mighty dominant website.

Most YU students understand what the big Facebook fuss is all about. It’s simple to see how powerful and useful it can be. You can easily keep in touch with friends from high school, schmooze with your NCSYers, catch up with long-lost cousins and find out more about that guy you met on the bus in Israel one time. You can run a successful event for your club without having to extend hundreds of personal invitations, network to get your dream summer job and add some major momentum to fundraising efforts (yes, I’ll sponsor you in the marathon again). Furthermore, once Facebook became more widespread amongst people in the frum world, it was amazing to see how friends used Facebook to share their smachot with those who were unable to attend, shared thought-provoking articles and mustered together tehillim groups to daven for the sick. Over time, much of that “if you’re on Facebook you’re probably not frum” stigma has been dissolved. Yet, there is still much to be said for abstaining from the uber-modern social media tool which we can all live without.

For those who are sensitive to such things, having a Facebook account can put a user in many compromising situations. Considering the various opinions afloat regarding wireless internet filters, some readers may be shocked to hear that many people have legitimate religious concerns when it comes to using Facebook. Whether or not you personally have ever second-guessed your presence on Facebook, there is certainly reason to think more carefully about the social media tool which is taking over our society. This is not preaching, this is reporting. Ignore the hashkafa of what Facebook does to relationships. Torah-true Facebook users confront the all-too-common challenges of being shown pictures that do not adhere to tzniut standards, wasting valuable time, bittul Torah and other generally inappropriate content.  However, it’s nearly impossible to avoid using the internet altogether nowadays, and once you’ve learned how to use the internet appropriately you can put in some additional effort to make your Facebook experience kosher. That’s the common argument for Facebook nowadays. Block those who post inappropriate content. Limit the time you spend on the site each day. Don’t share other private information. Avoid lashon harah. Watch whom you talk to. The bottom line for those with halakhik concerns is if you act intelligently, using Facebook can and should be no different than using email. As such, the stigma has shifted to something more along the lines of “if you’re on Facebook, you probably waste a lot of time.” Touché.

If you’re not (yet) on Facebook, you have probably sat through many conversations in which a friend gives you a thousand reasons why it’s time to get an account. And if you’re smart and have got things under control, you’ve probably got nothing to lose by joining. Worst case scenario, make an account and access it only when you need to contact someone specific. Yet, even if having a Facebook account won’t compromise my ability to be a halakhik, God-fearing Jew, the “why bother?” argument still stands strong. Shouldn’t we be happy with the face-to-face relationships we’ve built and maintained? Why do we need the enhancements Facebook provides? Maybe if a friend or relative is far away, reality suggests we should wait until we see them next to talk to them. Or pick up the phone. Heck, there was no comparable option ten years ago.  Thirty years ago parents were lucky if they heard from their child spending a year in Israel once a month. Today, I wonder how any eighteen-year-olds blessed with the privilege of retreating for a full year and enshrouding themselves in study and introspection can truly “grow up” and “find themselves” (clichés we all strive for) without taking some reasonable break from the world of Facebook. Ignoring what every friend has done in the past twelve hours is probably a good thing. Draw the relevant parallels.

Facebook connects us, but maybe a little too much. Each day I pass someone in a hallway or in Nagel’s whom I don’t yet know, but have seen them in friend’s pictures on Facebook. That’s not normal. In a given week I can easily know more about what’s going on in the life of my dorm neighbor from last year than I do about my own grandfather’s. It’s kind of sad, and at the very least a bit distorted.

At this point, Facebook has become so useful in productive social endeavors and important to living a happy, social life it is hard to suggest that anyone abstain from creating an account or delete their existing one. It is, however, important to continually remind ourselves what it’s there for. Use it to connect to those close in sentiment but all too far in person. Use it to participate in useful and interesting groups. Use it to ask favors, recommend funny articles and share witty status updates.  Just remember that though we may be refined people, we are not impervious to the traps of inappropriate content, lashon harah and wasting loads and loads of time. I’m no zealot, not here to judge. But after five years of being on Facebook, it’s time to begin thinking more carefully about why I’m there and what goes on there. I don’t think it’s unfair to make time for reassessing institutions and ensuring that they’re helping us become the best people possible and not taking away from our ability to live as productive individuals.

Recently I heard about a chavrusa’s engagement from a status update. Saddened I did not receive a phone call, I hit “Like.” It’s the least I can do.