I remember standing outside my dorm hall, a newly minted freshman in college, on the phone with a buddy from high school telling me to sign up for this thing called “Face Account,” or “Thing,” or “Book.”
“Ah, it’s Facebook!” I said to myself when I got off the phone and found the sparse, white and faded blue website online. And within 15 minutes (the site was much simpler back then), I had created an account and joined what would be one of the most world-altering corporations of all time. It’s crazy to think that 15 years ago there was no such thing as “a wall,” FB messaging, or a surge of paranoia about algorithmic data hoarding.
The platform, originally called “The Facebook,” was officially launched on February 4th, 2004. This means we just passed the 15th birthday for what is today a prominent member of the ominously named “frightful five” powerful tech companies of the world.
As we pass this anniversary, I thought it was a good time to take stock of my relationship with this new form of communication that has become so ubiquitous that’s often simply taken for granted. In my assessment, I applied one, simple question: After 15 years, has Facebook made my life better or worse? The answer, of course, isn’t simple, but perhaps sharing some of my insights will help you evaluate your relationship with the platform.
On the plus side, Facebook has helped me stay connected to people from previous seasons of life and remain tangentially in the “know” of their lives. I’ve enjoyed being able to message old friends from time to time, or scroll through the latest photo album detailing the newest member of a cousin’s family. In this way, it has made the world feel smaller, in a good way.
I’ve also benefited from it professionally, being able to reach out to mentors doing similar work and forging new ways to collaborate. And it has been a means of grace. There have been countless times when I’ve come across a comforting or illuminating prayer, article, or story that I really needed to see. And having recently moved 3,000 miles away from where I spent the last 30 years of my life, it has helped me feel less lonely at times and still very much connected to loved ones across the country.
We all know that it has been harmful in other ways, however.
Although we have yet to know how Facebook’s infinite repository of personal data will shape society in the long term, I have never truthfully been that paranoid about it on a personal level (for right or for wrong). I understand the role advertising plays in the modern economy and how a technology like Facebook can augment such a role. If I have to be bombarded with distracting videos or banner ads, at least it’ll be for products or services that somewhat align with the interests I’ve signaled with my profile or online behavior.
With that said, there are valid concerns with how Facebook uses data in conjunction with its algorithms — being fed a circumscribed set of content can solidify what’s been referred to as the “echo chamber” and create a more polarized and less critical society. This is obviously a major issue, and perhaps one of the biggest and most glaring items in the minus column when it comes to Facebook’s impact on the world.
On a personal level, there are certainly some negative effects I’ve experienced from Facebook. At times, it has spurred jealousy or feelings of insecurity and failure by comparing certain parts of my life to the gold-tinged pieces of life others represent on Facebook: engagements and weddings, trips to Bora Bora and the Alps, brunches squarely in paradise with bottomless mimosas.
I’ve also found it to be a means of escape for my own boredom of ennui — I can lose myself for hours in trivial videos and superfluous comments. I always walk away from those bouts of Facebook-binging with a deep sense of malaise, knowing my time could certainly have been better spent. In not allowing myself to feel deeply my own boredom or restlessness, I’m unable to pry deeper into my own soul and recognize my need for the only One who can offer true fulfillment.
And at times Facebook has also made the world smaller in a bad way: hours spent looking at my phone are hours lost to connecting with real human beings in my presence. This has had major consequences — our generation is experiencing heightened depression and anxiety because of constant exposure to social media.
Dr. Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown, wrote a book called Deep Work, in which he discusses the value of committing oneself to uninterrupted, intensely-focused labor that can be tremendously beneficial for both our productivity and the satisfaction we feel about our work. He devotes a section of the book to social media, and its dopamine-firing effect that can keep us from reaching a state of “deep work.” He advises taking time away from Facebook and other social media platforms and recording whether your life is better or worse for it. If it’s worse without those connections, then go ahead and reintroduce Facebook and other social platforms back into your life. But if life remains unchanged, or better without them — and he suspects that for many this will be the case — then do away with them altogether.
It’s a drastic measure worth considering, but I think there is a healthy way to include social media platforms like Facebook in our lives. Facebook can indeed be a great gift if it’s used well. Over the years I’ve had to limit my use, however, and those decisions always seem to enrich life for me.
Like any technology, Facebook remains a neutral tool embedded with potential for both good and bad. If it’s bringing me closer to others and God through the content I’m reading and the relationships I’m sustaining and forming, then Facebook is serving as a blessing in my life. But when it’s limiting my thinking in prescriptive ways or keeping me from engaging with the flesh-and-blood people in my physical presence, then it becomes a type of curse.
Perhaps, then, Facebook has been little bit of both for me — a blessing and a curse — these last 15 years, and what matters, then, are my approach and intentions. I’m not sure how this platform, dreamt up in a small Cambridge dorm room 15 years ago, will transform the world over the next 15 years, but as long as I’m making sure it’s drawing me closer to God and others, it should hopefully continue to be a gift to me and others.