Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Isolation Network?


Are you on Facebook? Over 500 million people are. Over half of them check their Facebook page each day. Facebook is easily one of the most popular websites on the internet. Many people see it as a way to connect with old friends or to stay connected with their friends. Some even use Facebook to make new friends. Others, however, see Facebook as a vehicle for isolation in our world. Some argue that there is something fake about Facebook. You aren't really "friends" on Facebook and you don't really know people just because you know what they're doing.

So, who's right? If you're like me, you might realize a tension within you between the isolation Facebook causes and the community it offers. After all, Facebook has given us the ability to "know" people we would never meet on the street or in our workplace, in our church or our neighborhood. We have the ability to talk with anyone and share our lives, even our deepest thoughts and feelings, with them. However, Facebook also gives us permission to be less involved in relationships, doesn't it? We no longer need to talk to people face-to-face when we see them. This raises the question: Why spend time getting involved in a relationship, when we can just spend time, alone, getting to "know" people on Facebook?

The Social Network speaks to us about this tension. It should be noted that the movie was advertised as a story about the creation of Facebook, but it really does more than that. In fact, its focus isn't really on the creation of Facebook. Nor does it really portray the life of Mark Zuckerberg. Nor does it really care much about the lawsuits against Zuckerberg. The Social Network does not focus on any of these aspects. Rather, they all serve as a backdrop to discuss the consequences of the creation of Facebook, both for Zuckerberg in the story and us. The movie brilliantly portrays the tension Facebook and other social media has fostered within our culture:

Though we are interconnected with each other, possibly more than ever in the course of modern history, we are also isolated from each other, possibly more than ever in the course of modern history.

We see this tension portrayed through the Mark Zuckerberg character. For example, while Mark Zuckerberg begins creating his first website, which compares the attractiveness of females on campus, his roommate sits in the background and talks with Mark. But, you hear no voice. You only see his mouth move. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg is busy in his own head, narrating his problems and successes as he goes about creating the website. Though he is in the room with someone else, Zuckerberg is isolated. Flash-forward to a scene where Mark is calling his CFO, Eduardo Saverin, to inform him about an investing deal made to secure the future of Facebook. When he finishes the phone call, he stays outside, separated from the party occurring within the house. Though he has the opportunity to join the fun, he remains isolated. Near the end of the movie, Eduardo Saverin confronts Mark Zuckerberg in the Facebook corporation offices and Zuckerberg is seen in the midst of a busy office wearing headphones as he works. Though he is amongst his friends and employees, he is alone. It is important to keep in mind that there is an implied tension behind all these portrayals of isolation. The movie assumes that you know what Facebook is all about, that you send people friend requests, which connect you to people all over the globe. More importantly, it assumes you know Facebook offers people community.

Perhaps the best portrayal of this tension comes from the opening and closing scenes of the movie. The movie opens with Zuckerberg arguing with his girlfriend. He says a very important line, which can be missed very easily, when he says, "I don't want friends." However, the movie ends with Zuckerberg sitting alone in an empty conference room, staring at his computer. He decides to go to Facebook and find the same girlfriend from the beginning of the movie and send her a friend request. The movie fades out and Mark continually refreshes the web page in order to see if she accepted the request, if she became his friend. Though Zuckerberg may say and act as he wants to be isolated, he really craves friendship. Similarly, though Facebook is a vehicle that may encourage isolation, it helps people find friends.

Even if you do not use Facebook, isolation is a common experience for Americans. In fact, it may be more of a problem than most of us realize. If you're like me, you probably have done away with many of the polite "inconveniences" of life, such as saying, "Good morning" to a total stranger or a friend. I know I've often "looked busy" just to avoid conversation. Have you? Perhaps, when at the grocery store, you ignore the people in the line. How about your neighbors? Do you know them all? I know I do not. Now you may not agree that these examples are examples of isolation and you may not see yourself in them. However, I do know that all of us have our moments of, if not tendencies for, isolation.

Isolation is all the more troubling, because we are created to be in community. In Genesis 2:15, God says, "It is not good that man should be alone." Man is not meant to be alone; it's not good for us. We live better in relationship with one another. We live better in a community. The Social Network encourages us to come to this very conclusion. It does so by portraying the loneliness of isolation, a loneliness that produces pity in most of us. This pity moves us to see the need and beauty of community, which we know is really a gift from God. Fortunately, Christians have a response to those who feel isolated. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to our world to create a community with His creation. God became flesh in order to show us His desire for our lives, that is, to be in a relationship with Him and with other people. Because of this, we have the desire to share our lives with one another, to live together, to be in community with one another.

One final point to consider is the ultimate question of the movie: "Is Facebook or, by extension, are the other social networks, real community?" Though I do not intend to answer this question, I will give you some questions that may help you consider it.

Has Facebook helped you to connect with long-lost friends?
Does Facebook help you keep in contact with your friends?
Will the friends you have on Facebook pick you up from the airport?
Will those Facebook friends console you when you are sad?
Will they bring you chicken soup when you're sick?

These questions are meant to get at the deeper question, "Are we able to be in a God-given relationship with people on Facebook?" In the end, this is not an easy question to answer, but a question we need to consider. The Social Network is an encouragement for us to do so.