Facebook and Sustainability

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In another post about Facebook Kari Henley asks, “Are facebook friends really your friends?” The answer is by no means clear. But, in writing this column, Henley points to an important social fact—as a society, we are impoverished when it comes to relationships.

Technically then, it really doesn’t matter if you feel comforted by others online or feel nourished at church or connected at a company retreat; we all need varied experiences of friendship and community in our lives. I have written extensively about community and believe there is much to nosh on here. What’s behind the movement is essentially - we are starved for one another. That is why Facebook took off across the generations. We crave opportunities to see a friendly face and know the silly details of each others lives. It fills a void.

The experience of loneliness is a widespread societal wound. I believe, when we get down to the root, what we’re craving is not physical or cyber connections, but Meaningful connections. Humans are hardwired to gather together as a means of survival, and loneliness prompts a “desire to affiliate” according to John Cacioppo, author of the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. I have quoted him before as his research is so powerful.

“You can have all the ‘right’ friends in terms of social prestige, in-group cachet, or business connections, or a spouse who is rich, brilliant and fabulous looking, but if there is no deep, emotional resonance, then none of these relationships will satisfy the hunger for connection or ease the pain of feeling isolated.”

Henley is a skeptic, like me, but points to positive responses she has found in her reportage.

Plenty out there believe these sites are solid and viable resources for maintaining connections, and the wave of the future. Some of you spoke of how you enjoy the broad networks you can manage easily, as well as nostalgic components of finding old friends and delighting in renewed connections. One of our readers said she joined Facebook, met old elementary school friends she had lost touch with, and was making plans for a reunion in New York City.

I will stick with my more negative view. Facebook adds meaning to some lives. But how meaningful can the discovery of a former high school classmate be? After 30 years of neglect, does this discovery do anything more than provide a monetary rush of nostalgia? I believe that the popularity of Facebook and other computer- or smart phone-based social networking contributes to unsustainability. Sustainability has a human as well as the more talked about natural dimension.

Sustainability will not come forth until humans put aside their immersion in a having mode of life and recover the caring foundation of being. Caring comes in the cultivation of people, not as some electronic avatar, but as a living human being with whom you share more than ephemeral moments. It is difficult for me to see how Facebook can do more than produce having. Even if it seems satisfying to youth—Henley says most teens deeply crave connection—the feelings are likely to be short-lived, and the skills that enable meaningful relationships in the context of close encounters are not likely to develop. The question I have is whether the technology creates the “need” or whether the need creates the technology. Probably a little of both at first, but the tilt seems to be moving towards the dominance of the technology. That does not bode well for sustainability.

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