Next up in my trawl of digital spirituality writing is Jesse Rice’s mildly provocatively titled Church of Facebook. Rice is has been a youth worker and worship leader, and now appropriately enough, lives in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley which is home to Facebook et al.

This has some excellent insights and helpful suggestions – and yes, whether we like it or not, Facebook is important. The stats of its usage are simply extraordinary.

The Facebook Phenomenon

  • Having started at Harvard in 2004, and then opened its doors to anyone over the age of 12 in 2005, it had grown by 2009 to such an extent that 70% of its members were outside the USA.
  • By late 2008, the fastest growing demographic was 55-year old women!
  • At the same time the 35-54 year old age group was growing 276% and the 25-34 group doubled.
  • If Facebook was a country, it would be the 3rd largest in the world (dwarfed only by China and India).

This is nuts. And yet it is only the start of what Mark Zuckerberg and his gang want.

MZ: the one to thank or blame?

Jessi Hempel, a writer for Fortune magazine, describes the breadth of Zuckerberg’s vision:

‘[Zuckerberg’s] ultimate goal is… to turn Facebook into the planet’s standardized communication (and marketing) platform, as ubiquitous and intuitive as the telephone but far more interactive, multidimensional – and indispensable. Your Facebook ID quite simply will be your gateway to the digital world, Zuckerberg predicts. ‘We think that if you can build one worldwide platform where you can just type in anyone’s name, find the person your’e looking for, and communicate with them,’ he told a German audience in January (2009), ‘that’s a really valuable system to be building.’ … In other words, ‘Facebook will be where people live their digital lives.’ (p61)

The Facebook Impact

Now even if other things crop up to replace/supplant it, there are big implications for those who live their lives online and depend on social networking. And as the author has a psychology masters, the book is at its most convincing when it draw on those who understand cyberlife’s psychological impact. In particular:

1. Having an Audience

Emily Nussbaum, editor-at-large for New York Magazine, offers an example of how this works. She says what sets apart from the members of the ‘Facebook generation’ from its predecessors is that they “assume they have an audience”. Columnist Patrick Reardon, who quotes Nussbaum, takes up her thought: ‘They have a mental image of a large group of people interested in postings such as ’25 random things’. Part of their identity rests on an invisible entourage that accompanies them everywhere.’ (p111)

2. Revelation not Reticence

The world of online social networking is practically homogenous in one sense. Its users are committed to self-exposure. The creation and conspicuous consumption of intimate details and images of one’s own and others’ lives is the main activity in the social networking world. There is no room for reticence, there is only revelation. (p112)

3. Constant Presence

Danah Boyd says our technology ‘collapses spatial boundaries and social contexts, blurring social roles and brining audiences together who might not normally be co-present.’ (p128)

Now, this all might sound pretty negative and worrying – those who are not online probably wince at the thought of it all (and I speak as someone who’s been on Facebook for several years, and find that some aspects of my work seem only to work through it). But if it is merely different rather than better or worse than what we’re used to, then the case needs to be made. I’m not sure that this is the book to do that.

What is clear, though, and Rice is up front about this, it describes the reality of those who have grown up with the web. We have to deal with that accordingly. It’s no use bemoaning culture shifts – we’ve got to work out what to do with them. And that is what the Church of Facebook seeks to do.

Living with Facebook (etc, etc)

Yet I couldn’t help feeling that the title was a little grandiose, and the subtitle simply overblown. I enjoyed much of what Jesse Rice had to say – but couldn’t always quite pin him down. He delights in extended illustrations at the start of each chapter or section – some of these are fascinating, certainly, and I did enjoy discovering more about the psychological affects of space travel, the publicity for ‘The World’ islands in Dubai, and the background to air-conditioning systems and the Hubble Space Telescope. I’ve made notes of all of them and they’ve duly gone in my talks illustrations files! Curiously enough, his running gag is what happened when our very own Millennium Bridge across the Thames (between St Paul’s and the Tate Modern) was opened, which was fun. But I felt that an editor’s scissors (or CtrlX) should have been exercised much more.

In fact, this book could have been half the length and no less insightful or useful – and actually more so, because it would then be more likely to be read by non-bookish facebook addicts. Which raises a curiosity about the very existence of books designed to help those who live online. Are they the right medium? Well, I for one hope so. I still believe in books – and so do lots of people (as suggested by Amazon’s sustained profits). But I suspect more work needs to be done to get the non-bookish into reading books.

Which raises the issue of who this book is aimed at primarily. There is some good practical advice at the end, but it seems to me that the people most likely to read this are nervous older folks and pastors trying to understand what the fuss is all about. And ifyou want that, then I’d recommend Shane Hipps’ Flickering Pixels over this book. Rice seems less of a Facebook sceptic than Hipps, and I think on the whole I’m with him on that. This was shown through what was one of the more helpful sections, an account of an online dialogue between Hipps, Anne Jackson and Scot McKnight about whether authentic Christian community is possible online. Not least because of the book’s subtitle, I was hoping for much more on this. But it did throw up a gem in Jackson’s subtle distinction about what is going on online:

I believe what happens online is connection – not community.  People can be vulnerable and honest online. And at times these online connections can be more life-giving than many of our offline relationships, but they are not the same. (p167)

And that’s the best thing in social networking’s favour: Facebook really can foster community and relationships… with emphasis on the ‘can’. But there are pitfalls aplenty – and one of them is that we become careless about what we’re doing and post things that irrevocably reveal too much. So the best piece of advice Rice gives is for people to have intentional godliness and humility in their online life. As he rightly says:

The great challenge in being always-on, is that it rarely enables us to be consciously intentional. More often than not, it thwarts on-purpose living by creating in us a need to respond to what is most urgent than what is most valuable. In other words, our hyperconnectivity can lead to hyperactivity. (p189)

All in all – an enjoyable read with some excellent contributions. I’m glad to have read it – but sadly, I’m not sure it’s the definitive book nor necessarily the best book to lend to those fully immersed. Having said that, I’m not sure what is yet… so you can do a lot worse than lend this!

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Anne Jackson

    Funny to find yourself quoted in a book…Thanks for sharing!

    1. markmeynell

      that’s what happens when you’re a cyber presence I guess!

  2. Nick

    Hello Mark,

    You should think about writing a literature review of all digital spirituality writing for some publication like the Church Times. I’m sure it would be helpful for others to have this stuff reviewed and digested by one who has been thinking about it for a while. Or better still, record your own literature review and put it out on YouTube!


    1. markmeynell

      well i’m working on something a bit like this to produce a paper outline a philosophy for our church website! however, so little time, so little time…!

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