What Facebook Makes Us

In an interview toward the end of his life, Michel Foucault pointed out that for all the interest in power that his work had generated, he was really more interested in the subject and what effects various forces of power had in terms of creating certain kinds of subjectivities.

Those of us who work within and think about the church ought to be concerned about subjectivity. One obvious reason: liturgical formation is meant to make us certain kinds of subjects, or perhaps more colloquially in a theological manner, “a peculiar people.”

It has been pointed out in countless ways that technology makes us certain kinds of subjects. No technology, we should say, is neutral. While it is always helping us to do something, it is also always doing something to us and to our world (in fact, it is making our world in a particular way). No doubt, we cannot reflect comprehensively on this phenomenon, least of all because we would use some sort of technology in order to perform our reflection. But at least one particular technology deserves ongoing reflection: Facebook (and one might add, Twitter and other social media projects that share similar features). Facebook as a technology, and further as a mode of communication with the other, deserves ongoing reflection especially from those who work in or think about the church because of the kinds of subjects it is making us (along with those whom we shepherd and serve).

The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is renowned in our conversational circles for bringing to our attention the Face as the beginning of philosophy and theology. The Face for Levinas raised ethics to first philosophy/theology, over and against ontology. The presentation of the Face, the revelation of that other before me, demands response. To the face of the other I become captive, responsible even, Levinas would suggest, in an infinite sense (however much the position of “infinite responsibility” has been criticized). Before ontological reality can be reflected upon, the ethical interaction has taken place and created space for all further reflection.

It seems that the operations of Facebook play off this phenomenon of responsibility to the other in a strange manner. Facebook invites us all to share our thoughts with the world. The invitation, “What’s on your mind?” (as we are ever invited to share), seems to build on the assumption of a Face, an other who is doing the inviting. But “who” is really doing the inviting? “Who” is actually presenting the invitation to share? Practically, of course, this invitation is quite confusing at present, with all of the ways we can interact with those to whom we are connected on Facebook, all the while limiting (at least to some extent) the disclosures we make to “only our friends” or “everyone.”

But again, “who” extends the invitation to disclosure? And, if/when/whatever we might disclose, “who” will see it and respond? After all, to disclose would be to seek a response in the Levinasian sense. It’s like saying “hello” or smiling at a passerby—such acts hope for a response. Disclosing on Facebook hopes for a response. But from whom? And “to whom” do we make disclosure, to whom we might ask, do we “expose” ourselves?

In many ways it is true to say the invitation comes from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Consequently, to post on Facebook—whatever it might be that we are disclosing or exposing—is broadcast to everyone and no one at the same time. Facebook, while operating with the ethical pattern of response Levinas describes, seems to carry out that operation while floating on an ontological reality by means of which Facebook can even exist. Perhaps parasitism is a better metaphor. That is, because we have face-to-face interactions in the world, Facebook functions on the basis of our experience of such phenomenon, assuming that the same kinds of interactions can be extended, if in a simulated sense, in the virtual world. But the invitation to disclosure or exposure comes from nowhere and everywhere (at any rate, definitely not from “someone”). Facebook, while assuming the face which demands a response in order for its anonymous invitation to be possible, is actually faceless.

To return to the idea of subjectivity, we might ask for concrete concerns about what Facebook is doing to us in terms of altering our imagination and practice of community. No doubt, it’s changing. And that change is happening without our awareness of it. Simply engaging in the act of responding to the invitation is formative for us in some way—only God knows exactly how. It’s striking how many people within the church have told me they are looking for greater or deeper community in their lives. Often this is one of the reasons they have joined or become more active in the church. It’s of further interest just how many academic works reflect on this sociological phenomenon. Simultaneous to the pursuit of community is the birth and explosion of the virtual community (and shall we call it also a practice?) of Facebook. Its purpose, at least initially, was to foster and maintain a certain sense and kind of community. But what kind of community is it creating? And how is that community in competition with that of the church, the paradigmatic eschatological community?

It was Derrida’s appeal to hospitality which, for many, brought to mind the church as the paradigmatic form of community where true hospitality (should) could be found. There, one would experience unconditional acceptance. Yet, many of us know  the church is often not such a hospitable community (or we don’t have to look far to find personal testimonies about this unfortunate reality). In the midst of a desperate search to be welcomed into a community that says, “come as you are,” Facebook extends its invitation. And we respond to the faceless bid of welcome—“tell me anything and everything, I just want to know.” But there is no “I.” It is as if Facebook is part of the newest layer of cultural sediment, resting upon the geological foundation of bodily interaction. We are further becoming virtual subjects. What is the future of community after Facebook? Imagine what anthropologists of the next generation will write about this phenomenon.

Concretely, it seems as if we are invited into the most hospitable of worlds. Say what you want here. Say everything. It’s all welcome. Your voice will be heard. But say it to whom? Who is listening? And is it really accepted? Will anyone really care? From the other side, as readers of “others” who post on Facebook, how do we know (in the words of Slavoj Zizek) that we are “in touch with the ‘real other’ behind the screen, not only with spectral simulacra?” Perhaps we are projecting idealized images of ourselves. Perhaps we’re reading them from others. That begs the question of Zizek’s “real” other. How would Levinas understand what it means to respond to an other that is a simulacra?

What is Facebook making us? What kind of subjects are we becoming? How is Facebok creating a new subjectivity? How is Facebook shaping how we respond to the other and all the others with whom we interact and toward whom we gesture, bid, greet, and the like? What is it doing to us when, in light of the fact that there is no “real” face, the ethical interaction is no longer obligatory but merely optional? What are we becoming if/when we do not respond? What does the banal act of hitting the “Like” button do to us? What happens to our local community when we create a virtual instantiation of that community in/on Facebook as a “group” and when we use the technology to create and coordinate “events?” How is our ritualistic (liturgical?) use of Facebook in conflict with our liturgical practices in the ecclesia? This is especially pertinent and pressing when our liturgical use of Facebook is an ecclesial practice (does your church have a Facebook page, or more than one?).

I’m only scratching the surface here, and leaving out myriad other relevant questions (and nuances) along the way. But as a reflective practitioner, these thoughts and questions bug me. In part because I don’t have answers. In part because I know full well (do I?) my own complicity with technologies like Facebook and wonder how I am unwittingly being made into a particular someone. As one called to shepherd God’s people, the weight of my responsibility for others carries these questions and concerns toward an overwhelming oblivion. Perhaps here in this different—but no less virtual—community of the blogosphere, I might connect with “real” others who will carry the burden of my concern with me.

  • Gary Wake

    These are good questions. I particularly like the FB liturgy vs. ecclesia liturgy. Of course, we also have to take into account reports which seem to indicate higher social interaction from fb users. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2004338/Facebook-users-close-friends-social-support-trusting-network.html for one example.

    • ChadLakies

      Interesting, but brief article there. What the researchers note makes sense, at least in terms of what seems to be the self-reporting of those who participated in the study. But I still wonder about the whole trust issue – I’m afraid of that trust being too naive, or becoming more naive because of the “perceived” honesty of Facebook. Nevertheless, I can only speak from my own experience here (from where else do we speak?), so what it’s worth across the board is perhaps negligible. My experience causes me to question whether I can trust others on Facebook. Why? Because I’m too aware that we project idealized images of ourselves in the real world (yes, I do it too), and so I wonder how much more we do that on Facebook. Thus I’m concerned about trust. Simultaneously, I don’t just want to swing the other direction and exhibit an utter lack of trust. The mess of this situation is part of why I’m driven to write about this and ask others to think about it with me. Like your comment, the experience of others is worth reflecting on to inform our own reflections.

  • Will Graham

    Brilliant analysis.

  • Chris T.

    How ironic that at the time of my reading, 23 people “liked” via Facebook this article.

    • ChadLakies

      Hi Chris. I knew this irony would come. I also linked the article to my circle of friends on Facebook, noting the irony of that whole thing. Here’s what I posted when I included the link: “o I wrote an article about using Facebook. I’m using Facebook to suggest that you read it. You will use Facebook to click thru and read it. After you read it, the irony of this move will come crashing upon you. What can I do?”

  • http://philbaumann.com philbaumann

    It’s refreshing to see others interesting in exploring the subtle, beneath-the-tip-of-the-iceberg ramifications of social and other digital media.

    I’ve been reflecting our need for a genealogy of social media, and how perhaps we need to revisit the works of Foucault, Braudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Heidegger, Agamben and others.

    These technologies, and their cultural impacts, are evolving with such rapidity that I wonder how the world will look like in just five to ten years.

    So, no – you’re not the the only “real” other who bears this concern of what social media make us.

  • Michael D. Bobo

    In line with Erich Fromm’s work, I see FB as a huge player in dehumanizing us as merchandise to consume by others. I wrote about it
    and I am likewise at a loss. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/emergentvillage/2012/06/an-economic-pitfall/)

  • http://twitter.com/Doops54 Donald Wester

    I have been thinking about whether or not it is possible to have community beyond the horizon of feeling (Face). There are many (myself included) who are exploring the use of facebook as a means of being community beyond this horizon. The ethical issues raised in this and other essays on the subject are helpful and daunting.

    • Chad Lakies

      Thanks Donald. Indeed, daunting is the word. For further reading, check out Rachel Ward’s most recent post from yesterday. Thanks for reading.