Facebook Is No Friend

If Mark Zuckerberg tries to friend me, I will decline. Nothing personal. His vision just doesn’t resonate with me, so why let him into my social network?

Zuckerberg, in case your cave isn’t wired, is Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. He is 26 years old, and a billionaire for inventing Facebook, where people share personal information, photos, and random thoughts with people of their choosing. Because of Zuckerberg, “friend” became a verb. To friend someone is to include him or her on your list of those with whom you wish to share.

If you think that “friending” (and “unfriending,” which is what happens when you tire of someone’s presence on your list, so you cut him loose) should be about depth of relationship, rather than clicking a mouse, read on.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Facebook, to an extent. I use it professionally – along with all the other popular communication tools. If you sell anything – especially a service or an idea, you want to reach out to your clients and supporters, and allow them to strengthen their loyalty to you by linking to each other and forming an affinity group. Facebook makes it easy.

I have misgivings, however, about what the new communication modalities are doing to our use of time, our relationships, our communication skills – and even our brains. (If you are not joined at the hip to your computer like I am, don’t turn the page just yet. The new generations of cell phones offer full integration with Facebook, Twitter, and a variety of instant messaging options. Experience shows that if it is offered with the equipment, people will use it. You may be next.)

We are getting used to talking to each other in short, terse phrases. We use emoticons for expression, instead of lyrical prose. We have programmed ourselves to expect and demand incessant, rapid-fire stimulation. We fidget when our fingers are not busy. We favor email over phone calls because we can be more efficient and not waste time on social graces.

Couple these observations with other epiphenomena of the digital age, and we are looking at major changes in the way we think. On a webpage, our eyes take in simultaneously multiple banks of text, sounds, colors – all competing for our attention. We learn to diffuse our attention, rather than train it on one item, as we do on a page of print. By now, years of research, according to Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains, indicates that the way in which we stimulate our brain creates different kinds of neuronal connections. (Maybe that’s why the current Daf Yomi selection just isn’t working for my Nashim/Nezikim saturated brain!) We are training our brains to take in more – but losing the capacity to take in anything deeply. Meanwhile, YouTube substitutes images for ideas as the favored method of argumentation.

No wonder that our mechanchim report that the attention span of our children is shrinking; that kids are growing less capable of deeper analysis; that the most animated and dynamic of our rabbeim feel that they are no match for the explosive excitement of video fantasy.

We return to Facebook, and the message of my non-friend, Mr. Zuckerberg: “openness” is good. Zuckerberg is pledged to the goal of an open world, in which each of us can find a much greater number of people to populate our personal universes. I can’t help but feel surprised that he does not recognize a compelling analogy: Facebook is to relationships what the Internet is to knowledge. There is no question that the Net puts more information at our fingertips than we could have imagined a generation ago. Also true, however, is that we have become more poorly equipped to squeeze deeper meaning out of that information. Facebook is doing the same to our friendships. It puts more people in our paths, but encourages more superficiality in our associations. We are also at risk of becoming narcissistic (creating our private worlds in which we choose and control all the “parameters”), narrow (we need interact only with those who match our interests and criteria, easily shutting out diversity), and trivial (should our friends really care if we just burnt our toast?).

Perhaps if Mr. Zuckerberg were not a self-styled atheist, he might be able to understand that friendship has to do with baring the content of a person’s soul, something that cannot be done in the 140 characters of a tweet, or a succession of quick messages on a Facebook wall. He might then be able to appreciate the wisdom of R. Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, who pointed out that, contrary to what people believe, Yosef did not find release from captivity because he successfully interpreted the dreams of his cellmates. Rather, he looked at them one morning, and noticed something different on their faces. “Why do you appear downcast today?” They had not said a word. Yosef, who had every reason to be absorbed in his own self-pity, was released from his cell because he saw the anguish on the faces of two other human beings, and reacted to it. You can’t do that digitally.

Maybe if I met Mark Zuckerberg, instead of forming my opinion from so many digital bytes, I would think differently of him. Maybe that’s the point.

This essay first appeared in this week’s Ami Magazine, and is published with permission.

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11 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    I think the problem isn’t with facebook, but with not using it correctly. I use it to have in-depth arguments with people, often people whose opinions and experiences are very different from my own. I know a recently widowed lady who uses it for emotional support, and claims that even short messages she receives when she’s down, such as *HUGS*, help her.

    Is it a substitute to face to face relationships? No. But it provides functionality that may not be available otherwise. I can’t go visit this lady and help her, she lives in Georgia, very far from Texas. Just as cross-currents allows me to some visibility into a society that I’m unlikely to encounter at home.

  2. yitznewton says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. I’ve seen much in a similar vein – though I don’t think I’ve read much of it in depth 😉

    What is missing in the pieces I’ve read (including this one) is a clear demonstration of *why* superficiality is a bad thing. I think most of us reading this will agree that it is, but I also think we need to really understand how and why it’s at odds with living our lives with the Almighty. Those of us who have been in an urban profession for any length of time need constant chizuk in this.

    I have heard some denounce Facebook as a homewrecker, i.e. that people (fully committed Orthodox Jews) stumble into extra-marital relationships via Facebook. That objection doesn’t resonate with me; I have a hard time blaming Facebook use if we are so weak or ready to “play around” that all we need is Facebook to open the door. R’ Adlerstein, would you advocate against using Facebook in one’s personal life for this reason?

  3. cvmay says:

    Surprised that you did not include the blatant hatred, hostility towards Israel and the Jewish people, that Zuckerberg does not delete or find offense with.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Some relationships are worth having on a superficial level and others not. If Facebook is misused, the responsibility lies with the user. Those who overdo their participation because of peer pressure need to find better peers.

  5. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, this is one of those rare occasions that I must, at least in part, disagree with you.

    Along the lines of what Ori said, it really depends on how one uses Facebook. If one friends every Tom, Dick and Shloimie that comes along and one ends up with 4000 virtual strangers on one’s list of friends, then there is merit to some of your concerns. However, if one is relatively discriminating on Facebook as they might be in real life then the experience can enhance one’s relationships.

    Our typical social day does not generally involve deeply involved philosophical conversations. We generally share snippets with our friends and relatives; a “how are you doing” after shul, a quick call to a sibling to share a tidbit about the kids, etc. To that extent Facebook replicates and enhances, with the addition of multimedia, these interactions. In a sense, Facebook can be an antidote to the isolation and anonymity that the web has fostered until now. As opposed to anonymously commenting on blogs, chatting in chat rooms, playing chess and whatnot, Facebook forces one to reveal himself. Obviously, like everything else, that can be taken to an extreme, but when used properly and in moderation it can greatly heal some of the social damage that’s being caused by our electronic age.

    For someone like me, who made Aliyah and works independently in the house, Facebook has been a blessing. It allows me to maintain relationships with friends and family back in the states with the same comfort and ease as if I still lived around the corner. Just this week I’ve been “sharing” the blizzard with everyone as if I was there. (Believe it or not snow storms are something I truly miss.) And in lieu of the “water cooler” chats I used to have in the office I can share and discuss a news article or interesting blog posts (!) with friends and associates. And some these discussions are as deep and thought-provoking as the ones we used to have in the office.

    Another friend who was widowed at a young age over a year ago has been able to use her Facebook community as a source of comfort and catharsis. She reached out to friends and friends of her late husband to create a warm supporting environment. She undertook a major change this year, moving herself and kids to foreign country, and we’ve been with her every step of the way.

    I don’t know Mr. Zuckerberg, but if I met him I would thank him for creating something which really has enhanced my life. Like everything else in the world, but especially in our modern age, there is good and bad. Sometimes the bad is so overwhelming that it’s worth missing out on the good, but often, with just a little effort, we can extract the good without rejecting the “whole”.

    [YA – We don’t really disagree that much. The purpose of the piece was to get people thinking about the mulitiple layers of problems. The goal would be as you say: finding the proper way to use any innovation, and using it only to our advantage. Unfortunately, the majority of people that I observe using FB are not channeling its use to noble purposes.]

  6. L. Oberstein says:

    To bring this discussion to another matter of Jewish concern, I would like to share a problem that is bothering synagogue administrators . Because of the new “Facebook Society”, people nno longer feel the need to affiliate with a synagogue or organization. We live in a “virtual world” where our friends are on the internet and our sociaization is virtual. If we are smart, we can figure out how to reach people in the new paradigm. In the meantime, Conservative and Reform Temples bemoan the loss of members and the lack of interest of the youth in joining. The Reform Movement is having a series of town hall style meetings on how to econfigurate the movement to meet the challenges of the new technology. This is a big deal and we are only at the beginning of the process. Imagine when people used newspaper want ads to rent an apartment or sell a car, no longer.It’s on Craig’s List. The world is changing and we are just dumbfounded.

  7. Aaron says:

    My Facebook rule is to never friend anyone I haven’t met — I’ve gotten LOTS of requests based upon my comments I’ve left from people who liked what I said. Though it’s against the “rules”, I have a second account for an anonymous blog alias,

    For professional connections, LinkedIn is a bit “safer”.

    Not a big fan of people who use FB for business networking and who use it to pitch me their business on a more than once-per-quarter basis.

    I’ve found FB nice to keep in touch with school and local friends.

    Concerning my yeshiva and Beis Yaacov-aged children, I emphatically encourage them not to consider FB until after their sheva brachos. One of my daughters, then a Bais Yaacov senior, “wondered/worried” about my FB account. At first I said it was my business, but then a few minutes later I logged back in with her looking on and examining all my “FB” friends. Her conclusion was that my use was harmless and that I was merely being an uncool “dweeb”. I can live with that. Oh, I don’t play a single FB “game”.


    1) Create “pages” for specific purposes “Cross Currents”, a sefer you’ve written, a personal “fan page”, etc.
    2) Aggressively “prune” friends and encourage them to join one of the above if that’s what connects them to you.
    3) As befits, “promote” someone whom you’ve grown to know better to your inner “FB Friend” circle.
    4) Learn how to suppress the reports by “FB friends” of the virtual games they play. It drastically shortens the daily report of friend/family news.

    I’ve only been de-friended by people who disagree with my politics and can’t bear to be associated with my fascism/racism/bigotry/xenophobia/homophobia/Islamophobia/globalwarmistism/meat-eating etc. or anyone to the right of Dennis Kucinich. By contrast, I don’t mind listening to those who disagree with my politics — I’ve only de-friended a few clueless types who continue to invite me to virtual games despite my repeated requests not to.

  8. mycroft says:

    .” (Maybe that’s why the current Daf Yomi selection just isn’t working for my Nashim/Nezikim saturated brain!) ”

    I learnt daf yomi for more than a cycle and stopped during 2nd cycle when I returned to Kodashim-about where the current daf is. I used to prepare an hour, go to a shiur, and review after shiur-before the days of Art Scroll Talmud. In my case it was Moed/Nashim plus Sanhedrin saturated brain.

  9. Aaron says:

    Forgot to note that I also maintain my shul’s FB presence as well as that of our community eruv website and FB presence. Both FB sites are membership-only.

    Going to where the audience is for eruv status notifications or for BDE/levaya notices is a reasonable use of the technology.

  10. Raymond says:

    Before I read what others say, I would like to voice my independent opinion here. I will then read what other people said here.

    I certainly agree that one cannot develop the kind of depth in relationships online that one can develop in person. After all, one would hope that deep relationships are based on more than words appearing on a screen. There is simply no substitute for real life. FaceBook is most definitely its own little fantasy world.

    Having said that, I see so many advantages to the Internet in general, and FaceBook in particular. Precisely because I can choose who is on my Friends list, I can choose to communicate exclusively with people who share a worldview similar to my own. This may seem like an insular world, kind of like what the chareidim strive to do, but frankly, I need such a world. I have too much strife in my real life as it is, so much so that it is difficult for me to maintain any kind of healthy self-esteem based on my real-life encounters. In real life, I have to watch every word I say, and even then, too many people find a way to get offended by what I have to say, thanks to the totalitarian scourge of political correctness. On FaceBook, in sharp contrast, I find people sharing my views, which has done a lot to boost my self-confidence, knowing that I am not alone in my thoughts, that others share them with me, that I am not crazy after all. People even seem to value what I have to say, based on the numerous responses I receive.

    Plus, if somebody on FaceBook does offend me, there is always the delete button. I have wished so many times that some of the people who have caused me such strife in real life, could be removed from my life with the simple press of the Delete Button. Some people may say that this is running away from reality, but I say that real life is tough enough, and sometimes a person needs a little island of sanity, where there is no strife, where people who see eye to eye, can talk to each other. I have become acquainted with some very nice people on FaceBook who live far away from me, and whom I would have never known existed, if not for FaceBook.

    Mark Zuckerberg may be an atheist, and I may be an agnostic, but I thank G-d for FaceBook, as it does bring me some fulfillment. If it did not, I would not spend so much time on it like I do.

  11. Moshe Hillson says:

    To all of you who “lost altitude” when the Daf Yomi reached Kodashim:

    A thing that without it I would not have succeeded in Daf Yomi (I’m now in my 4th cycle) is the Daily Mishna. With Kehati Mishnayot, it’s quite easy to jump onto the “moving train” of the Daily Mishna (and after a few cycles with Kehati it’s possible to even learn the classical Mishna commentaries). Knowing the Mishna is an important pre-requisite for feeling satisfaction and success in learning the Daf Yomi.

    A calender of the Daily Mishna schedule (2 Mishnaiot a day) can be obtained from:

    The World Enterprise for Learning the Daily Mishna
    2 Torat Haim st.
    Bnai Brak, Israel 51613

    Tel. +972-3-6764925.

    P.S. I don’t deny that Kodashim is difficult, especially the first chapters of tractate Zevahim, which is as complicated as tractate Yevamot.

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