Facebook: Congregational, not parochial

2009-06-20 18:54

Got sucked into facebook by some friends. Fascinating toy; I can have lists of people I know from all over and watch updates about their lives, see news things they think are interesting to share, and so on.

This is very cool, in some ways. It allows us to create our own community — a community containing the people we want to be in touch with, no matter where they are.

This is not all good.

Screwtape once wrote (perhaps prompted by C. S. Lewis):

Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realize that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of church going, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.

The reasons are obvious. In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desire. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.

This applies directly to toys like Facebook. If the bulk of my political news is forwarded to me by people I get along with, who generally agree with me, I’m going to get political news weighted towards presentations that support my beliefs. If I hang around with people who are “fans” of the Marriage Equality campaign, while someone else hangs around with people who are “fans” of a hypothetical “Traditional Marriage” campaign, we end up seeing different worlds. We view ourselves as fairly middle-of-the-road and moderate, because our friends agree with us, and we don’t run into many people who don’t. We filter our experience of others to agree with us, then calibrate whether we’ve gotten a bit silly by how well we agree with our friends.

This has some real potential for serious harm. That isn’t to say it’s bad to hang out with people you like — to stick with your comfort zone, so to speak. What it does mean, though, is that you should be aware that you’re living in an echo chamber when you do that — that you are surrounding yourself with people who support your views. And you should probably make a real effort to find people you don’t agree with, and keep in touch with them, read what they think is interesting, and remember that they are not necessarily as “far out” as they look from the comfort of a community populated by people who were selected based on how comfortable they make you feel…

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. Interesting. I was pondering (once again – I ponder it a lot, actually) this paradox last night:

    Many of the people I respect and with whom I get along well in both real life and online absolutely can’t stand each other. I apparently have much more tolerance for extremes of expression and extremes of belief than most of the people that I seek out for discussions. Even so, I’m more likely to avoid someone whose expressions are extreme, even though I agree in principle than to avoid people whose beliefs are extreme.

    I don’t think my circle of facebook friends can be characterized as an echo chamber. But maybe I should seek out more freepers just in case.

    ravenscape · 2009-06-20 19:26 · #

  2. The Internet takes confirmation bias and group polarization and puts them into overdrive. <a href=“http://communities.canada.com/ottawacitizen/blogs/katzenjammer/default.aspx”>Dan Gardner</a> has blogged about this issue before. The upside is that on Facebook, and everywhere else on the Internet, there are raging debates and opportunities to hear viewpoints we might never hear otherwise. I guess it just takes a bit of self-discipline.

    Trent Eady · 2009-06-21 11:13 · #

  3. I agree with the sentiment, but not the Facebook angle. Sure, some people use it as a political tool, but it’s no news site. It doesn’t encourage congregation with a particular circle of friends, is simply provides a contact tool for existing friends. As far as I can tell, it’s practically useless as a way to meet people you don’t already know: if you friend people who are simply friends of your friends, you’ll end up with a uselessly large circle of friends.

    In fact, I think Facebook runs counter to Screwtape’s argument. It reminds me just how broad my circle of friends are, and keeps me in contact with people I wouldn’t otherwise be able to find. Just this weekend, I got “happy birthday” messages from half a dozen friends of mine, ranging from a next door neighbor to people I haven’t heard from in years.

    I’m not sure the “unity of place not likings” argument holds much water, either. I was at a family reunion a few weeks ago, and my mother-in-law gave me specific instructions that religion and politics were not safe topics. (Nobody brought these topics up, and everyone had a good time.) Don’t-ask-don’t-tell diversity doesn’t count as diversity of viewpoints.

    We are transitioning from a world where only a few reporters have the resources to tell the world’s stories to one in which everyone can get their message published, and the challenge is how to filter the news. Perhaps there was a golden age when the only thing on TV at a certain hour was serious, well-reported news, and therefore people were induced to be aware of things they’d rather not know about. It seems to me, though, that ignorance has mostly decreased with more choices. Fact checking has gotten more diverse and sophisticated, and the more reputable news organizations have come to realize the need to guard their reputations for honesty and accuracy.

    Screwtape, being a demon experienced in tempting mortals to sin, talked a great deal about the importance of one’s circle of friends. He encouraged church-shopping as a way to weaken the influence of a single moral authority. C.S. Lewis saw the authority of the church—in particular the Anglican Church—as a driver of morality. I disagree. Unchecked authority does not lead to morality, and one-size-fits-all religion leads to lip service rather than piety. While church shopping brings many people to a church which accommodates their vices, everyone ends up in a church that they take more seriously.

    — David Leppik · 2009-06-22 10:34 · #

  4. Excellent post (but then any post that quotes C. S. Lewis is automatically excellent). Echo chambers are inherently potentially unhealthy. However, I have found that being on Facebook has connected me more to people that I don’t really consider in my “circle of agreement”, and I find it refreshing. My experience may be atypical, I admit.

    mvd1i · 2009-07-06 09:09 · #

  5. I had exactly the same thought, which is why I ever since actively avoid online social networks and instead go to a local pub (which is where I met my current gf).

    — tifkap · 2009-07-16 09:40 · #

 
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