A spiritual struggle with Facebook

I stared pensively at the question on the screen, “Are you sure you want to deactivate?” I took a deep breath and coaxed myself into remaining steadfast in my decision. I replayed all the heated debates with friends leading up to my decision: “It invades your privacy;” “Everyone knows your business;” “It’s a waste of time;” “It is [often useless] information overload.” I had resolved to click the “Yes” option, but now a wave of anxiety paralyzed my finger.
“How will you easily keep in touch with everyone?” “How will you know what events are going on, and how will you advertise for your events?” I lingered briefly, conflicted by all the questions racing through my head, but then I just did it – I clicked “Yes.” What followed was an electronic breakup accompanied by an adieu that felt almost equivalent to a painful lover’s goodbye: “Your Facebook account has been deactivated.”

And so goes the story of a fickle Facebooker. Four years after my love/hate relationship with Facebook began, I can no longer recall how many times I have activated and deactivated my account. What is it about this social networking website that causes me so much grief? One issue, in particular, that perplexes me is the effect Facebook can have on our relationships. Is it Facebook, with its new ways of sharing information that is easily accessible to the masses, that affects our relationships, or is the person using Facebook to blame if friendships or romantic relationships go awry? Many Facebook users love the networking site for providing them with a mechanism through which to easily and efficiently keep in touch with family, friends and acquaintances, and admit that were it not for Facebook, they would not be able to maintain many of these connections. They place the onus for Facebook relationships gone sour on the individual himself; if a user exercises self-control, does not read into messages and photos, and wisely manages his Facebook activity, he would not encounter problems in his relationships.

Others point the finger at the networking site, citing that Facebook has introduced new methods of information sharing that either inhibit meaningful conversations and intimate relationships, or expose you to questionable information that plants a seed of curiosity that did not exist before. Critics believe that Facebook has created a mechanism by which to expose information that – by virtue of its cyber nature – remains limited and ambiguous, causing misinterpretations and quarrels that would not have occurred but for Facebook. The newly updated privacy features have also created opportunities for tensions to arise and misunderstandings to occur. Many people are fully aware of being placed on limited profile and often confront their “friends” about it, not to mention the drama that ensues as a result of the “un-friending” process.

Romantic relationships carry the greatest potential for problems to arise as a result of Facebook. One study suggests that Facebook brings out jealousy and suspicion in romantic relationships by “exposing people to ambiguous information about their partner that they may not otherwise have access to and that this new information incites further Facebook use.” The study explains that the information shared on one’s Facebook profile, whether through photos, links, wall-posts, or recent activity, can be interpreted in numerous ways given the lack of context. Women’s and men’s magazines alike are saturated with articles delineating Facebook etiquette; for example, many advise users to block or un-friend an ex so they do not feel inclined to constantly check the former flame’s Facebook profile. I imagine it was much easier to recover from heartbreak when we lived in a world not yet graced with Facebook’s presence.

On the other hand, Facebook can actually facilitate romantic relationships by serving as an informal medium through which Muslims can connect. Friends suggest friends to one another, some connect through shared interests, and others meet through joining Facebook groups. All parties take comfort in knowing that through the click of a button they can obtain a cursory impression of the person.

These budding relationships should be approached with caution, though, because although Facebook offers an easy portal into the personality and lifestyle of a potential spouse, the limited information listed on some profiles lacks context and may paint a distorted picture of the person.

So are we taking Facebook too seriously? In an ideal world, everyone should have the capacity to exercise self-control even when faced with a barrage of information. However, we live, not in an ideal world, but in the Facebook world. Facebook is an enabler, provoking and magnifying one’s curiosity by allowing a person a window into information that was once unattainable–photos for any occassion, conversations between best friends, or flirtatious messages. While it may be true that curiosity killed the cat, Facebook certainly exacerbated – and sometimes created – that cat’s curiosity.

As evidenced by the current state of our domestic affairs, the human tendency to dichotomize has intensified in nature. Good/Bad. Red/Blue. Haram/Halal. This is the opportune time to take a step back and remember that Islam advocates for moderation in all aspects of life, including when passing judgments. After wrestling with my mind’s desperate desire to dichotomize Facebook, I reasoned, “Why can’t it be both positive AND negative?” Yes, individuals are responsible for their own behavior. However, we should also be willing to acknowledge that Facebook plays a significant role in affecting one’s behavior by creating the means by which people are exposed to information they would not have had access to otherwise. As I try to swallow my own advice and battle the inclination to categorize Facebook as entirely good or bad, I will appreciate the benefits Facebook brings, yet all the while will insist it must be approached with prudence. In the meantime, my days as a fickle Facebooker will continue.

(Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)
Rifk Ebeid is a Palestinian-American human rights activist. She holds an MA in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, and a JD from George Mason University School of Law.

3 Comments

  • edabdalghafur says:

    Insightful piece.  But I’m surprised there was no mention of the envy and jealousy and subsequent feelings of inferiority that many feel when we follow our curiosity and take seriously the projected images of others online. This, in my view, seems to be the elephant in the living room that no one wants to talk about.  Or perhaps I’m off the mark, and no one in fact feels that way.

  • rifk says:

    I agree with you.  Many (but not all) Facebook profiles are to a large extent manufactured – often creating an online persona that is either an inaccurate portrayal of the person or simply self-serving in nature. The issue of jealousy and being cautious of online personas was touched upon, but moreso when it comes to relationships specifically since that was the focus of this article. 

    You raise very important issues that should be openly discussed, and that will hopefully be written about when we continue our series on the effects of Facebook.

  • asmauddin says:

    Yes, I wanted to echo Rifk in acknowledging your point and also letting you know that this Facebook piece is the first of several that will look at the broader effects of online social networking. I would love it if a male reader could take on the topic … (hint hint)

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