In this article Brother Matthew Wigzell provides the basic facts of this new IT phenomenon. It has caught on like wild fire in the world and is utilized apparently by many of our brethren and sisters for simple and efficient communication. This article will give us all much to think about.

Facebook is primarily a marketing company that collects and stores information about people who use their online community service and facilitates online friendships and relationships. “Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you” is what it says on the home page. On the advertiser’s page is: “Reach the exact audience you want with relevant targeted ads. Target by age, gender, location, interests, and more.”

Everything stored by users on Facebook is categorized into name, age, gender, personality, sexual orientation, social networks, hobbies, interests, nationality, religion, political preferences.

All of this is then sold to advertising companies who wish to focus advertising at specific groups of people. The more information about an individual, the more targeted the ad, the more successful the campaign. This is why Facebook is said to be worth in excess of ten billion dollars for what amounts to a few hundred computer servers containing personal information.

How do people use it?

Each user is given their own web page with a number of features designed to personalise their page. This includes filling out various questionnaires which request personal information such as name, address, phone number, city, country, interests, hobbies, sexual orientation etc.

There is a section for photos and videos. There is also the ability to invite friends to see your web page. They can then post a message on your message board which is displayed for the other friends to see.

Every time you invite someone to your page, they are listed as a friend on your friend counter. The higher the count, the more popular you appear to be.

Standard features

There is a whole range of features designed to extract information from users. These include message wall, whiteboard, sticky notes, graffiti wall, top ten best friends wall, mood graph, listing your current mood and a history of your mood swings, a free hot list gift service. There are different quizzes and questionnaires, personality comparison checks where you can invite people to fill in a personality profile and then the results are displayed illustrating with whom you share things in common. Other quizzes like pet peeves detailing things that make you cross, music, videos, movies, and just for fun quiz are all there to help Facebook document the social links that different friends have, what they share in common and what products they would most likely purchase on the basis of shared interests and pet peeves etc.

Extra free and paid for features

On top of the standard features offered by Facebook, there are additional features that can be added. These may be free, with the creators recouping through advertising rights, or you may have to pay for them every time you use them. These include: a garden where visitors can plant vegetables to show they care, an aquarium where people can buy you fish that swim around, the ability to poke, super poke, nudge, throw a sheep, share a drink, have a cigarette and flirt with another Facebook user, a super wall, fun wall, the ability to send greetings cards, games such as rock paper scissors, graffiti wall, fortune cookie, favourite Bible verse, star sign, horoscopes, ‘style pics’ where you can list photos that are uniquely you, and approx 25,000 other gadgets and gimmicks, some free, others for a fee.

Everything that is posted on each user profile, everything private or public that is exchanged by Facebook users is the property of Facebook. Information deleted by Facebook users is still stored and referenced to the user.

Facebook does not have a clear policy detailing how long personally identifiable information is kept, nor does Facebook disclose its partner agreement with other information gathering services and how that information is stored and used.

Facebook – selling basic human wants

As a business model Facebook is something of a revolution. Yet it begins, as with television, with a company facilitating relationships between the advertisers that provide its income streams and those who use the service.

The genius of Facebook is that having set up a platform designed to facilitate relationship and built in features that are designed to gather and store specific kinds of profitable information, the rest is self-perpetuating. Unlike TV which needs to buy the rights to broadcast programs, all of the content that provides Facebook with their income stream is created and generated by the consumer, freely and in such volumes that they can scarcely install enough hard drives to keep up with the demand!

Television companies spend many millions of dollars on market research, calling many thousands of people every year to extract information, tweaking time slots and broadcasting rights. Apart from the sales results of the companies that advertise, televisers know very little about the people who watch the shows, nor can they control which audience views what content.

Facebook does not need to do any market research, nor do they need to contact millions of people at dinner time to extract information about interests and preferences! The millions flock to them and freely offer the kind of market research information that TV would die for.

Unlike television whose draw card is entertainment, Facebook draws its consumers by offering the only thing that can extract the kind of information they then market – friendships, relationships, acceptance, intimacy, popularity, self expression. Not limited by time, geography or space, a powerful new way of connecting with people all over the world has been created.

Shifting human social dynamics online

All human interactions involve communication, sometimes with misunderstandings, insecurity and anxiety. Friendships wax and wane, misunderstandings fuel anxiety, jealousy, insecurity.

Exaggeration, white lies, gossip and rumour are used to build popularity, gain and hold acceptance. Possessions, materialism, employment, interests all play a part in helping people to find their place on the social ladder.

All of these things are built into the various features on Facebook with many of them deliberately designed to fuel the kind of anxiety and dependence that would see people spend hours sometimes days at a time trying to improve their online social standing. The kind of things that create anxieties are:

  • Friendship invitationsthat are not Reciprocated
  • Friendship counts that are small compared to others
  • Friends who were number 11 in the top 10 friend list
  • Gardens which remain carrot-less or aquariums which have no fish
  • Super pokes that go unreturned
  • A blank sticky note wall
  • A personality test which demonstrates incompatibility.

All of these features have been designed to build the kind of fears and anxieties that exist in social circles off line. The results too have been carefully designed and calculated.

The rule of Facebook is that the most popular people are the ones who have the most private information posted on their site. Variety is the spice of life; those who are on top of all the latest features generally attract more attention to their site. Changing moods, music, pictures, back drops, adding quizzes, games and gardens all combine to create a dynamic popular profile. This in turn creates competition, dependencies and addictions. Consequently more and more people are seeing Facebook as the place which best reflects their identity and best facilitates their relationships, diminishing the relevance of traditional offline gathering points such as cafes, clubs, churches and, perhaps, ecclesias!

Let us not be deceived

All of these make Facebook a more attractive advertising platform than TV, radio, magazines or billboards. So a girl’s fashion brand can create an advertisement specially designed to appeal to girls within a specific age bracket or nationality. They can filter out girls who regularly discuss fashion and clothes with those on their friends’ list. They can tailor their target audience to only those with specific interests, fears and insecurities.

Many users of Facebook have little or no awareness of the lucrative multi-billion dollar marketing opportunities and the part their lives play in this vast machine. This is what Facebook is doing, they are cross-selling intimate knowledge of peoples’ lives.

The anomaly is that the lives they are selling have been offered willingly with blind trust, even fierce loyalty and a naive faith in the integrity and assurances of Facebook to protect their best interests.

This puts Facebook in an extremely powerful position. Like television they successfully facilitate a relationship between two parties who come to them with opposite motives. Unlike television, Facebook has developed an obsessive devotion in their users which in many cases goes far beyond entertainment.

Ecclesial relevance

In fact it is quite possible that the kind of relationship Christ desires with his ecclesia is currently being challenged by Facebook in some of its users.

With several thousand members in the Christadelphian facebook community and a number of ecclesias, conferences and committees promoting their own groups, Facebook is playing an intimate, and for some, inseparable role in our community. For many users, no doubt, its appeal is limited to the exchange of photos and keeping in touch with distant friends, thoroughly acceptable. But for others the relationship goes much deeper and the interaction and upkeep requires a level of devotion that is almost religious.

A social experiment

And so we find ourselves observing a social experiment of epic proportions. The speed with which Facebook has been embraced, the lack of critical review, the silence from the platform and the ecclesia in general, has meant that Facebook is here as an intimate part of many brethren and sisters’ lives. So, a little belatedly, this question will need to be asked by each of us who loves the ecclesia and is concerned about its future.

Could Facebook diminish the relevance of the ecclesia for present and future generations?

As with a number of IT inventions there are ways in which Facebook could be a useful tool in constructive communication between distant members. But the traps are there and we must avoid any pursuit that binds us to trivial and irrelevant matters.

We await Christ’s return and our time is precious.