The IPO (initial public offering) of Facebook stock has not gone as planned. The market value of the shares turned out to be substantially beneath what the owners had hoped and believed. Worse, the value of those shares continues to decline rather than to increase. As I am writing, some pundits are discussing the possibility that the social media site might just die, and a few are even wondering whether its passing will kill the so-called “tech bubble.”
The prospect of a world without Facebook is one that I can face with equanimity. In fact, I have already dealt with this issue. Some months back, I canceled my Facebook account. I have not missed it.
To be fair, I should confess that I was never one of Facebook’s most avid users. When I had an account, I would go weeks and sometimes months without logging in to see whether I had any messages or if someone had written on my wall. I routinely deleted any email notices that came from Facebook. To me, the whole thing was more a bother and even an annoyance than anything.
Not that I didn’t have friends. Quite the contrary. I was being followed by hundreds (or was it thousands?) of people whom I did not know and would not have recognized if I had met them on the street. In fact, looking at my list of friends became a weird experience as I found myself wondering, “Who are these people and why are they watching me?”
Sure, I could have dropped them from the list. In fact, I could have rejected their friend requests at the outset. But that always seemed rude, like answering the phone and then just hanging up.
It was fun to be able to see the doings of loved ones and old acquaintances. Even that, however, felt too much like prying. At the cognitive level I knew that these people posted only those things that they were willing to allow others to see. I also knew, however, that they rarely or never had me in particular in their minds when they posted these things. It just felt too much like reading somebody else’s diary or mail.
In short, I came to believe that Facebook diminished my ability to treat people with respect. The fact that they had consented to this disrespectful peering into their lives gave me little consolation. In my own mind and sensibilities, I was subjecting these people to degradation.
By saying these things, I am not trying to make judgments about others who use Facebook and similar social media. That is why I am talking so much about how Facebook felt to me and how I came to perceive it rather than making statements about what it is. I am not arguing that others should cancel their accounts. I am just explaining why I canceled mine.
It’s not that I’m anti-technology. A telephone represents technology. A radio broadcast represents technology. The problem (for me) with Facebook is that it felt like putting the content of a very personal telephone call into a radio broadcast. For me to use Facebook called for an element of exhibitionism that I simply do not enjoy. Not everything needs to be public.
What Facebook does is to provide tabloid news coverage for every person (again, I’m not suggesting that everyone uses Facebook this way, but it does happen regularly). In other words, it allows every user a small sphere within which she or he can act like a celebrity. To some extent, the medium probably fosters this attitude by inviting users to state their likes and dislikes up front, and then to broadcast the trivia of their lives. Facebook is an opportunity to put one’s self on display.
That is just what I was tired of doing. When I became president of Central Seminary, I discovered two surprising perspectives. The first is that one encounters powerful pressures to equate the Lord’s work with institutional success—there is little place for sacrificing institutional priorities for the greater good. The second is that, for an agency president, institutional promotion begins to look very much like self-promotion.
The identity of the institution comes to be tied to the identity of its leader. The greater the power and visibility of the leader, the greater the power and visibility of the institution. If the leader can gain celebrity status, then the institution gains celebrity status. Among parachurch organizations, this kind of celebrity is the holy grail.
Some versions of Christianity have been more susceptible to the cult of celebrity than others. Take the varieties of Baptist fundamentalism as an example. Regular Baptists have been among the least susceptible because they have emphasized the importance of little men organizing around great ideas. Those branches of Baptist fundamentalism that came out of the Conservative Baptist Movement have been more susceptible because they are accustomed to being led by big men. The branches of Baptist fundamentalism that trace themselves to the ministry of J. Frank Norris have been led by Really Big Men, and consequently they are most prone to create and follow celebrities.
For myself, I despise the cult of celebrity in all its forms. We can never bring glory to God by making ourselves impressive. Yet I always felt that this is exactly what I was being pushed to do when I was president of Central Seminary (to be fair, my predecessor found a way to avoid this dynamic, and perhaps if I had been a more perspicacious leader I could have, too). This was one of the reasons that I eventually left the presidency: I did not want to be a celebrity and I did not want to be treated like one. I just wanted to minister to people.
Even the very small celebrity of a Facebook account is too much for me. The notion that I could have hundreds or thousands of “friends” who are following my private musings and the personal details of my life is too preposterous for me to accept. I know that I struggle with pride, and I have even been told that I am arrogant, but to put myself on display in this way requires more hubris than I can muster.
Again, I am not making any judgments about what anybody else should do. I do see the values of this particular social medium, and I do not fault anyone for wishing to take advantage of those values. For me, however, the personal liabilities were simply too great.
And don’t even get me started on Twitter.
How Great the Goodness Kept in Store
The Psalter, 1912
How great the goodness kept in store
For those who fear thee and adore
In meek humility.
How great the deeds with mercy fraught
Which openly thy hand has wrought
For those who trust in thee.
Secured by thine unfailing grace,
In thee they find a hiding place
When foes their plots devise;
A sure retreat thou wilt prepare,
And keep them safely sheltered there,
When strife of tongues shall rise.
Blest be the Lord, for he has showed,
While giving me a safe abode,
His love beyond compare;
Although his face he seemed to hide,
He ever heard me when I cried,
And made my wants his care.
Ye saints, Jehovah love and serve,
For he the faithful will preserve,
And shield from men of pride;
Be strong, and let your hearts be brave,
All ye that wait for him to save,
In God the Lord confide.