Facebook: Rediscovering 14th Century Community Values

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Recently, my wife and I went to her 20th High School Reunion. As you can imagine there was much discussion about who we hoped to reconnect with, how we have changed in the past 20 years… and what we should wear. As we left our hotel room talking about the reunion, a group of older ladies in the hallway predicted, “You will be the most beautiful couple there.”

We certainly felt beautiful. Not because we had stylish clothes. But because we went to prom together 20 years ago. Because we were high school sweet hearts. Because we have been married for 18 years, and we still both get sappy with each other.

The ladies in the hotel didn’t know our history. But they knew every high school reunion is essentially a contest of “success theater.”

Apparently high school reunions are on the wane because of Facebook. Barely 10% of my wife’s class came out to see each other in person. Honestly, this surprised me. I expected that Facebook would have helped people stay in touch. I expected the constant small moments of digital presence would make people long for something more.

This is how I experience the Internet.

The editorial staff of The High Calling lives all over the world. Deidra Riggs lives in Nebraska. Tim Miller lives in Australia. Others are in Colorado, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Los Angeles, Canada. Our interactions online facilitate our work, but they also help us trust each other and remain in community with each other. Ironically, our online interactions make me long for the day when I can see all of the editors in person again (at Laity Lodge).

We are working together as a community, so the internet is a useful tool for bridging the physical space between us.

But Does Community Require Bodily Presence?

Heading to that high school reunion, I had forgotten how rare real community is. Most people are not interested in anything like real community. Sometimes our culture seems to have forgotten how to share anything meaningful. This isn't the fault of the Internet, though. Facebook and social media have simply highlighted and quantified our tendency to create pretend communities. Whether it was Mark Zuckerberg's intention or not, Facebook has examined our social interactions, revealed how shallow they are, and caused many folks to stand up in righteous defense of authentic community.

I don't believe that Facebook or any social media is an enemy of community. However, if we aren’t careful, social media technologies can reinforce spiritually unhealthy social behaviors. To avoid this, we must actively manage technology if we want it to help us form better relationships. Otherwise, we may find that we have accepted a shallow form of interaction built on nothing more than likes and clicks and retweets and tags.

Thomas Merton, a 20th century Trappist monk from Kentucky, distinguished between community and collective. People in community are present with each other. People in collective simply share the same physical or digital spaces.

Presence doesn’t need to be online to be fake. A father can sit at the breakfast table and hide behind a newspaper. A teenager can sit in the back seat and hide behind her Sony Walkman. A family can sit together on the couch and disappear into their favorite TV shows alone together. Kids in the back seat of a mini-van watch movies while they run errands with a parent. A subway full of people look down at small screens instead of looking at each other. A class reunion turns into success theater as people measure themselves against each other—who looks good, who stayed married, who sounds smart, who works somewhere impressive.

If people are not fully present with each other, they will never be more than a collective. I know this. Community requires presence.

One of the first recorded uses of the word “presence” in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from Hampole’s translation of the Psalter in 1340. He talks about “The folk that I visited not with bodily presence.” Qualifying the word as “bodily” presence implies another kind of presence that does not require the body. Christians know this kind of presence well—it is the presence of God, the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses.

Community requires presence, but presence does not always require physical presence. In fact, we often fail to be present with each other when we are in the same room. On the other hand, digital technologies are helping us to be present with each other across great distances.

The question, then, is how to use technology to pursue community rather than collectivity.

Authentic Community Versus a False Collective

In his book Returning to Reality: Thomas Merton’s Wisdom for a Technological World, Phillip M. Thompson explains the difference like this:

  • “A collective favors material progress and prosperity; Community favors the priority of moral growth and the dignity of the human being….
  • A collective promotes an excessive focus on work, internally generated goals and timetables in an obsession to reach higher levels of production; Community promotes a humanizing conception of work that should not be boring, routine or monotonous, but in harmony with human creativity and dignity…
  • A collective promotes technologies that dull human intelligence through the cultivation of passivity; Community promotes technologies that sharpen the intellect…

Thompson isn’t afraid to get specific about the problems of digital communities. Citing an article from the Journal of the Community Development Society, Thompson writes, “Research suggests that [digital] communities are occasions for self-fulfillment instead of solidarity. Moreover, these online communities have allowed themselves to be turned into commodities, niche markets for commercial interests.”

I have experienced the truth of these words first hand. Online communities don't work well very often. They tend to be collectives. But let's be honest, people can easily meet in person and never engage in anything deeper than a collective.

They can gather at high school reunions. They can gather on Sunday mornings. They can gather in football stadiums and concerts. They can even gather at retreat centers. Whatever the context, people who pretend to be interested in each other, who pretend to be present with each other are never more than a collective.

Merton says, a collective hosts pseudo-events that "anesthetize the individual and plunge him in the warm apathetic stupor of a collectivity." (47)

At The High Calling, I have been trying to understand this better. For almost 7 years we have been trying an experiment in online community, but it is not easy. Community never is.

There is always the temptation to settle into the warm apathetic stupor of collectivity. The temptation to serve our own interests. The temptation to turn into a collective commodity, a niche market. I could go on and on, but the challenge remains. The High Calling community, if it is to be a community, must love God with all of its heart, mind, and soul.

The Greatest Commandment for Any Community

Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. Of course, this meant that his teachings were being challenged by the experts in the law, the leaders of the religious community of their day. First the Sadducees, then the Pharisees tried to trick him up and confuse him. Matthew writes,

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:34-40).

In The High Calling community, if we are to be a community, we must love our neighbors. If we are to be a community, we must love God.

I can’t tell you how many times I question myself about this. Am I leading The High Calling to become a community? Or am I settling for a collective? Are we present with each other, or have we settled for pseudo-presence that focuses on goals and time-tables, that encourages passivity and self-fulfillment?

These questions are relevant for any group of people, not just those who work together online.

Every community needs healthy rhythms of work, rest, and play. Think about the team you work with—whether in a physical or digital space. Do you have clear goals and meaningful work that respects the dignity of each individual? Do you rest from this work? Do you give each other permission to slow down sometimes? Do you play together—on the basketball court, in canoe races, at a dance hall, at an annual party?

People need community no matter what station of life they are in. When organizations talk about service and hospitality, I think we are ultimately returning to this question. Are we loving our neighbors as ourselves? Are we working toward something much greater than ourselves, loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength?

Let’s make this pledge together. We won’t settle for pseudo-events. We won’t settle for success theater. We will be present together—in the physical world and in the digital world.

We will seek authentic communities. We will create authentic communities.

And we won’t give up.