I have, it seems, made my mark on Facebook, which is poised to become the world’s leading online social networking medium. Without going in for the adolescent (and worse) “applications” that people are constantly cooking up, I’ve managed to combine the RSS feeds of my two blogs, and my sensibilities for nostalgia, multimedia, self-promotion and wisecracking, plus a semi-plausable rationale — I’m trying to raise the profile of my strongly Internet-oriented law practice — into a pretty sizable “following.” I’ve met a lot of people from all around the world, Jewish and gentile, reconnected with innumerable friends I was certain I would never hear from again, and unquestionably opened up a number of opportunities that could bear fruit in the medium run. As I said, I’ve made my mark on Facebook.
But what kind of mark has Facebook made on me?
There are so many issues that arise from the point of view of Jewish sensibility that almost any one of them is worthy of a separate essay. I hope these bullet points, however, will stimulate constructive discussion… and not merely more lookups of my Facebook profile.
* The forgotten past: BT’s are always struggling with the issue of whether to bury the past, and if so how deeply. Facebook certainly brings this concern into “real time.” My observation is that, on the whole, this aspect of the Facebook experience — people from my past reemerging — has been very positive for me. Many of our ideas of what we’ve left behind, and whom we left behind, are based on rose-colored projections that are themselves premised on inaccurate or wishful recollection of the real past. Without going too far into it or getting too personal, what I see of the lives of people with whom I haven’t been in touch for 20, 30 or sometimes even more years, via their Facebook profiles, is that I haven’t missed all that much, in any sense of the word.
* A world of respect: New friends I’ve made on Facebook, who quickly are able to ascertain from my profile and my ongoing contributions to it (via blog feeds, photographs, “status” updates and the like) that I am orthodox, express great respect for my way of life. Naturally those who are put off by it don’t become friends. I believe this does result in a Kiddush Hashem. I regret that I can’t magnify this effect by posting family pictures, which as a rule I will not do on an open Internet site. On the whole I believe this is an overall positive result.
* Drawing near of hearts: We Jews have a concept that we are supposed to beware of k’rivas hadaas — an inappropriate “drawing near” of emotions between men and women who should not have intimate relationships. It is well known, and has been discussed here often, how the Internet has, in many contexts, caused many people who otherwise would not have inappropriate relationships with members of the opposite sex in “real life” to drop their usual guard and to become ensnared in unfortunate situations. Oddly enough, there is something about Facebook, at least in my experience, that seems to militate against this. It may be that there is, as a rule, less anonymity on Facebook than in the old chat rooms or on instant messenger; people are mainly there to project their personalities on some level, not to hide them. There also ground rules and a person can be kicked off. At least as a middle-aged adult interacting entirely with other adults, I have found this not to be a problem.
* Whither dignity?: On the other hand, there is no question that, just as in the real world, there is a much lower standard of personal dignity, especially as it relates to “modesty,” on the Internet and on Facebook than there is in our frum communities. There is no particular reason I have any interest in interacting with people who are much younger than I am (who are typically the least dignified in this respect) or whose standards of behavior is not in line with what I would typically expect to experience in an environment in which I would ideally operate. But there is little question that if only by virtue of friends of friends or other incidental interactions, that on Facebook I am — just as I do in real life — interacting with people who hold themselves to a lower standard of dignity than is ideal.
* The other side: And that brings me back to a point related to my first one. The more I am exposed to what’s out there, whether it is among my former friends, associates and classmates who “look me up” or vice versa or among new people that I meet, the better I feel — by far — about the decision I have made about how to live my life. I cannot stress how much more valuable this is to me than the finger-pointing homilies in frum literature, periodicals and classrooms about the emptiness of gentile or non-frum Jewish lives. I see people whose lives are pathetic or sad, yes. I encounter a very distressing number of photographs of people of both sexes in their twenties, not life’s losers but professionals and prospective professionals, who are comfortable posing with alcoholic beverages hoisted in the air, as if life were just one drunken binge. This could go into the “dignity” point above, and it is a sad thing to see. But I also see people with rich, full, interesting and accomplished lives, professionally and, by all indications, personally, and nothing — not a thing — makes me want to switch places with them. The overall effect for me is one of chizuk, reinforcement.
The greatest reward from Facebook of all, for me, is the opportunity to connect, communicate and commune, on whatever level, with more and more people who are interested in ideas, in life, in each other just because of who we are. Ultimately I spend more time on Facebook than I should, and I have resolved to spend less, simply as a matter of prioritizing how time is spent in life by a Jewish person. In fact, if I had no career rationale for it at all, I may be hard pressed to justify it in any event. On the other hand, online social networking is probably one example of a mode of human social — and business — interaction that will get more, not less, important in the coming years. Face it.