Now that the farcical face-off between Congress and Facebook is over, it’s time to get real. The real problem with Facebook is it floods the market with a cheap good.
Three weeks ago Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg got “coached up” to appear before Congressmen probing privacy issues. It was pure theater. The challenges associated with social media go much deeper—mostly in what’s being undone.
Neil Postman warned how technologies promise to do many good things but never tell you what they’ll undo. For example, social media promises an end to loneliness. What it actually produces is an increase in loneliness, as Jean Twenge notes. With the spread of the smartphone, young people are much less likely to develop any friendships.
Facebook promises to do many good things, like build community and bring the world closer together. But what is it undoing? In two words, deep friendships.
Facebook rides a wave of globalization driving down costs, making more goods more accessible to more people. But cheap goods come with a downside. Consider the horrific human cost associated with flooding the market with cheap t-shirts.
Now consider the human cost associated with Facebook. The social media star floods the market with a cheap form of friendships. That’s ironic since it’s called Facebook.
In the Greek, there are two different words for “friend.” The first is an acquaintance, as when Jesus calls Judas “friend” (Mt.26:50). This is inexpensive friendship. You’re aware of what others are doing but don’t feel any deep responsibility for their wellbeing.
The second word for “friend” is deep. It’s face to face, as when God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Ex.33:11). Deep friends reciprocate. They do things together. Leave a voice message, the other calls back. Send a text or email, the other replies in a timely manner. That’s why Jesus waited three years before calling his disciples friends (Jn.15:14-15). Before, they were acquaintances. Now they were prepared to reciprocate, to work with Jesus, to lay down their lives (as many would).
You can’t have many deep friends. They require reciprocity—returning calls, for example. We can only comfortably maintain about 150 acquaintances. Our inner circle of deep friendships in general cannot exceed five. Human nature does have limits. Few on Facebook seem to recognize this. They count hundreds as “friends.” How many are aware they’re collecting the cheap variety?
To be fair, this problem predates Facebook. In 1983, David W. Smith wrote about the friendless American male. He was talking about the level of friend Jesus seeks—the expensive kind. Hardly any American male—Christian or otherwise—enjoys this level of friendship. Smith’s follow-up manual in 1990 (“Men Without Friends”) didn’t nick the problem. In fact, it’s gotten worse. Few men or women enjoy a deep friendship.
I enjoy several deep friendships. We regularly talk about today’s lack of genuine friendships. One of my friends, Tim, enjoys the fact that he and his wife entertain a lot. Very few return the favor. My wife Kathy and I have experienced the same thing.
Returning the favor is not quid pro quo. Favor is grace, a gift. Jesus graciously offers salvation. When we return the favor—reply to his gift—a friendship begins. It deepens as we reciprocate, two becoming one as we give up all our possessions, as Jesus gave up his (btw, this makes me how many deep friendships Jesus actually has). Kathy and I do hospitality as a favor. It’s free. Guests, however, have to return the favor if a deep friendship is to develop. It’s the nature of the beast.
The late Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford learned this lesson. In 1969, he was catching a ride with Boston Celtics star Bill Russell. Deford told Russell how much he appreciated their friendship. Russell stopped the car. He told Deford they weren’t friends. Russell went on to describe friendship as taking a lot of effort, reciprocity. He didn’t feel Deford had sufficient margins to do that. Deford wrote, “I marveled that he would have thought so deeply about what constituted friendship.”
C. S. Lewis thought deeply about friendship. “Friends are not primarily absorbed in each other. It is when we are doing things together that friendships spring up. That is why those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any.”
I’m sure there is a judicious use of Facebook. It includes limiting your circle to a few deep friends. This, however, is a challenge as Facebook ignores human nature, suggesting you can have a limitless number of friends. You can, but they’ll be the cheap variety.
 Dale Purves, Principles of Cognitive Neuroscience (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2008)
 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Fontana, 1960), 62.