Panim Al Panim – The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Facebook

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.

Contributor Ron Coleman’s blogs are LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®, about trademark, copyright, Internet and free speech law, and Likelihood of Success, about everything else.

40 comments on “Panim Al Panim – The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Facebook

  1. If we were that concerned about humiliation, we wouldn’t blog/comment, either.

  2. Nothing could be worse than being ACCEPTED! Then you are really caught in the trap. (tongue slightly in cheek)

  3. Do not join FaceBook unless you are prepared to accept the humiliation of being “unfriended.”

  4. DY, I don’t know who said that they had trouble contemplating anything. We are talking about the experiences we are having, and our own ambivalence about them.

    You are right however that life is more complicated and distracting than ever. On the other hand, the world is also much bigger than ever before. It used to be that the only people most folks really had much interest in communicating with were the ones in your own town, and you saw them in probably the one bais medrash that everything took place in.

    Would we want to return to that level of isolation?

    Convenience is indeed a drug, but that is actually an entirely different point. Frankly most of us would gladly switch back to the old “inconvenient” days of communication by first class mail, contemplation prior to answering questions and preparing responses, careful review of what we wrote and even more so if there was a likelihood of that writing becoming public, and work that you really left when you left your workplace.

    Which lifestyle is more “convenient,” really? This 21st-century one full of constant emails, cell phone calls, faxes and instant messages from clients, supervisors, and in my case judges and their clerks? Or the one that was ebbing just as I began my professional career 20 years ago, but which even then still fit the description in the previous paragraph?

  5. aside from the internet technology/outside culture issue, i find it so sad that we have trouble even contemplating a life without all this scattered, fragmented stuff billed as “communication”.

    i read about a study – i think it was in time mag maybe? – where they looked at the business habits of many high profile exceutives and office workers. they found that the average amount of uninterrupted time any of those studied has to just sit and work is only eleven minutes. very few of those studied said they EVER turned off their phones, had all calls redirected, shut off notification when an email came in, etc.

    sounds like a case book study for the cultivation of ADD to me. but never mind that – so what if no one can concentrate enough to get any work done? – what’s it doing to our family relationships, our communication skills, our values as people and as parents is really scary.

    for one thing, there’s such instant gratification in all of this. it’s funny to think what it was like when you had to wait for the answer to an important question from across the world, to be received by slow mail or even – wonder of wonders! – by telephone rather than having it instantly.

    rav abba chiya tauber shlit”a has said that the greatest impediment to our growth in torah these days is convenience. how will a kid raised on instant messaging be able to relate to the kind of dogged hard work sometimes neccessary to really be koneh torah?…does it need more than the eleven minutes that someone who is a paid employee and (one hopes) wants to actually do his job properly can hardly chisel out for himself?

    hashem yerachem

  6. OK thanks, but believe me, I’m not seeking kudos here — but I do have to set the record straight. Another blogger, commenting on my post, wrote:

    Ever since I started blogging, the laptop has become an extra appendage that may meld to my body before long. Facebook and Twitter have just added to the addiction.

    Over the holidays, my wife and I were looking through photographs of our dating, honeymoon and pre-children days and Kimberly said to our nine-year-old son: “See how adorable we were. Daddy was always touching and hugging on me.” Without pause, Anthony answered, “Now he’s always touching his laptop.”

  7. hats off to you, Ron – may you go m’chayil el chayil in keeping in touch with what is real and good and true.

  8. UPDATE: I’ll speak to the admins about whether they want to do something more with this, but I’ve moved about 175 degrees on this topic since this piece was posted. As I wrote a couple of days ago:

    Today I deactivated my Facebook account.

    And I’m doing the same with Twitter. . . .

    [Online social networking] has taken over my life. The fact is, I’m too good at social networking for my own good. If eating all the candy you want means that you eat candy three meals a day, you have to be someone who doesn’t eat candy at all, no matter how much energy it gives you.

    I have real things to do, and not nearly as much time to talk about doing them as I’m spending. And I don’t necessarily have any good reason for talking about those things, and other things, too, with some of the people with whom I’ve been talking.

  9. I certainly understand your concerns DY and don’t really take issue with those who’ve chosen that route. B”H we’ve raised two children to adulthood and one almost. Our philosophy regarding these types of issues has been one of teaching our children to extract the good rather than shunning entire areas because of the bad.

    This has the dual advantage of exposing them to the good things out there while enabling them to learn how to navigate. Our adult daughters have internalized this beautifully and we’re very proud of them. Our 18 year old son is well on his way. As an example, he recently removed himself from FB because he felt it wasn’t right for him.

    Our approach also requires a lot more effort as you really have to be on top of things. And you have to burden the kids with more rules and regulations.

    So yes, the 7 year old is closer to some “yucky things”, but I’m already awed by her ability to discriminate and her maturity in knowing when to come to us when not sure. (And yes we have very strong guidelines and both of work in the house so we’re always around.)

    I just want to give all of you a heads up, in case you’re not already aware. In very short order the internet is literally going to be in the air, everywhere, see this article. And as more and more everyday devices become wifi enabled it’s going to become that much more difficult to keep it out.

  10. There’s great merit in DY’s comments. However, as a BT who is on FB, and who sees my secular Jewish friend’s lives, I can’t help but feel sad for them. The tattoos, their lifestyle choices, and just general disposition is nothing to envy, and everything to make me feel even more blessed that I’m not in that world anymore.

    It’s sort of funny almost, but I constantly see status updates from these non-frum folks like “I’m blah”, “…is nervous”,”…is sad”, while my frum “friends” always have positive updates. That speaks volumes to me.

  11. my point was that this is not just technology but a “place” where we come together with a culture that we also usually spend considerable effort trying to keep out of our homes, lives, etc to some extent. i am not knocking FB as a means of legitimate business (as Ron uses it to publicize his services, etc) but rather suggesting that the same things that make it attractive from a kiruv standpoint also make it dangerous. the more we traffic in the outside culture, the harder it is to keep sight of where we should be.

    my comment about so young a child being already invested in using internet technology socially is troubling because it means that such a child will be in closer proximity to yucky things and therefore need strong guidelines about when the door closes and how.

    as an aside, i personally feel that the kiruv opportunities that present themselves in such a millieu do not justify the social presence of frum people on FB. if you must be there, that’s one thing. but to me, thinking that Hashem has no other way to be mekarev His precious child but have a frum person hanging around there socially just does not make sense. no one can dispute the fact that the opportunities do present themselves in such places, or that good things can come out of it. but since Hashem wants to grant everyone a chance to draw close, if we don’t oblige the yetzer by going on FB to save others, i for one firmly believe we’ll be zocheh to other means by which this kiruv can happen. i don’t think daas torah would have us jeopardize the tenuous boundaries we’re all holding on to for dear life by lowering ourselves into the pit. of course, i haven’t asked because i’m not contemplating going there.

  12. Correct me if I’m wrong – but this isn’t a derech with ‘all access to everything all the time’. If I want to start a tehillim chain – I’ll call 5 people or email them – and ask them to do same. What you have to let in on FB is entirely without your tacit consent – I really don’t want to see or hear about drunken binges, date nights, new tattoos or all the rest of the shtuss I’m so so glad to be rid of.
    Like I said before, it’s really, in my mind, a tzanuar issue. FB is just not tziut – and I mean that in a profound way. Everyone is just wide open there for us all to gawk at.
    Madeithome (just in time)

  13. DY, you could say the same thing about the telephone. What a shame that a seven year old has to talk to bubbie on the telephone instead of on her knee, like in the old days. That is not an argument about Facebook or even really Internet use, except in the a strictly technological sense, in either direction.

  14. to correct the interpretation of what i meant: i did not mean to say that seven year olds are on FB, or not this one i hope, anyway. i meant that internet technology, which the afore-mentioned seven year old is using to great advantage socially, is troubling to me in this application.

  15. I am, but she’s not on Facebook. My point is the amazing ways we’ve been able to use different social applications on the internet to stay close with family and friends. DY made a baseless assumption.

  16. ..can’t leave this subject without a comment about how FB gets us all deeper and deeper into the morass of a society that we struggle keeping at bay.

    sure, it’s an opportunity to draw others closer – but isn’t that also exactly the danger of it?

    that a seven year old should be hooked already is not something i’d be happy about. for such individuals, can there be any way back to a less-entrenched lifestyle?…

  17. Madeithome: I understand your valid points, but the ability to contact all of your friends requesting they they say tehillim for someone is a valid point for FB as well. There’s potential for good in most things.

  18. Some thoughts. I don’t believe that any frum woman has any business at all being on FB. There’s way too much drama out there, and it’s entirely antithetical to an inner life. As for single frum women – forget it. You may think that picture of you on the camel during sem year was a hoot – but when you get googled for a shidduch and up it pops you can kill that shidduch right there. I am thinking alot lately about the pleasures of privacy, and not being socially networked is a pleasure I cherish.

  19. I don’t see why this should be seen as a substitute for in-person interaction as opposed to a supplement to it. I can only personally interact with so many people, across so many square miles, per day.

    I also can’t use Facebook at home! Blocked by JNet. That’s good.

  20. Is this the best way for people to communicate, or only a substitute for the somehow unavailable real thing?

    I think there’s a breisa with a different text on this question. It reads:

    This is the best way to communicate when the real thing is unavailable.

    Yes, Bob, it was wonderful when we could all sit around the campfire and share those magical interpersonal moments.

    But in lieu of that, these electronic media are an amazing substitute. As someone living in Israel with close family and friends still behind in the states I can tell you first-hand that it has enhanced our experience tremendously.

    My 7 yr old daughter video Skypes with her grandpa, emails my aunt, and IM’s with my wife’s aunt. I send digital pictures regularly, post pictures and blogs on my web site, and post videos on YouTube. Our VoIP allows my wife to speak with her sister multiple times a day.

    Via all these different applications we’ve been able to maintain, and in some cases even enhance, relationships with those of our friends who haven’t been fortunate enough to join us yet. And I would even venture to say that this has played a role in the resurgent Aliyah from the West.

    Some may say it’s regrettable that people live so distant from each other, but there’s nothing regrettable or disingenuous about using the same modernity that pulled us apart physically to bring us back together socially.

  21. Bob, you are right about how pathetic it is that so many of us communicate in this manner. However, you could even say the same about comments on a blog.

    Particularly in the case of the young man I wrote about, he lives very far away from me, so it isn’t like we could casually say “stop by over the weekend to chat”. It’s an 8 hour drive from his door to mine! And the bottom line is that this is, particularly for his generation (he’s a college student) an unthreatening environment.

  22. Even when it’s a useful tool for communication, the fact that we need an artificial substitute is regrettable.

    Look at the ways of general society today. So much of what goes on is an attempt to create a Bizarro version of human relationships and lifestyles that were once genuine.

    Near us is Carmel, Indiana. This suburb with delusions of grandeur is creating a center city like a Hollywood set, a pristine copycat knockoff of real old town buildings.

  23. Bob,

    You make a good point which, I think, cuts both ways. Sometimes it’s a cheap substitute for the real thing and sometimes the real thing isn’t possible or needs this first step such as in Charnie’s and Devra’s respective situations.

  24. Is this the best way for people to communicate, or only a substitute for the somehow unavailable real thing?

  25. Since I’m not presently cooking for Shabbos, I’d like to take a minute to respond. Funny thing is that due to office policy, I can visit BBT during work hours (when I’m taking a “station break”), and FB is blocked here, so that’s something I don’t do too much, I hope, in the evening.

    Anyway, as someone who keeps asking herself “why am I on FB”, I also have mixed thoughts, but share many of Ron’s. I’d like to add one other use I have in “friending” people from the secular world. I see it as a subtle kiruv opportunity. For example, there’s one young man, the son of a close friend, who’s off the derech. I cherish the opportunity of being able to have contact with him. He never would respond to emails, but somehow this is a more open atmosphere, and therefore, we message and chat about Israel, and Jews versus Judaism – which was a main reason he left the fold. Am I getting him back on the derech? It’s hard to say, but at least I know that I’m now one frum person who he’s willing to communicate with.

    Just this past week I sent out a request for all Jewish women to light Shabbos candles in memory of the those who we lost al Kiddush Hashem in Mumbai. Maybe one woman lit. Wouldn’t that be great! But I’m still stumped in how to encourage my friend’s daughter (see my previous post on this subject to reexamine her relationship with a non-Jew. It’s quite obvious from her profile that they are getting tighter and tighter.

    Of course, it was loads of fun during the previous presidential election being attacked by the Obama supporters, and supported by the others!

  26. I’m not a Facebook guy. There are a few reasons, amongst them:

    1. I spend way too much time on the web as it is; and

    2. I don’t want to feel obligated to befriend someone who has some inappropriate (for me and others getting there through me) pictures, videos or writing on their page.

    Some thoughts for Frumbook status:

    1. David is Fleishig.
    2. David is davening Minchah.
    3. David is looking for a zimun.
    4. David is folding his tallis.
    5. David is adding v’sein tal u’matar livracha.


  27. Ron, great post. FB has proven to be a great non-threatening way to reconnect with old not-yet-observant people from our past. Oh, and I enjoy your videos.

  28. Mr. Coleman makes some excellent points – I would like to add one. I have created relationships with my non-religious nieces and nephews where the ties previously were tenuous at best. By responding to their statuses, by sending them messages, by showing interest in THEM they are far more interested in ME and by extension, my way of life. I find that this alone justifies my activity on Facebook.

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