Monday, 1 October 2012

Facebook and Twitter - The Opportunities and the Risks

This is the unedited version (I wrote too much) of an article I wrote for a magazine recently...

Facebook is the largest social networking website in the world and has grown massively in the 8 years it has existed. Today Facebook has over 955 million active users. [1]  That’s 13.7% of the world’s population.  If Facebook was a country, its population would be 3 times larger than the USA.  It’s as popular with the girls as it is with the guys and the average user is on Facebook around half an hour a day.  Young people are well represented on Facebook: 20% of users are aged 13-17.  The youth leaders are on there too: 26% are 18-25 and another 26% are 26-34. [2] The co-creator, co-founder, Chairman & CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s 2nd youngest self-made billionaire. [3]  And Facebook even has its own feature film – ‘The Social Network’, released in 2010. In short: Facebook is HUGE.

Twitter (a micro-blogging website that allows registered users to ‘tweet’ short messages of 140 characters or less) is now one of the top 10 most visited websites in the world.  It has over 500 million active users. 63% of Twitter users are aged under 35 and millions follow the tweets of the celebrities who make up the ranks of the twitterati.  Right now Ricky Gervais is dispensing advice: ‘It sometimes takes 10 to 15 years to become an overnight sensation.  Don’t give up too easily.’  Oprah Winfrey wants us to know that ‘the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are’.  And Justin Bieber (the second most followed celebrity on Twitter with over 27 million people signing up to get his thoughts) wants us to know he’s at his house ‘cookin some noodles’.  Wow.        

So what are the best opportunities of Facebook and Twitter, especially for youth workers?  And what are the pitfalls and risks?  For what it’s worth, here are my top 5 likes and dislikes…

Like 1: People!
The best thing about Facebook and Twitter is they’re all about people! Have you ever stood in an art gallery and spent most of your time staring at other people instead of the paintings?  Maybe it’s just me.  God has made people in his image and they’re fascinating, creative, surprising, enterprising, compassionate, touching and funny!  Facebook connects us with family and friends we wouldn’t otherwise see or speak to much or at all.  Twitter allows us to connect to the latest from the minds of people who are famous for their wisdom, wit and humour.  Social connectivity and cultural enlightenment at the touch of a button. Brilliant!  For me as a youth worker, Facebook is basically a second email account for getting hold of young people who either don’t have email or do but never check it.  Facebook is where they are so that’s where I have to go.  Or take my friend Sarah for example who managed to build such great friendships on Twitter with Strictly fans that they went away on holiday together.  Great stuff.

Like 2: Interest
If you’re someone who wants to take an interest in people or like me, a youth worker who’s always thinking about people in the group, wondering how they’re doing, what they’re up to and what they’re talking about, Facebook is a great thing.  And when a young person’s on Twitter it’s usually because they’ve got things they want to say.  And it’s all in the name of ‘sharing’ so it’s not spying at all!  And when you notice people are happy, sad, worried or whatever, you can show your interest by messaging, commenting, sending prayers or asking questions so they know you care about what they’re on about. As youth workers although it’s entirely possible to do without these things and just deal with people on phones and face-to-face, I think we’re missing a unique opportunity if we’re not also connected with our young people on Facebook/Twitter.  It’s one of the main places they share their lives openly so why wouldn’t we be interested in that?

Like 3: Invitation
Another great thing about Facebook (more so than Twitter) is using it to invite people to stuff.  Set up an event page, make it look awesome and then start telling everyone on Facebook about it so they can RSVP.  Admittedly people on Facebook are renowned for saying they’ll come to stuff when all they mean is ‘I like the sound of that’ but it’s a useful indicator of who’s at least interested in what you’re putting on.  I still do flyers as well but it’s got to the stage where I’m convinced people pay more attention to me on Facebook than they do to the bits of paper I hand out.  And it’s not just events.  Recently, my friend skateboarded 1000km across Holland to raise money for LIV Village. I spent half an hour inviting 1300 people to consider giving online and something like an extra £150 was donated as a result.  Not overwhelming but definitely worth half an hour!

Like 4: Integrity
This one is debated among some youth workers.  Some say we should stay off Facebook or go on it with a fake name so we’re not found by young people.  Some youth workers even have two Facebook identities – one for adult friends and one for connecting with their young people.  Others use Twitter instead because it only shares a few words at a time and they wouldn’t want young people seeing all their photos of them having fun with their friends.  I have to say all this makes me feel disappointed.  If we don’t want to be hypocrites leading double lives with double standards in physical reality, why would we do it online?  Our integrity as youth workers should mean that we don’t have anything in our public life that we should want to hide from our young people.  They’re not stupid.  They’ll find out what you get up to one way or the other and you’ll be influencing them if they look up to you at all.  The best thing is when youth workers model life-sharing on Facebook so young people can know them better and see what it looks like to share well.

Like 5: Influence
People are influencing each other all the time on Facebook and Twitter.  When things ‘trend’ it’s because millions of people are paying attention to something.  But it’s not just about trending.  As youth workers serving Jesus, we care about influencing and leading individuals and sharing things that will help them.  I know one youth worker in Exeter who reads his Bible every day and shares one line on Facebook each time summing up what he’s read and how it applies so people in his group (and others) can see it.  As for me, I’ve been blogging my way through Mark’s gospel for a while and tweeting links to every new post so people on Twitter and Facebook get pointed to the Bible.  I’m not reaching millions but I do know that 22 people read my last article and that’s a lot better than keeping it to myself.  When Jesus gave us the great commission, I think he had the Facebook nation in mind as well as everywhere else.

Dislike 1: People!
The best and worst thing about Facebook and Twitter is the people.  People are a mixed bag and it doesn’t change when they’re online.  People online can be fascinating, fun, thoughtful, kind and compassionate human beings but they can also be offensive, idiotic, boring and cruel bullies.  Lonely young people post their mobile numbers regularly because they’re so desperate for attention.   Spiteful people slag others off publicly on their walls.  Celebrities tweet mind-numbingly useless information for sheer vanity, knowing millions will read it because they’re famous.  There’s a real sadness and brokenness about it because it’s full of people. 

Dislike 2: Junk
How many times have I been on Facebook and seen yet another group called ‘Let’s get a million people to join and Steve will shave off all his body hair!’ or something like that?  What a waste of time!  I guess it’s a cry for community but it’s no substitute.

Dislike 3: Fronts
People can be whoever they want online and this is liberating but usually in the worst possible way.  People are too big for their boots when they comment or tweet things they’d never dream of saying face-to-face.  Or they take photos of themselves and photoshop it to portray a version of themselves that is exaggerated or false. Sometimes it’s done for obvious fun and that’s fine but sometimes it’s fake and people are lying to others and themselves about who they really are and what they really want to say.

Dislike 4: Secrecy
Youth workers have to think about Child Protection and develop and follow policies that help keep people safe.  Secrecy online between a youth worker and a young person where no records are kept is as inappropriate as meeting them one-to-one in a bedroom somewhere with the door closed. Private message conversations can easily be had on Facebook and deleting them is an easy trap to fall into, especially if you like a nice tidy ‘inbox’ but we must resist the urge.  False accusations can be quickly cleared up and proven false if the transcript is there but if it’s not, it can lead to trouble.

Dislike 5: Distraction
Too many people would rather deal with people online than in person.  Face-to-face or even phone conversation is so much better when it comes to significant conversation.  And the number of times I see people in public ignoring each other to look at their mobile devices is incredibly sad.   The irony is that Facebook and Twitter are about connecting to people but they can also distract us from opportunities to truly and deeply do so.

Conclusion
Facebook and Twitter (like all other forms of communication) are essentially about people sharing stuff and that is the single best and worst thing about them.  People are made in the image of God and are valuable so Facebook and Twitter provide opportunities to share their lives and care for others.  But people are also sinful and broken so Facebook and Twitter fill up with this stuff too.  Like any other forum, we need to mentally filter everything we absorb in order to get the best from it and so that we can put our best in.  God came all the way down right into our messy world as a human being to rescue people.  The least we can do is wade through the mess online if it means connecting to people meaningfully.  It could even save lives.