Friday, July 29, 2011

Should Rabbis be on Facebook - Part 1

This week, I spent a day (plus) at an international rabbinic conference sponsored by Tzohar, a rabbinic group in Israel trying to create an alternative rabbinic presence other than the Israeli chief rabbinate. Tzohar became known for its registry of rabbis willing to perform weddings free of charge. It seems that for many secular Israelis, one of their only interactions with rabbis was at their wedding, and that many rabbis charged exorbitant amounts of money to perform the wedding, leaving a very bad taste, to say the least, of religious people and religion in general. To date, rabbis affiliated with Tzohar have performed tens of thousands of weddings across Israel.
At the conference, one of the more heated discussions surrounded the burning question whether rabbis should have Facebook pages or not. (Interestingly, I only found out that the press was at the conference halfway through the discussion, and it was implied that there was, “nothing to worry about.” If “nothing to worry about” means that, “You’ll be quoted directly by name in the press,” then I guess I didn’t have anything to worry about. I wasn’t quoted inaccurately, but having press representatives at a supposedly closed rabbinic conference isn’t a great way to engender open and honest dialogue.) In any case, this particular discussion made the Hebrew press here and here, and was then translated into English here, and finally blogged about here. I was quoted (pretty accurately) as saying that I didn’t think that a rabbi should have a Facebook page. Here’s the relevant passage:
Rabbi Reuven Spolter of the Israeli community of Yad Binyamin believes that, in general, "a rabbi must be a rabbi and not a friend." He does not rule out rabbinical activity on Facebook, but says it must be supervised.
"All the nonsense of the community members must be ignored," he says. "It would be better if they didn't have to see all their statuses and thoughts."
His practical suggestion is interesting: The rabbi's wife will be on Facebook and relay the spirit and messages from the community members, as expressed only there.
I once wrote a rather emphatic post about the fact that I don’t have a Facebook page. While at the time the post was accurate, today it’s less so, as I recently joined the Facebook phenomenon. (OK, I’m late to the party. But I did get an early invite to Google Plus.) I joined Facebook primarily because I need to use it at work in the context of student recruitment at Orot. You can see my Orot page here. (Please “like” us – I’m trying to build the page…) I opened two personal pages – one in Hebrew and one in English, and became “friends” with a number of acquaintances – mostly people who “friended” me.

At the discussion, I ended up sitting next to Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology, Rabbi Professor Daniel Hershkovitz. He’s a shul rabbi, math professor, and now a politician, and a generally all-around brilliant man. During the discussion, he said a number of times that it’s silly for rabbis to shy away from using Facebook, repeating to me and then to the group at large, “Facebook is a tool. Tools are not good or bad. They’re tools, and we must choose not whether to use them or not, but how to use them properly.”
In general, I agree with him. Tools aren’t good or bad. You can use a saw to cut lumber to build a home. And you can use that same saw to cut your dining room table in half. (Not recommended). But some tools are generally useful (like my screwdriver), and others primarily destructive. We measure whether to bring tools into our home by their design and their intended purpose, and whether their benefits outweigh the costs. So, my toolbox is brimming with screwdrivers. Sure, someone could use one as a weapon – but not likely. On the other hand, while there might be some benefits to keeping a firearm in my home, in my home right now the dangers outweigh them. While in some homes a firearm at the ready is a critically important, my home isn’t one of them. Let’s give another example a little closer to home: Television. One could legitimately argue that TV is a tool that can be either good or bad. After all, television can be informative, convey critical information, and even help me relax. On the other hand, do those benefits outweigh the costs? To me they don’t, because while I certainly miss watching football, I don’t miss the amazing amount of time that I’d waste watching TV. And I don’t miss the values on most television programs, nor the sexuality, violence and depravity that we don’t even notice anymore. So I don’t have a TV. It’s a tool, but not one that I choose to utilize.
What about Facebook? What kind of tool is Facebook? Are its uses valuable and positive? What are the benefits of Facebook, and do those benefits outweigh the costs? In order to answer those questions, you’ve got to (a) use Facebook, and (b) understand how it works.
Using Facebook:
Truth be told, there’s less action than I thought there would be. It’s nice to get pictures of people’s kids (very cute usually), and every now and then someone shares a thoughtful link to an article I hadn’t seen. But mostly, I haven’t found myself moved by peoples’ status updates, and I often find myself not posting for lack of what to post. This is not because I don’t have what to say. I say a lot – and if you’re reading this blog, you know what I mean.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by a marketing group to take part in a Facebook seminar, aimed at helping us market educational programs to potential students. The seminar spent a lot of time highlighting Facebook’s hierarchy which determines what posts are visible in someone’s feeds. This means that while you might post a status update, that doesn’t really mean that all your friends are going to see it. It depends on whether your post is “sticky” – and that stickiness follows an algorithm designed by Facebook. They like pictures and videos, and back and forth conversations. They don’t like updates that people don’t respond to. In other words, Facebook is built to get feedback. It’s not really designed for long form articles like this one. It’s really built to share the pictures, videos, short status updates that generate a quick “like”. And if your status update doesn’t get a like or a comment, it falls off the page amazingly fast. So, the trick of the Facebook status update is all about getting people to response.
That means that I’ve got to say something clever, or ask a silly question, or make a sarcastic quip, or share a family picture. It is not good for making serious comments or having an involved discussion, at least on its main pages. (Sure, you can have a private conversation with someone on Facebook, but you can also do that over email.) Facebook isn’t really about actual people. It’s more about the people they’d like others to see them as: clever, witty, outgoing – looking to get a reaction from others. Because there’s nothing worse on Facebook than sending out a status update and having it be ignored. All those friends, and no one cares about what you have to say…embarrassing.
So Facebook is built for chitchat, and not for deep, extended conversations. It’s built around superficial acquaintances, and not substantial friendships. It’s built to keep people in touch, but not to foster deeper connections.
Finally, many people share private and oftentimes inappropriate information (that has at times made me uncomfortable). That’s stuff that I really don’t want to know, and perhaps my friends also don’t want me to know, but forgot (or don’t care) that they’ve “friended” me.
Just as an aside, it’s also important for users to realize that Facebook is a marketers dream. Instead of “them” having to find you, all they have to do is entice you to “like” their page once. You “like” CocaCola? Sure you do. It tastes good. But if you “like” Coke on Facebook, they can now send you an endless stream of advertisements and promotions. Because that’s exactly what you asked them to do when you “liked” them. Why do you think advertisers spend so much energy and money asking you to “like” them? It’s a dark side of Facebook that many users don’t realize or prefer to ignore.
On the other hand, Facebook is not without benefits, and can even be surprisingly powerful. First of all, because pretty much the whole world is now on Facebook, it has reconnected people that lost touch years ago, allowing them to reestablish contact. You might not want to be best friends with your old high school classmate, but you would like to stay in touch and see how he’s doing.
Facebook also allows groups of people to coalesce around a common cause or purpose. My cottage cheese here in Israel costs me less money because of Facebook. It’s possible that the Arab Spring would never have happened were it not for Facebook. The tool allows individuals to share information with groups of interested people in unprecedented ways, with incredible ease. It’s not just about cottage cheese though. It’s used to promote Torah classes and community events as well.
There’s an even more powerful that has deep, powerful ramifications. A former member of our shul recently entered the hospital, and needed to return to the hospital following surgery a number of times due to complications. She spent hours in bed, alone, depressed. Her status updates – understandably gloomy – brought a flurry of responses, offering help, support and encouragement. People helped her – calling her, sending her messages, even visiting in person because they were aware that she was stuck in the hospital due to Facebook.
So, with all this in mind, this leads to my question: Should your rabbi be on Facebook? Do you want him as a friend, or would it be better for him and you if he stuck to email?