More than a billion people use Facebook. Facebook says that the average US user spends 40 minutes per day on the platform. 40 minutes reading and interacting with posts, photos and Facebook messages—every single day! There has arguably never been a more powerful force for social impact in human history.
We used to hang out in the town square. Some of us used to spend hours a week with our church community. Now, many of us are spending that precious time wandering the blue, virtual hallways of Facebook.
Spending that amount of time doing anything is bound to shape you, but with Facebook the shaping isn’t accidental. Facebook recently admitted to experimenting with people’s feeds with the intention of altering their moods. (See reporting in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New York Times, and Slate.com.) Facebook learned that by altering the general mood of the posts they show, they could directly impact the mood of the user! Scary, huh?
But even if Facebook wasn’t doing this kind of large-scale social manipulation, the time we spend on Facebook (any social media, really) will impact us. What we see there will shift our emotions, subtly altering our thinking.
This is happening. The Facebook algorithm that determines what posts you can see is already impacting you this way. Those silly memes, political rants, passive aggressive vaguebook posts, and all the pictures of everyone else’s’ best moments are shaping how you feel about yourself and the world. Anything that impacts your mood will also impact your relationships.
Something else is happening, too. It may seem crazy to say, but it’s true. The Facebook algorithm is impacting your personal and spiritual growth.
By beholding, we become changed.
The principle for how we grow and change presented in scripture is simple: By beholding we become changed. Beholding is about attention. The things you pay attention to can shape you. When you give consistent, regular and recurring attention to something, it will shape you. Period.
If you’re anywhere near the average—20 minutes per day globally, 40 minutes per day in the US—then your Facebook feed is altering who you are and who you are becoming. What does this mean for your spiritual life?
Start by understanding this: The Facebook algorithm isn’t your friend. Sure, it curates your feed based on computational intuition emerging from the ever-growing database of things you’ve liked, shared, commented on and clicked. But Facebook’s goal isn’t to help you be a better person. Facebook’s goal is to get you to spend more time on Facebook. But is that your goal?
One of the core principles of spiritual growth is intentionality. We all are constantly being spiritually formed. We can’t escape it. But what we can do is recognize this and make choices about what we allow access to our minds and hearts.
If you have an intention of growing spiritually, and you are planning on using Facebook, then you need to have a plan about how you will use Facebook.
You could, of course, just bail on the whole thing. Delete your Facebook account. Some people have made that argument convincingly.
But, Facebook is also a powerful tool for connecting with people, as well as for learning and growing — as long as you take the Facebook Algorithm into account. So, what are we to do?
Use Facebook. Don’t let it use you.
Don’t use Facebook by accident. Don’t let it be just another diversion to occupy your attention. Decide why, how, and when you will use it. Here are some thoughts on how:
1. Be intentional about your time.
Facebook is designed as an infinite black hole. Posts lead to other posts. Notifications draw you back to check on conversations. Reading one article opens a list of articles like the one you just read. Friending one person adds more people you might know. It never ends.
Facebook’s goal is to get you to spend as much time as possible on their service. Without even noticing, Facebook encroaches minute-by-minute across your day. When this happens, you are not in charge. You are letting the agenda of Facebook and other people manage your time, and thus your attention. That means you’re letting other people shape who you are going to be. Decide when and for how long you’ll check Facebook and stick to your time.
2. Have a purpose for your time.
Avoid “Check the Fridge again” syndrome. You know the one. You’re hungry, but you don’t know what you want, so you stand aimlessly looking into the fridge. Nothing appeals, so you close the door. A few minutes later you’re back, scanning the shelves. A lot of us treat Facebook in this same way.
What’s going on? Am I missing out on anything fun or interesting? What’s up with this person? Are there any great events this week? Who’s online and available to chat? There are just so many options.
Instead of wandering aimlessly, have a purpose for your time on Facebook. When you passively click and browse you aren’t using Facebook. Facebook is using you.
Start by deciding what purpose Facebook serves for your life. Is it for staying in contact with long-distance friends and family? Is it for making deeper connections with friends? Is it for connecting with people you can learn from? Is it for encouragement? Get clear on WHY you are using Facebook. One you know the role that you want Facebook to play for you, then you can make sure you’re not wasting time in other ways.
3. Teach the Algorithm.
The purpose of Facebook’s algorithm is simple: Keep you on Facebook as long as possible. It does this by trying to serve “relevant content” to you. How does it know what’s relevant to you? It can’t read your mind, not really. It knows because you teach it.
Every time you interact with content, you feed information into the algorithm. Facebook knows everything you click, everything you share, everything you comment on. Facebook even knows how long you spend reading certain articles!
You’d think that things you “like” would have a lot of weight, but they don’t. Facebook knows what social scientists have known for years. People say they like things all the time, but the only real way to know what they like is from their behavior.
On Facebook, the behavior that Facebooks learns the most from is what you share, what you read, and what you comment on. This is why you can follow a musician or author’s page (like mine) and never see their posts. Facebook doesn’t care that much if you click “Like” on a page. Facebook pays close attention to what you comment on, what you share, and what you spend time reading.
Spend a lot of time debating politics with friends and sharing articles back and forth? Well, you are going to slowly see more political posts in your feed. The same is true with cat pictures, diet support groups, and self-help communities. Whatever you spend time interacting with will begin to change the tone and content in your feed.
So, now that you know this, what can you do? Don’t let Facebook’s algorithm decide what kind of content matters most to you. Feed the algorithm. Seek out the kinds of things that you want to see more of in your feed.
If you’re not seeing much from certain friends or family, it’s because Facebook has determined that you are not engaging them very much. To Facebook, that means they must not be relevant to you. To change this, seek those friends out. Comment on their posts. Like their pictures. Message them. The more you do this, the more you’ll see their content.
If you want to see more writing from certain authors, speakers or teachers, you have to do more than like their page. You have to check the page regularly for a while—and most of all, you need to share and comment on their posts. Until you do this repeatedly, Facebook won’t really believe your “like.”
If you want to have a Facebook feed that is positive, encouraging and helps you live a better life, then you need to seek out those types of people and pages, and actively engage them. If you spend a little bit of time each week seeking out the people and content that you want to see more of and interact with it, Facebook’s algorithm will learn. Slowly you will begin seeing more.
When you were a kid, your mom probably told you that who you hang out with matters. Well, that’s still true. If you’re going to be on Facebook, you’re going to be hanging out with a lot of people and ideas. Those people and ideas are shaping who you are becoming.
If you plan on using Facebook, make sure to use it with a plan and a purpose.
Use it to connect with amazing people and interesting ideas.
Use it to bring encouragement, hope and truth into your life.
Use it to deepen relationships and express care to people you love.
Use it to build and encourage your spiritual life.
Bottom line: if you don’t have a plan, your time on Facebook will be mostly about serving Facebook’s agenda. Instead, you can choose. Use Facebook as a tool to support becoming the kind of person you want to be.