Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review: Unfriend Yourself

Recently I have had the chance to read the book "Unfriend Yourself" by Kyle Tennant.  I ordered it off of Amazon, and while it is a short read, it has given me much to think about, and much to write about.  Unfriend Yourself is a book that is written in a critical tone about how people have come to use Facebook.  It is also written from a religious point of view.  The author is a youth director and graduate of the Moody Bible Institute.  While this book may not immediately seem like a desirable read to a person who is not religious, I would state that it has a lot of interesting points to make about Facebook use.  If you do wonder, however, what place Facebook and social media has in a Christian life, this would be a good book to pick up and read.  It is available as both an electronic kindle and physical book. 

This is a small book, which is designed to be read in a weekend.  At the end of each chapter (meant to be read in a day), the author gives the reader a task or experiment that they can use to come up with their own conclusions about social media.  One example of such a task is to "go do something creative, or fun, or exciting, all by yourself, and tell nobody about it."  These tasks are simple, but perhaps they are not something that many of us, as (a)social addicted individuals, ordinarily bother doing.

Kyle Tennant begins with a history of how he came to see and use Facebook.  He was a user of Facebook in high school and during college (later on you will find that he has not given up Facebook, but is still a functioning member of the site).  Tennant mentions getting a running start on his social life after getting accepted to, but before starting, Moody Bible Institute.  However, he finds that friendships online were a lot different than friendships in person.  When he met his new Facebook friends, he notes that they were awkward off of Facebook.  Tennant states that he still uses Facebook, "this is not a book about how Facebook is evil; it is a book about thinking" (21).  He explains that "at its core, this is a book about the promises Facebook and other social media make and how they often fail to deliver on those promises" (22). This is one of the best chapters of the book, and one that provides the reader with much to think about.

Social Media Offers More Than It Can Deliver

Tennant states that "when [he] met [his] Facebook friends in the flesh, [he] found that [their] exchanges were not easier but more difficult.  They were awkward and stiff" (20).  These were people he had yet to meet when he was transitioning from a high school graduate to a college student.  Over time, he came to find that there was little friendship off of Facebook.  "Oddly enough, it is [not] the people I friended on Facebook, but [those] whom I interacted little electronically that I am closest with today" (20-21).

Tennant continues, stating, "what I have come to see is that one of the dominant cultural metaphors of our time is not to be trusted, nor is it to be lauded" (13).  This is the general theme of this very website, and one that I have tried to hit home on multiple occasions. 

Facebook: Just a Tool?

The chapter continues with the above question.  Is Facebook merely a neutral tool?  Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Entertainment writes that
"every technology has an inherent bias.  It has within its physical form a predisposition toward being used in certain ways and not others.  Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that technology is entirely neutral.  Each technology has an agenda of its own." (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 84). 
This is an interesting idea.  Many people have commented on this very blog stating that sites like Facebook are merely tools and are not, in themselves, good or evil.  However, we must look at how society as a whole uses the tool.  Is the tool being used for good as a whole?  Is society getting a net benefit from the use of the technology?  No technology, as Postman states, is entirely neutral.

Tennant adds to this, stating that "our use of Facebook is changing the way we see the world and how we interact with each other" (27).  He adds that "the supra-ideology of social media is me" (Id).
"Facebook's agenda is for us to broadcast ourselves to talk about what we're doing and what we like." (Id).  He is obviously right here.  The user of social media is almost purely concerned about self-promotion, even to the point where one promotes the mundane.  People spend excessive amounts of their time on Facebook sharing and reading about the antics of pets, what someone on the bus was wearing, and why one should be mad at some guy named Kony. 

Tennant states "when I log onto Facebook, I find that I want to put my best foot forward; as a result, I find myself bending the truth and skirting circumstances, ever so slightly, to offer my "friends" the best part of myself, the part of me that is the coolest, the funniest.  I announce to others something good about me with the goal of getting others to think a certain way about me" (28).  In my time on Facebook, I found that most people do this.  It is either that someone is extremely positive about their life, or overly negative.  The negative individuals, I have found, are concerned with getting attention and having others feel sorry for them.  For both types, the positive and the negative, the feeling of attention that was received was like a drug.  Tennant adds that, "as a result, I want to find ways to make myself look better so that I can keep up with everyone else.  So begins an endless cycle of self-promotion and self-rejection" (29).  One needs not spend much time wondering if this type of life is healthy. 

The information we share on sites like Facebook and Twitter, Tennant says, "it is often trivial and inane, which subtly teaches us that the inane details of our lives are important for other people to know" (29).  "Before we know it, our way of thinking has changed.  We broadcast everything to everyone all the time, and consider this normal and acceptable" (id).

The book continues, talking about the building of a community on the internet instead of in the real world.  Tennant is correct in stating that "attempts to build a true community online always fail" (30). 

Sherry Turkle is quoted in this chapter, stating that "too often we applaud technologies that enable us to exchange information (communication) without attending to those means of sharing that build intimacy and deeper our communion with God and each other" (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together; Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 11.)   Social media does little to nothing in helping one share real intimate moments with each other.  We are, in reality, spending time with ourselves and ideas that other people have created, ideas that barely resemble who they are.  We are, in essence, alone online.

Continuing with this idea, Tennant explains is that "social media tell us that we can be anywhere, even miles apart from our loved ones, and still be intimate with them" (32).  Sure, we can share what we are doing with everyone else.  However, I can not help but wonder if other people are actually reading, or if they are too obsessed with their own lives to care. 

One remarkable idea that this book shares is that "a strange kind of thing happens when we live more and more of our lives online.  What is acceptable there, in Facebook or Twitter, becomes acceptable here, in real life" (33).  People begin to see person-to-person conversation as something scary, even terrifying. 

Although it is obvious, many people forget that "if you're spending three, four, or five hours a day in an online game or virtual world [or a social media site] there's got to be somewhere you're not.  And that someplace you're not is often with your family or friends--sitting around, playing Scrabble face-to-face, taking a walk, watching a movie together in the old fashioned way" (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together; Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 12.)  We often take for granted that which we have around us.  That includes family and friends; real life friends.  How much time do we spend on our phones, texting and tweeting, when our loved one is trying to engage us in conversation?  How much time is spent texting while driving, putting our children in the back seat in danger?  Is it worth it?

In the second chapter, Discern, Tennant talks about using Facebook as a tool for reliving the past, spying on others, eavesdropping into friends lives as a kind of substitute for being in their presence.  This chapter touches more on religion and asks "what does the Bible have to say about social media." (42).  Here Tennant mentions sin.  "Social media actually hold to the same values that are manifested by the sin in our lives." (43).  Talking about Adam and Eve, and original sin, Tennant asks "are social media the new leaves we use to cover our shame?  After all, we can write the Facebook profile that pleases us.  We edit our messages until they project the self we want to be" (44).  We are embarassed to share who we truly are with others.  Some of us grow scared to actually talk (with our mouths) on the phone or visit someone in the flesh.  We feel it would be awkward.  We do not want to be forced to be our true, imperfect selves.  Many of us would rather hide behind a computer or behind a phone, feigning perfection.

Is community possible when social media is so based on the self?

"For all the rhetoric about cyber-community, the internet is less a forum for shared public life than an arena for individuals to express their egos and find information in tune with their personal needs and desires."  (Quentin Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 167).

Kyle Tennant states that "we have a problem when we seek community on a medium that is more about us than it is about others" (48).  He is right.  A community can not survive if everyone is self-centric.  Yet, that is what Facebook is built on.  That is why the site is so popular.  It is about everyone's favorite subject: themselves.  Now, it is not bad to love yourself, but to obsess over oneself to the exclusion of others and everything else creates a problem, and is not conductive to forming a real community.  "True community requires hard work, social media provide us a kind of community that requires little of us" (50).  How much work is it to poke someone, or to be a Facebook activist?

Speaking of Facebook activism, one of my favorite quotes from this book is the following.  "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice" (Malcolm Gladwell, "Small Change," The New Yorker, October 4, 2010,  I can not even begin to count how many times I saw some cause being promoted on Facebook with a string of likes behind it.  Yet, I could not help but wonder how much was actually happening to really help the cause.  Yet, we can easily feel good about doing something without doing something on Facebook.

In the last chapter, Tennant found that Facebook was a needed to communicate with his students, however.  He mentions condemnation of something rarely leads to lasting change.  Instead, he states that we must "change the way we see social media, our friendships and ourselves" (58).  This last chapter includes many suggestions for using social media differently. 

Tennant does agree that Facebook is an addiction for many.  He shares that "Facebook Addiction is searched online 350 more times than cigarette addiction" ("Obsessed with Facebook," Online Schools,

However, Tennant says "don't let yourself be enslaved by Facebook."  However, I must state that this is easier said than done.  Facebook has quickly enslaved many of its users, even users that have tried to resist enslavement.  Tennant also says that we need more face to face time.  This is true, yet, he earlier stated that social media makes it so that people would rather use sites like Facebook to keep in touch. 

Perhaps what Tennant is really trying to do is reach to those that he knows will not give up Facebook?  In conformity with this idea, one of Tennant's suggestions is creating less hurtful and mindless posts.  I strongly agree with this (although I would go further and state stop posting!).  The internet is chock full of such hurtful and mindless words being thrown about.  However, again, I feel that this is easier said than done.  Even if one holds back from creating such posts, users of Facebook will still have to see them.  Is it healthy to be involved in such a thing? 

Tennant makes the point that "our use of social media reveals so much about us" (70).  This is very true, but is a point that we rarely think about when we are busy posting about our lives.  What we say in the past stays around.  Hundreds of people may read what one said, months or even years after it was said.  There are many ramifications to this.  Recently, people have been put in jail for what they have said.  We constantly hear stories of individuals losing their jobs because of something they posted.  The past is in the present when it comes to Facebook, and erasing something that was said is easier said than done.

In the end, Tennnat states that "social media is a great tool -- a tool we must subdue, and not be subdued by" (74).  I would be inclined to agree that social media is a great tool (in theory), but as humans we have little capacity to use it for good.  It is too easy to become addicted to social media.  It is too easy to become obsessed with social media. 

Although Tennant ends by stating that "my hope in writing this book is not that people would unfriend themselves indefinitely, closing their profiles and ending their accounts.  My hope is that people would say farewell to what we've allowed Facebook to create -- a new kind of social and intellectual environment that encourages false intimacy and feigned friendship" (78), I wish he would have promoted the idea of leaving Facebook for more than three days.  To really see that life is better without Facebook, especially after having been on Facebook for years, one must take a much longer break from the site.  I believe that a month, at minimum, is required to evaluate if life is better with or without Facebook.  I also think that taking notes and reflecting on the time away from the site is important. 

Kyle Tennant has written a much needed book on (a)social media, and although I disagree with some of it, I want to applaud his effort.  It is a well written guide on understanding and considering the deeper ramifications of (a)social media.  I hope that some of my readers give it a chance.  It is a quick read, and is the kind of book that can be easily passed along to friends and family.  It was definitely worth the couple of hours (and the few dollars I spent on it).  In total, it took me only a couple hours to read, and I am sure I will be passing my copy along to an addicted family member or friend. 

Order "Unfriend Yourself" by Kyle Tennant on
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  1. Thank you for this in-depth article. I am starting a feacebook detox today, and this time I want it to be permanent. I am happy I found your site.

  2. Great book! Your preaching for the last few years must have convinced new people to finally man (or woman) up to life outside facebook :)