“Facebook”. For some of us it may as well be called “life”. I needn’t remind you just how much we use it and for how many functions. Although Facebook is now well known for presenting distorted images of our lives; causing jealousy, alienation and neuroticism, I would like to highlight that it is also stealing the joy from life at university. Facebook leaves us looking at pictures of each other remotely, staring at our friends and enemies as if through a one way mirror. It is making our lives colder and more isolated.
An example of our pseudo-social isolation is how we now help our fellow students with work. Most often we discuss our problem sheets and essays on a group chat rather walking to a friend’s room to talk in person. This may seem trivial, but I think that in every act we conduct over Facebook we are trading convenience for something more valuable. It could be that you fancy someone on your course and go round to their room to discuss it. Maybe you’ll bump into other people in their room and make new friends. Maybe after everyone else leaves they’ll offer you a cup of tea and you’ll talk on unrelated matters and bond. Perhaps a friendship or romance will grow. Perhaps not. Perhaps you’ll fall out with everyone and fart loudly as you leave the room in a strop. But unless you go round, nothing out of your control will happen. When we navigate the physical world rather than the web we become the prey of chance. We meet unexpected people and coincidences and misfortunes happen to us. Our lives become boring and less vibrant when we communicate without actually being present.
Another example is that Facebook groups such as Cuntry Living and Open Oxford have become our university’s main debating forums. Sadly, more people spectate on comment threads on Cuntry Living than on structured debates at our world renowned union. As I’m sure you’ll agree if you’ve spectated or taken part in both, the standard and fairness of debate at the union is not only higher, but the debate is much better formatted for helping students form new opinions. Facebook debates usually turn sour, with irrational personal remarks and cheap like-scoring infiltrating before a total highjack from trolls derails the discussion.
Evidently the problem is not the debate or the debaters but the medium. Demeaning personal remarks aren’t tolerated face to face, because frankly none of us are brash enough to be so rude in person, and this is not an accidental human trait. The instant nature of Facebook posting facilitates heat of the moment responses, which are poorly thought out and inflammatory, while the frosted glass of the laptop screen obscures the real emotions of those we debate.
But quality of debate isn’t the most valuable thing we are losing. We miss out on living. Debates online aren’t real. They come and go like waves of a fever and are forgotten the next week. No vote is cast, no records are made and so neither is progress. I came to Oxford very ignorant about things like gender and race equality and politics, and have learned so much from having real discussions with friends in hall and in our rooms, sometimes heated but always respectful and in the end enlightening. And the good thing is that I can remember them. I’ll look back on some of my student discussions as happening in oak panelled rooms with interesting friends, with perhaps bit of alcohol and at least a shred of style, or over a candle lit dinner in a beautiful hall. That is debate with dignity, not sitting angrily hunched over a computer alone in a bedroom, not swearing at a mobile phone screen on the loo. Debate without a face is dehumanising and reduces respect for the opposition. There is no point in debate if both parties leave with the exactly same views they came in with, even angrier at each other than before, and with Facebook debates this is the usual result.
Furthermore, these days even when chatting in someone’s room or eating in hall there will usually be a few people staring with fixity at their phones, paralysed and expressionless, only moving their thumbs, temporarily disengaging from the people around them and missing out.
Our addiction to Facebook prevents us from living in the moment and while it may bring us closer to our Aunt in Australia, it pushes us away from the student next door. We’ll never be able to count the chances we missed, the friends we never made and the magic we lost from our lives when we were looking at a screen instead of at the world. Maybe Facebook isn’t all as bad as I paint it to be, but there is undeniably an opportunity cost we pay when we spend our time on Facebook instead of in the moment.