Facebook: a garden of intimacy or a hotbed of anxiety?

From the South Park episode.

Stan Marsh trying to decide if he likes the FB experience. (From South Park, April 7, 2010)

Architecture determines the way you live.1

So I got back on Facebook recently, after taking about four months off.

It’s kind of a weird feeling.  On the one hand, it feels great to see so many faces and names that I don’t see very often.  I would like to hug some of these people.  On the other hand, it is, paradoxically, soooooo not-intimate on Facebook.  Which is weird.

I mean, these are all friends posting photos and updates about their lives, often in real time, right there on the same website – what could be more intimate than that?

1. Cheap

I think one thing that makes the FB experience seem less intimate for me than other ways of relating to people is the “cheap” quality of the whole experience.  There’s no commitment or expectation on anyone’s part of anyone else’s participation, and often – or at least out on the “wall” – no presumption of common interests.


Image source

And while it may be a good place to meet people, there’s not much potential for strong relationships to develop via FB, so far as I can tell.  It’s not like when two guys make it through a war together, or two Buddhists finish a month-long silent meditation retreat, or a couple makes it through a rough spot in their marriage.  Those are bonding experiences.

It’s more like each person is standing alone in the center of an enormous space with a couple billion people in it, making announcements2 to whomever happens to be nearby at the moment.

2. Politicized

It reminded me of high school when I first got on Facebook3 – here you are, an adult, trying to interact with your peers in a positive way, but there is this sense of having almost zero privacy and of being watched and judged by a hidden crowd any time you say or do anything.  The slightest gesture of friendship or kindness toward another human being could have all kinds of political consequences, because again, it’s all done in front of an audience.

You don’t have a personal relationship with anyone on Facebook – you have a public relationship with them, along with any “enemies” (or “frenemies”) that person might have, which you don’t know about, any “history” that person may have with others on FB, and on and on and on and on.  So paranoia and distrust and fear seem to be not uncommon – or let us at least say “caution” is commonly exercised – simply because of Facebook’s architecture.



Source: Huff Post



Source: NPR

“The more they used Facebook, the worse they felt… Facebook use led to declines in moment-to-moment happiness and overall life satisfaction.”  (Source: NPR.)



don't do it.

? (image source)



Source: Science Daily

“There is a positive correlation between an increased use of social media and decreased body image in young women, reveals a study.” (Source: Science Daily.)


3. As satisfying as crack cocaine

So then – after my return to FB after 4 months – I noticed I kept going back to the site over and over that day, to see if I could find love.  By “love” I mean little “hits” of affirmation from other people, affirmations that I am valued as a human being.  I did get some, but it’s like giving crack to an addict – the feeling is ephermeral and goes away almost instantly, leaving me with an empty feeling.

Maybe it’s similar to how a woman feels getting out of bed after an unsatisfying sexual encounter.  Sure, “something” happened, but it was not quite it, you know?

Many people eat well enough and breathe well enough, but they are depressed and insane because they do not communicate through the eyes and through the heart.4 – Adi Da Samraj

4. Dishonest?

From Echo and Narcissus by John Williams Waterhouse

Narcissus takes comfort in seeing his own reflection, but doesn’t realize that that’s all it is… Similar to the effects of Facebook’s social dynamics, Google now returns customized search results for each of us. Now when we search online, the result can reflect our beliefs and prejudices back to us, so we rarely have to be disturbed by new or threatening ideas.5

Another weird thing about Facebook is the dishonesty.  I don’t mean people set out with the conscious intention to deceive people.  But the medium itself seems to encourage us to conceal things, to put on a false face, perhaps even to spread outright lies.

To give a trivial example, there are things people say on FB that I don’t agree with, but I would never admit to this on there because it’s just not done.  It would take too much trouble to explain why I disagree, I can’t tell if the other party wants to invite such a discussion, and often… well you get the picture.

Basically there are no non-verbal cues, there’s no way to drop hints, and there’s almost no context for having a discussion in the first place.  Plus, disagreements tend to reflect badly on all participants on FB because, again, there’s always an audience there – folks who may not be in the mood to overhear someone else’s disagreements.  And so we avoid them.

As a result of this lack of disagreement, or lack of free and open consideration, I find that I don’t learn many profound things on Facebook.  My world-view and my self-imagery are not challenged very much.  It’s an atmosphere of “likes” and being “liked”… rather than a culture of “truth”.

Thus, in some ways Facebook provides a “bubble of self-reflection” for each of us, a mechanism for reflecting our own ideas back to us.  A p.o.v.-reinforcing machine. We think we are looking at other people, looking at the world, having interactions and getting feedback… but what if we’re not?  Not really?

5. Conformist

1984 commercial

Apple’s “1984” commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, is considered one of the top 50 commercials of all time. “We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology—where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths.”6

Taking it a step further, some critics7 say that places like FB tend to encourage herd-mentality and social conformity, because of the omnipresent potential to be penalized by one’s peers for saying anything unusual or controversial.  If that sounds overstated, try saying something unpopular on FB a few times in a row and let me know what happens.

Paradoxically, this reminds me of the “1984” commercial that introduced us to Steve Jobs’ Apple Macintosh computer 30 years ago.  It’s interesting how in this commercial, “Big Brother” isn’t a monstrosity that overtly controls us, but rather a situation wherein we ourselves have voluntarily given up our privacy and been persuaded to penalize each other for independent thinking.  Independent thought – or at least being honest about it – is seen as an unnecessary “pest”, something that undermines the institutionalized harmony and artificial “oneness” of the situation.

Well, this avoidance of controversy and conformity to social pressures seems similar to what it takes to be liked by many people on FB.  Hmm?

6. A substitute for other intimacy?

Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. – James Baldwin

Apparently social media and porn are by far the two biggest activities on the internet.

They say social media and porn are the two biggest activities on the internet. (source) (Cartoon source)

I remember when I first joined FB a little over three years ago.  Because I started from a clean slate and added dozens of men & women as friends all at once, I felt I was given an interesting perspective at that time.

I couldn’t help noticing that by far the biggest participants on FB were single women.  Second place was single men.  Then married women.  Married men had the least participation of all.

Happily married people did post, obviously, and there are all kinds of reasons for someone to post on FB on a given day – an extroverted personality, feeling happy, a business venture to promote, pictures to share.  But the trends I noticed with regard to gender and marital status seemed convincing.

So just as an informal scientific thing8, a person might conclude that human beings use Facebook, in part anyway, as a substitute for other forms of intimacy.  Obviously there’s nothing wrong with wanting intimacy – I think intimacy and friendship are great things, maybe essential for sanity.

However, in my own life I find that I often have to roll up my sleeves and deal with some difficult stuff to help create & maintain friendships and intimacies – they don’t just fall out of the sky because I say I “like” something or I find a witty one-liner or platitude to share.  And I think the best friendships I’ve had aren’t even about the friendship, truly, but are about shared commitments that brought us together.  Shared commitments that were about more than trying to look good in front of an audience.


Alleged subliminal messages aside, what IS the allure of FB? Honestly?

Alleged subliminal messages aside, what exactly IS the allure of FB?


7. Conclusion

Ultimately I think something like Facebook can have value in all kinds of ways – seeing what people are up to, maintaining connections, picking up on news stories, promoting creative ventures, meeting new people, and so on.

My purpose in this article is mainly to pay attention to how I participate in FB, to see how its architecture and its milieu affect me, and to notice if I’m going about things in such a way that my motives can actually be fulfilled.

I’d like to close with some “old-school” wisdom I’ve found helpful.  As many of us already know, life is experienced on multiple levels.  And it can be conceived to exist in two separate domains: one “sacred” (or intimate – a place of potential ecstasy in our private life), and one public (or secular & more socially-concerned, focused on survival and handling business).

This passage is from the late teacher Adi Da Samraj:

Photo by Greenmonster.

“That which is loved is beautiful.”9 Photo by Greenmonster.

The sacred domain must be the core of life, and all kinds of activities and experiences10 belong there that do not belong in the secular social domain – but you must be able to enter into the sacred domain, readily, and be there when you get up in the morning, and freely enact there all the forms of ecstasy that you do not enact in the common (or secular) daily domain.  The sacred culture determines how the forms of ecstasy are accommodated in human life, whereas the secular social world always wants to exclude them.

If you have nothing but the secular social world, then ecstasy in all its forms – even sexual – becomes suppressed, its integrity destroyed.  Then life becomes nothing but a self-conscious exercise in which you merely preserve social rules, extending them even into the bedroom and the prayer room – such that you never turn ecstatic, you never “go native”, when you are outside the common social (or secular) sphere…

There needs to be a clear division between these two domains.  Both domains must exist…11


  • When you are on Facebook, are your communications intimate and uninhibited? Or are they more strategic and political?  Or somewhere in the middle?  Or is it – as it is for me – an ongoing confusion as to which attitude to adopt, because too many different things are trying to happen all in the same space?
  • Does it work to be uninhibited on Facebook?
  • When the “secular” social domain infringes too much on the “sacred” domain, do you think that could eventually ruin our sex lives?  Could it undermine our meditative lives?
  • Mr. Zuckerberg once said “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.”12 Who’s world is he talking about, exactly? Would you want your intimate thoughts, feelings and interactions to be public knowledge, 24/7, in the sense of total “transparency”?  Technology already exists that could make this a reality, or so I’m told, so this is a question we might ask.
  • Which do you think is more likely to bring people together: having a common commitment and going through a difficult journey together?  Or logging in to a corporate website, and being under a kind of spotlight there?  Obviously it’s not an either/or situation, but still a useful question to ask myself.
  • What were the most beautiful moments in your life, and what made them that way?

Best wishes,
BOT Student

  1. Adi Da Samraj, as quoted in “The Eating Gorilla Comes in Peace”, published by the Dawn Horse Press.
  2. I don’t want to upstage my FB appreciation with something intense and heavy, but FB also reminds me of this quote.  See for yourself though: The human world is now in a state of virtually infinite fragmentation, in which the individual feels powerless and is just thinking of himself or herself as some kind of “consumer”-ego to be titillated and satisfied, and perhaps to be given a voice, a soap box, here and there. The global state of humankind is absurd and dark. Therefore, this darkest time requires an immense force of self-correction and self-rightening… This is from the book Not-Two Is Peace, by Adi Da. I think most of us can all agree that the purpose of FB is not “self-rightening”.
  3. Before you know it, almost nobody will be alive who remembered what it was like to live in a world without social media.  Whatever its effects are on the human psyche – whether good or bad – will seem “normal” by that time, perhaps.
  4. Excerpted from “The Incarnation of Love”, p.14, published by the Dawn Horse Press, Clearlake, California, 1980.
  5. Image from Echo and Narcissus by John Williams Waterhouse.
  6. See wikipedia entry for more info.
  7. See wikipedia’s article on Criticism of Facebook.
  8. In the hard sciences, the informal “back-of-the-envelope calculation” is often associated with physicist Enrico Fermi, who was well known for emphasizing ways that complex scientific equations could be approximated within an order of magnitude using simple calculations. – wikipedia.
  9. Quote from Adi Da.
  10. Like making love to your wife real good.  Also, making music, meditating, laughing, engaging spiritual exercises, making art – these are all things that can be immensely satisfying in a private or “set apart” setting, but are not always appropriate to engage, say, at the workplace.
  11. Excerpted from “My Call for the Universal Restoration of the Sacred (or Central) Domain of Human Life”, by Adi Da Samraj, as published in 2001 in “Santosha Adidam”.
  12. This quote is all over the internet, but no website seems to specify when or where it was said.
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14 comments · now closed

  1. BOT Friend   Thumb up +5

    Welcome back BOT Guy, seems you had a good rest from the very new insightful article. Very interesting and thought-provoking as usual…

  2. Terry Cafferty   Thumb up +11

    In the late 90s I became addicted to internet pornography largely as a substitute for having to step up to the challenges in my professional life as a consulting engineer. At a certain point I told my intimate partner about it, and she left me for a time.

    Also at that time, my Spiritual Master, Adi Da Samraj, became aware of my plight and sent me a note which said there is nothing wrong with what you are doing, you’re just not doing it with real people. Ultimately, with His help and that of my intimate partner and friends, I ‘kicked the habit’.

    I’ve never gotten into Facebook, I feel largely because I experience it in much the same way as I did internet pornography, that is as a (sometimes titillating but always ultimately hollow) substitute for real life. I find it depressingly distant and even somewhat darkening in its emotional effect.

    • omg that is hilarious – “there is nothing wrong with what you are doing, you’re just not doing it with real people”

      great story, sir. thank you so much for sharing that. I suspect a lot of people can relate to what you say here.

    • Edu   Thumb up +3

      Like any addiction, it comes to a point when one realizes one is self destructing for nothing but an empty illusion.

      Them a virtue is born, not out of dogma but out of ones own understading.

      My Personal experience in a very lonely world.

  3. Rigel   Thumb up +4

    Yes, welcome back…the world of…I dont know what~ and still trying to navigate this new terrain myself…deleting people, blocking people, deciding what to share & what not…still navigating, thats ok, this has never been done before and no, I dont have 5000 million friends & whatever…I appriciate your dive into this strange & murky pool….Ill probably go “off” again, in the winter months…feeling synchronistic at least with the seeds. deep breath, life seems so much more complicated, or if i could just accept it all, but this robotic breath of FB seems fishy! Ick!

    • If you can figure a solution to FB out, please let me know. :)

      Yes, spring feels wonderful here in the northern hemisphere. Forgot how amazing it is to see all the plants and birds growing and happy. It’s really something.

  4. on island   Thumb up +9

    I’ve heard that FB has gotten ‘better’ in the last months, maybe due to their algorithms and perhaps people getting smarter about what constitutes a good post and what does not. It still does strike as not a very deep way to connect, and insofar as it’s substituting for that, it feels like part of a trend in our collective dumbing down and desensitization.

    I read recently in a journal that neoliberals and technocrats have essentially decided re: literacy that novels are “not what the market wants”. Well, there are a lot of things the market doesn’t want these days. I don’t think the market wants us to talk to each other very deeply either. The factory farm market certainly does not.

    That said — one overarching value of FB may be its ability to keep us somehow loosely connected to people who we might otherwise never, ever have contacted… from our past, from wherever… and that has proven, for me anyway, to be valuable.

    So, I do not use FB at all anymore, quite literally zero, but I do keep it up for the sake of harboring those ties to people I don’t want to lose complete contact with. I never go on FB anymore, but I know it’s there for people to find me if they really need or want to. Overkill, perhaps, for what is basically an online Moleskine contact book, but if you want to find someone who you’ve been out of touch with, that’s where you will first look. And without it, it might be prohibitively hard to track someone down.

    As for the rest of it, the endless self-referencing stream of words and imagery concocted for an audience of threadbare relations who it seems we want to impress with the perennially magical and enviable quality of our own questionable existence? That part is not sufficiently valuable to be allowed to eat my fleeting time. Entertainment is a pretty idiosyncratic thing, I suppose.

  5. great to see you doing articles again.

    this may be of interest – a very radical notion of what the structure of FB could be if it was raised up via people power, to be a mechanism of political governance. it has significant resonance with Adi Da’s vision of the Global Co-operative Forum in principle.

    We appear so far from it that in such a profoundly urgent predicament that I’m interested in bringing together any and all valid ideas for self-organising local-global governance


    • I like a lot of the observations Professor Pastreich makes in his article. Good insights. Thank you for sharing, Mr. Nicholson.

      However I start to get lost when he starts talking about reforming Facebook. How would we ever get the clout to reform FB? How would we communicate with everyone about such an idea? We’d almost have to have a superior alternative to FB already working just to do that.

      Facebook has a very, very specific design and is made to fulfill very specific purposes. I’ve heard rumors about who funded Facebook in its early rounds of venture funding. How do we know that either the owners or the customers of Facebook would want it to be something other than it is?

      It’s like saying that because so many people use porn, we could add positive political messages to porn websites, by convincing the owners and customers that it’s a good idea. We certainly could, we certainly could try to do that, but I don’t think we have to limit ourselves to that idea – having to depend on existing, privately owned corporate websites. We could just as well create a new website, perhaps? Or many?

      FB does have some usefulness in promoting articles and ideas already, I think, even in its current form. So that’s one good thing about it – besides keeping in touch with people, etc.

      But I think you’re right that the internet has incredible – perhaps largely untapped – power to manifest social and political changes… interesting consideration. Thank you, sir.

  6. Rudi   Thumb up +4

    A place to lose face, which is really just a mummery book.

    • Yes, interesting observation.

      I sometimes feel that I lose my dignity on FB, not unlike the woman in the photo above who apparently will undress herself in exchange for “likes”. There are different ways of undressing oneself, and I think some ways may be more dignified than others..?

  7. a friend   Thumb up +3

    got this response from a kind friend:

    “I don’t do comments online, so I won’t leave a comment, but I wanted to encourage you to keep at it.

    “Also, good to take on Facebook. [Genuine spirituality] is about losing face, so Facebook IS a weird thing, it’s all about social face!”

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