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Facebook - you just can’t get away from it! Did you know that over 900 million people now actively use it? That means by ‘population’, Facebook is (sort of!) the world’s third largest country! And it’s a safe bet that soon enough more people will spend time on the mother of all social networks than live in any one nation… That’s quite a thought, and quite a new sort of connected global reality for us all to get our heads around.
We’ve got a great Triratna presence on Facebook: there’s the page for The Buddhist Centre Online itself, the accompanying Facebook group, and, of course, the popular Triratna Buddhist Community page. There are also excellent pages for many of our Centres and Projects, and it’s an exciting hub for Young Buddhists too. And, last but not least, many hundreds of friends, Mitras and Order members take part daily in the often delightful world of ‘liking’ and ‘commenting’ and watching cat videos… All in all it can be a fine context indeed for helping spread news of the Dharma and of our community of practice. So why on earth would anyone build another community-based, connected ‘social network’? And why do you need a space on this one, even if you have a presence on Facebook?
Signal v. Noise
One of the key things social media gurus like to talk about is the concept of ‘signal versus noise’. It refers to the degree to which a website or a specific piece of web content sustains its focus as more people engage with it online (for example, how much a discussion in a particular web forum stays on topic as more and more users comment). This is very important as it’s clear from the history of social networks so far that when users feel their reason for engaging with a website (the ‘signal’) is drowned out by too much nonsense or distraction from it (the ‘noise’) they stop paying close attention and tend to disengage completely, sometimes catastrophically for the site itself. This is what happened to MySpace. Remember them? Only a few years ago, the darlings of the Internet and the biggest social web space by far, bought for a huge sum by Rupert Murdoch. Now, largely forgotten. What happened? They let their focus slip. Too much choice, too much muddle, too much advertising, too little clear signal, much too much noise! Nowadays they are re-inventing themselves as a music site, restoring a particular signal – but their chance to be the biggest has gone.
Money, money, money…
We in the Triratna community, of course, don’t need to be especially big! Facebook has all that sewn up anyway - at least for now (you never know). They are more clever than MySpace were: they’ve retained a good deal more control of the look and feel of their site (the Facebook people also seem to care more about what they’re doing, which is significant) and they give users options when it comes to their still relatively non-intrusive advertising. But in this discussion – why Facebook is not enough for you as a Triratna Centre or Project – that word is centrally important: advertising.
As you may have heard, Facebook is now a publicly traded ompany. That means their main objective on the commercial front is to get as many ads in front of 900 million pairs of eyeballs as they can! And to do that, they need a very wide range of attractive content to satisfy the momentary curiosity and impulses of their users. To us that might seem like ‘noise’ and distraction rather than ‘signal’ – but the ‘signal’ on Facebook is the user’s sense of interest and connection with anything at all! It doesn’t really matter to them what it is, it’s the user’s interest and attention they are selling, and maintaining it in as many ways as they can is how they guarantee an audience for their advertisers. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk – how to keep people’s wandering attention without overwhelming them. Do you offer them depth or offer them breadth? It seems obvious that Facebook has to build tools that allow for the possibility of both. But, at all times, whatever we the users are doing we must be engaged with the content so we’ll see the ads. And that’s the point as far as we’re concerned: there’s nothing wrong with a marketplace in and of itself. But it’s not the best place to have a sustained conversation about the Dharma…
Distraction and its antidotes
Any meditator knows that distraction is something you really need to watch for – on and off the cushion. And it’s just the same online. Most of us now spend a lot of time on the web, so if we’re serious about working with our minds wherever we are, we need to come up with ways to practice meaningfully when we’re connected to the Internet. And that’s why we built this space. The ways we exchange information and learn may be changing, but the work of the mind is the same. And we need good conditions – clear spaces – to promote and support practice within our community, and to open up the radical possibilities of a Dharma life to anyone who happens to meet us. We’re trying, as an Order and Community, to do what the Buddha did: to go where the people are and spread the Dharma. And the people are online. That’s why we are on Facebook – but it’s also why Facebook is not enough.
So, in a way, you could see your Projects and Groups as spaces to encourage people to get serious: where the distractions, the vying ‘things of interest’ are at a minimum. We don’t need to be Dharma or Triratna bores all the time, but we do need a chance to really engage and go deeper with the Dharma and with each other. That’s hard when you have more than a hundred friends all bombarding you in real time with the minutiae of their dinner plans and relationship traumas and pictures of adorable puppies. You might see a Dharma post in there, you might comment, but pretty soon the thread can be lost in the great rush of content that flows through Facebook hour by hour, all trying to get you to look. We have our Great Stream of Practice, but it’s quite a different experience. And you can let things flow past you easily, or engage in a one-pointed way with content that is always about something of value though no one is trying to sell you anything in quite the same way…
So, yes, definitely be on Facebook with your Centre or Project – it will help attract people and bring them in. But offer access to the broad, deep river of the Dharma – and of the Triratna way to the Dharma – by building lasting spaces on The Buddhist Centre Online for your sangha (old and new!) to engage with. Come swim in the Great Stream with us!