“Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed… In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil… And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’” –from Genesis 2:8-17 (New International Version)
The world is full of temptations. According to the Bible, that’s how the world has been since week one. Today, temptation is more accessible than ever, so it’s hardly surprising that some institutions are trying to regulate how their members use the Internet. Yet exceptions can be made, and in one prominent case, it was a brand that inspired a loophole.
According to a slew of reports originating from crownheights.info, the private, all-girls Beth Rivkah High School in Brooklyn told students that it would soon enforce a rule against using Facebook. According to the report, “Every girl in the 11th grade who possessed a Facebook account – about half the girls in each class – was individually removed from class and given a slip of paper with an ultimatum: delete the account entirely and pay a $100 fine, or face expulsion from the school.”
The main beef (brisket? corned beef?) Beth Rivkah has with Facebook is that using it violates the Jewish code of “tznius,” or “modesty.” The Facebook ban is thus a perfectly rational call on the part of the educators. Social media is generally the antithesis of modesty, as it encourages talking about yourself ad nauseam, while continually monitoring what everyone else is up to.
The book “Alone Together” by Sherry Turkle is full of anecdotal evidence to support the school’s concerns. Consider this conversation Turkle had with a teenage boy: “’It is a waste of time,’ he says, ‘to use Facebook messaging’ because these messages are like e-mail, private between the correspondents. ‘They will do nothing for your image.’ [What’s] essential is ‘to spend some time every day writing things on other people’s walls so that they will respond on your wall.’”
This obsession with public messaging becomes the teenager’s constant struggle of constructing a creation myth about himself multiple times daily. He is constantly forging his identity – an effort that takes far longer than a mere six days, with no Sabbath to provide a day of rest. The high school is dealing with far more than immodesty; it has the added burden of preventing students from acting like the Creator. As the Tower of Babel story shows, there’s only room for one Creator.
This Facebook ban alone then is hardly newsworthy. It could have stayed a private matter. One person commenting on CrownHeights.info took such offense to the story itself, exclaiming, “I understand that a school would do something like this, but I DO NOT understand why ANY website would post something like this!! To make it known does not make it right!”
What transformed this non-event is a twist best covered by The Algemeiner. It turns out that school administrators sent out a mass mailing to parents last year after Kohl’s launched a contest where people could vote to choose which 20 schools would each receive a $500,000 donation. Beth Rivkah’s message stated, “Dear Parents, although the policy of our school is not to allow the use of Facebook and it remains the policy of our school not to use Facebook, after consulting with Rabbonim [rabbis)] due to the financial situation of the school, it was decided to make an exception. We are asking parents and alumni to vote for our school in the Kohl’s Facebook Contest.”
Beth Rivkah is hardly the only school to have sought some justification to participate. Jewish schools performed exceptionally well, with many Christian academies joining them in the top ranks. The challenge for Beth Rivkah and any other school banning Facebook is that this wasn’t a typical contest entry where one registered, filled out a form, and never returned. As soon as one joins Facebook, most people instantly receive friend requests from familiar and long-lost connections. Facebook suggests other people to befriend. Then there’s the contest itself, where the real value wasn’t in voting but in convincing all of one’s friends to vote.
For people who hadn’t used Facebook before, they learned several important lessons:
1) Facebook can’t be entirely bad if there is at least one positive reason to join it.
2) Brands can create a reason to participate in social media.
3) Social media can bring people together to achieve positive outcomes for their communities.
Can’t you just picture Pandora’s box opening? Communities that were told never to use Facebook were instead lured in to participate in corporate-sponsored philanthropy. People had to sign up, become a fan of a brand, and spread the word to everyone they could. These new recruits were thus trained to be missionaries, preaching the gospel of Facebook.
Most uses of Facebook aren’t so noble. Teenage girls probably aren’t going on the site to further their religious studies, donate to charities, or comfort ailing orphans and widows as per their religion’s commandments. Yet when an institution bans Facebook except for times when it could provide some tangible benefit, its members will come away with one indelible lesson: you’re damned if you use social media, and you’re damned if you don’t.