Another one of my friends announced on Facebook today his intention to delete his account, so as to no longer feed his time and emotional energy into the social media monster. Well, when I say “friend”, I really mean “acquaintance”. I’ve met him only once in real life – he was one of my grad school profs, and as the school in question is an online university, all of our contacts happened in the cyber world. I was sorry to see him leave Facebook – there goes any further opportunity to get to know him a little better.
However, I also very much understand where he’s coming from. I’ve just come off a six-week hiatus from the FB world myself – I didn’t cut it all altogether, but restricted my facebooking to checking in on specific messages, and tried to avoid browsing and scrolling through my feed, let alone actually posting status updates or engaging in conversations.
Unfortunately, with the kind of work I do, I can’t really avoid Facebook and other social media altogether. I write books and try to sell them online. I write for an online magazine. I edit the work of writers who work online and I get new clients and professional contacts online. Getting off the cyber merry-go-round isn’t really an option – much as I sometimes want to.
But you know what? For all that I hate the amount of time and energy suck that social media generates, there are some real benefits I’ve derived from it. Apart from my professional contacts, I have made real friends through the Internet, and have rediscovered old friends and deepened existing real-life friendships. I have a network of connections all over the world.
Granted, the kind of relationships you form through social media is of a peculiar type. “Facebook is so terribly fake!” I’ve heard people say more than once. “I don’t want to see pictures of your lunch or your kittycat!” In fact, one of the several reasons my abovementioned friend gave for cutting the Facebook strings was the triviality of so many posts.
Yes, I agree – there is a lot of idle chatter, a lot of fakeness, a lot of posing. But, at the risk of sounding judgemental, the kind of person from whom I’ve most often heard comments of this kind is male and of the Baby Boomer generation. I don’t know what he (this generic middle-aged man) expects from social contact. In my experience as a slightly younger (i.e. GenX) middle-aged woman, trivialities are the very stuff relationships take their beginnings in.
You want to show me the snazzy lunch you had on your business trip? Please do! You like posting pictures of your funny cat? Bring it on! You think your kid’s jumping on the furniture is worth broadcasting on the Internet? Yes, I agree! Because to see how your children are growing, or that you love your cat, or that your favourite food is sushi, tells me things about you. You become more of a person to me. And what, may I ask, is a relationship but a connection from person to person?
If you’re the kind of person who has lived in one place their whole life, whose birth, education, career, friendships, and family life have all taken place in a 20 km radius, then what I’m saying might not apply to you. You know that your friend loves their dog because they live next door to you; that your buddy from Grade 2 just had another baby because you’ve run into her at the grocery store when you picked up milk; and that the guy you met at a professional development seminar is an arch-conservative because he has political placards all over his front lawn at every election.
But that kind of relationship circle has become very, very rare today. A Facebook friend (another grad school prof, as it happens) recently posted a quote that said something like this: “When future generations look back on us, the thing that they will find most puzzling is that we thought our online life was separate from our real-life existence.”
Just this morning, I was enjoying the stunning landscape photography of a childhood friend who now lives in Switzerland. I saw that an online friend whom I’ve never met in real life is having a great time on a trip to New York. I watched, in slow motion, as a friend’s small grandson leaped off the bed, his floppy blond hair flying, and it brought a smile to my face.
All these things are real. I know that if my online friend’s travels ever take her out my way or mine hers, we’ll meet for coffee and spend hours talking about everything under the sun – I know, because it wouldn’t be the first time that happened. Seeing the pictures of the sun gloriously glinting on the Alps means I’ve shared in a small piece of my now-Swiss friend’s life – before Instagram, I had no idea she was such a great photographer; in fact, I hadn’t spoken to her in decades. As for my other friend’s grandchildren, they are growing up so fast, I would never be able to enjoy the exuberance of their little lives in even such a small way as I do now if it wasn’t for Facebook.
This might all sound kind of Polly-Anna-ish. “Aren’t social media great? Don’t they give you the warm fuzzies? Isn’t getting the warm fuzzies the best thing ever?” Blah blah blah. Yes, I know that most of what scrolls by in a social media feed is sludge. I hate the politics, the mud-slinging, the preaching, the arrant nonsense, the sheer volume of all the jabber and beak-clacking. It eats into my sanity, drags my mind down into the muck of arguments and darkness. And that’s not even considering the big-picture societal problems that the social media phenomenon is implicated in.
There have been times when I’ve wanted nothing more than to hit the “delete” button on that Facebook account, be rid of its drag on my life. But I never did, because – see above.
I wonder if 15th-century Europeans felt about books and newspapers the way we do about the Internet. “Oh, I wish I could be rid of all this print! Shelves full of clutter, of people’s opinions, of paper! Let’s just go back to the day when people actually talked to each other!” But, of course, they didn’t go back. They learned to live with it, live with the new reality their world had evolved into. Yes, the invention of print brought problems – enormous upheavals, in many ways – but it also brought so much good.
And that’s the place we’re in right now. We need to learn to live with social media, learn to use it, instead of letting it use us. Oh, good grief – what am I using the “royal we” for? I need to learn it, need to get a handle on social media.
Sometimes, I think, that could mean pulling the plug entirely, like my friend is doing. I’ve never chosen to do that yet, although that’s not to say I might not do so sometime if the sludge threatens to overwhelm the joy. Or sometimes, it requires taking a step back – staying away from social media for a few weeks just to prove to myself that I can, and to build new habits.
“It’s not you, Internet, it’s me…” – and that’s the thing to keep in mind: I don’t have a relationship with social media, but with the people on the other end of social media. The Baby Boomer’s lament that “Kids today are always glued to their phones!” completely overlooks the fact that it’s not the phones the kids are interacting with, it’s their friends on the other end of the phone.
The word “social” in “social media”? It’s there for a reason. Social media isn’t good or bad – it’s what we make of it. I for one want to learn to use it, not be used.
Life, the Universe, and Social Media. Oh, in case you’re wondering – even my stuffed bear has Facebook.