The other day my friend Kellie declared (on Facebook) that she liked Facebook. What a risky proclamation during these hipster days at the mid-point of the second decade of the new millennium. (Is it still new?) She might have just told the world that she thought listening to vinyl is stupid or that she feels her mind gets fuzzy every time she writes something down in a Moleskine.
It’s cool to hate Facebook. I keep expecting to see Kill Facebook stickers just like the Kill Your Television stickers that were plastered all over the 70s. I think I understand the aversion. It can feel so dehumanizing to interact electronically, and didn't A Brave New World and Wall-E both warn us about this kind of future?
But the thing is, I kind of like Facebook, too.
I realize that it’s super easy to get sucked into it, to check it compulsively. I also realize that it’s filled with all varieties of tripe, which a careful person can block or avoid, but in the end, I really don’t think that gizmos or the interwebs have made people anti-social. I think a certain group of people have always been shoe gazers. Now, instead of down, these people stare into a thing they hold in their hand, or into a laptop monitor when they don’t feel like interacting with living people who breathe weird or ask you questions. I guess I'm making an old argument here, even a NRAish argument: Facebook is a thing. You can use it well or use it badly. As Obi-wan Kenobi might have said, "it might even encourage the weak minded to use it badly."
Technology might enable crappy habits, but I don’t think it creates them. Facebook might empower trolls, but these people had the darkness in them already. Instagram might encourage narcisists, but it didn’t create them. In most cases, social media has given all the horrible people of the world a Jumbotron Megaphone, but it hasn't told them what to say. Actually, it hasn’t given this death ray to everyone, since most of the horrible people of the world don’t yet have access to the internet.
So, we’ve got that going for us, right?
But we’ve also got this: some of the most awesome people in the world do have access to the internet, and they post really great photos to instagram. Images that show me that other people notice amazing details and capture marvelous moments. They tweet pithy intelligent things. Joyce Carol Oates, for example. I have Facebook friends who post moments of true insight and make legitimately funny jokes and share really meaningful articles there. It's not all dreck. This reaffirms for me that there are still people in the world who think that beauty is important. When people use social media well, it’s pretty cool. I’m talking about content creators and content consumers.
When I was first married in 2001, I noticed that my wife would interact with her family on a website called MyFamily.com. They had a private page and they gave people in the family access. I got access, too. They shared stories, coordinated visits, shared recipies, posted photos, laughed together, kept people apprised of gossip, and news. It was really remarkable, and a completely great use of technology that helped a large family spread across the whole country to communicate with each other.
I would argue that this website reinforced the family and kept information flowing in a unique way that letters never could. The posts were shared. You were writing to everybody, like a conversation with dozens of people at the same time. If you tried to do this in person, it would just become cacaphonous. In this arrangement people could be heard, even the introverts. I loved it.
The first time I even heard about Facebook, it was after I’d come out of Denali National Park with a group of about a dozen college kids. While they were cleaning up to get ready for their flights home, they used computers at our host university in Fairbanks to friend each other on Facebook. I joined in, and these people who had bonded during a wilderness experience actually kept in touch with each other as they transitioned into their regular lives, extending the comraderie of the trip, again, in a way that letters couldn’t. The group could talk as a group, and also one-to-one. The flexibility of the medium was really cool to me, and it started with encounters IRL (in real life).
From that point, I branched out with Facebook, first friending everyone, and then becoming progressively more particular. Once I realized you could argue shit on Facebook, I did. It was ridiculous. Once an old friend said that she wished Obamacare would include subsidies. When I said, "It does," she said “Well, that makes me feel stupid.” And then she defriended me and we drifted apart. I grew tired of it, shut everything down for a year. Then realized I needed a way to share pictures of my kids with family (They’d all moved from MyFamily.com over to Facebook) so I woke up my account and started in again.
This time I feel like I knew what I wanted Facebook to be, I also knew who I wanted to hang with, and who I didn’t. And now I have a sense that for me there are a couple of categories of Facebook friend, and I have a different approach to interacting with them.
The Local Crew — these are people who live in town. I work with them, go to church with them. For this group, Facebook is like the water cooler. We can share jokes and other crap. The key to this group, is that when we talk to each other IRL, we reference things posted. It kind of works in reverse. We’re always asking each other about a photo, or a wise crack, or something. It scrapes the platitudes of small talk away and makes interacting in person more fun because a lot of the day-to-day stuff flows through that other channel. People ask for clarification on a thing you posted. They share their own version of a story. It’s kind of like you get to know your local crew better because you get this rounder, fuller picture of them from their posts coupled with the things you talk about when you bump into them.
Deep Bench — this group consists of old friends living in distant lands, people who have become just as busy as I am. They are raising families and being awesome, and I love to follow their posts, see how their kids are growing hear about their careers. A physician friend of mine said some really smart things about ebola on public radio recently, and I saw the link on Facebook. I read their posts and think a lot about them, especially what it was like when we shared space on the planet. It's a wonderful combination of updated nostalgia. The sad fact is, however, if I had to rely on letters or phone calls, I wouldn’t have enough time to keep up. I’ve got to imagine that the same is true for them. I can also post a quick thought, photo, grumble, or something that might not get through in the more formal setting of a letter. I'm not saying letters are bad, but I am saying that Facebook allows an interesting kind of pointillism to take place.
Remote BFFs — this group is a new thing. I have some folks I’ve met just once or twice IRL, but online that relationship has blossomed. Some of these people are part of a very important, I might even say critical go-to group for me. They know so much, and they contribute things to my life that my local crew doesn't. There aren’t many of these people, half a dozen, maybe ten. If we lived together they would be part of my local crew, and probably vice versa. So, in this regard Facebook is connecting me to people in ways that phone and letter never could.
So, yeah. I like Facebook, I'll join Kellie in announcing that to the world. I will add, that I don't like it when people do it wrong, and it's easy to do it wrong. I’m lucky. I have a lot of friends in my network who do it right, and it's super easy to ignore the ones who don't.