(Note: A strange glitch prevented this reflection from actually posting last week, when it was written. Luckily, the sentiments haven’t changed!)
Seven years ago this week, I joined Facebook.
I know this because all week I’ve been regaled with those little “Friendversary” videos FB produces. Like many people, I would guess, I find them a bit cheesy – especially when they celebrate things like my 7-year friendship with my father. Also, though, there was a photo collage and comment posted to my wall by my friend Layne that was beautiful in it’s capture of joyous, raucous, supportive friendship. In part, it read, “Oh Jen, this is something. And telling of the photos- they include so many people. You rang in a whole chapter of my life, one of the greatest! The chapter that MAKES the story.”
As a result of that post, and after a flurry of instant messages, a group of friends who have not been in the same place together for three years have put a date on the calendar to rectify that long separation. I can’t wait to just BE with these women.
Meanwhile, over on Twitter, I’ve also been tweeting for seven years. When I moved to a new city in 2013, I learned about a social event on Twitter, and went with my friend Mike. (One of two friends I already had in that city, Mike and I had reconnected through FB after twenty-seven years apart.) Over craft beer and ice cream, conversations with apparent strangers suddenly became reunions of a sort, as our Twitter handles were revealed and we realized we’d been talking to each other for months, 140-characters at a time. Though I didn’t know it at that night, the people in that room would become the core of my friend-group in my new city: my fellow volunteers at Open Streets events, the members of my writing group, my teammates on alleycat “races”.
Such are the promises and true possibilities of social media – to connect and reconnect, to nurture shared interests, to meet people whose orbit wouldn’t otherwise intersect with ours but, somehow, should.
That shining promise is why I am not a fan of the algorithms that have been developed by social media platforms. You know, those formulas that have narrowed the scope of what we see and who we connect with, what ideas are allowed to cross-pollinate, etcetera. Based on the assumption that we want more of the same – the same products, people, politics (propaganda) – these algorithms pre-select content for us. The other day, I tried to send a friend request to someone I know – and she tried to friend me – and we couldn’t do it. Even though we were sitting side-by-side, we were not able to find each other. Even though we both opened up all our security settings, we couldn’t find each other. Eventually, the only way in was through a third person’s tagged photo. I’m so grateful it wasn’t this hard to reconnect with high school and college friends seven years ago – I hate to think of my life without the enrichment those relationships have brought, thanks to social media.
More important, in this time of social/political upheaval and unrest, I wish it didn’t require such deliberate determination to find and hear voices speaking from perspectives other than my own. (Unfortunately, the only ones it IS easy to connect with are the trolls. Trolls: the reason we can’t have anything nice on social media anymore. But trolls are a topic for a whole different post…) Many more knowledgeable people than me have written about what this means in real terms for the divisiveness and polarization happening in our society.
I can attest, though, that my personal sphere suffers from this polarization. The original promise of social media was that it can/could offer a place for dialogue rather than division. And while this is still possible, it has grown exponentially harder. The whole blame for this can’t be placed at the feet of our algorhythmic overlords. A significant portion of the blame is ours – our refusal to carry the norms of civility with us from IRL interactions to online ones. Our refusal to maintain civil and respectful discourse IRL, so that it sometimes feels we’ve completely abandoned efforts to talk through our differences anywhere at all. Our fallible and fragile egos, which tell us to take it personally when someone we like (or love) strongly voices a different opinion.
Seven years into my own social media venture, there are moments when it feels like all the promise, all the possibilities, have been lost.
On the other hand, there are also still moments of true connection available – if that is what we value and what we put forward ourselves. For example, I’m FB friends with a woman who lives overseas. She’s an evangelical Christian and political conservative married to an American serviceman; I am none of those things. I’ve never met her – we connected through one of my sisters. We don’t often actually speak directly to one another on FB, other than to give the occasional thumbs-up. However, in the past year my respect for her has increased tremendously. She is a rare individual who uses social media to gather a variety of perspectives – and she responds with respect and kindness even when her views and another’s are diametrically opposed. She responds with the same integrity even when the other commenter shares angry, vitriolic or uninformed opinions. She initiated a very interesting and thoughtful thread during the presidential campaign, trying to understand the response to Syrian refugees in America, given her perspective as an American living in Europe, where so many refugees were being resettled. Recently, in the week following the Women’s March on Washington, she began a conversation about abortion – probably one of the most compassionate dialogues I’ve ever witnessed between women with a variety of perspectives about one of the most divisive and polarizing issues of our times.
In another example, shortly after the presidential election, a Twitter acquaintance sent me a direct message. He wanted me to know he was sick of all the politics still filling his Twitter feed. “The election is over. Trump won. Can we please get over it already?” he asked. I replied, letting him know that while I wouldn’t talk exclusively about politics, I couldn’t pretend that I don’t live in this time and environment. I would continue to follow my own moral compass, and if he wanted to unfollow me in order to stop seeing my issue-oriented tweets and retweets, I would understand. He replied, “Oh no, I won’t do that! Its too hard to connect with intelligent thoughtful people. You won’t get rid of me that easily!” I remember smiling when I read that – nice to have friends you’ve never met who don’t intend to drop you over differing worldviews.
I’ve seen many complaints about how social media has become a constant barrage of politics and protest. I’ve also seen some interesting, thoughtful responses to those complaints (along with one or two less thoughtful ones). We’ve all heard or know of someone whose relationships have been negatively impacted over this – people unfriended or unfollowed on social media AND in their off-line relationships as well. This makes me sad. And it compounds the degree of polarization between us, rather than holding out the hope of healing it.
I, for one, hope for increased understanding. I, for one, hold out hope for the positive possibilities of interconnection offered via social media. Admittedly, the daily thrill of logging on, eager for multiple notifications and/or friend requests has lessened significantly over the years. Some days I honestly “just can’t” with the flame-throwers and trolls and (even) the Facebook “friends” who haven’t learned how to argue without taunting, insulting or gloating. However, this week’s barrage of “friendversaries” has reminded me that I have ample evidence of the positive effects of social engagement online, as well. My life has been so enriched by connections that I’ve made via the interwebs. It is the gratitude I feel for these relationships that allows my hope to remain alive and well. It is what keeps me reaching out on various platforms – and what allows me to celebrate my “seven years social” with each and every one of you who read this blog entry.
Happy anniversary, my friends!
“Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.” — Mark Zuckerberg