In 2005, I was traveling solo in India. I happened to be in Udaipur the day a multi-year drought broke and it POURED down rain—I mean, like standing-under-the-bucket-thing-at-a-water-park dumped. People left their homes and stores and spontaneously ran into the streets to get soaking wet and dance and clap their hands and congratulate each other. It was a privilege to witness, and I felt this incredible urge to SHARE it with someone. I had been pretty happy traveling alone except for moments like these when I saw something so special that I felt incomplete without someone to turn to and say, “Did you SEE that?!?”
And this is why I love social media. It turns out that people (friends mostly, but even strangers) love to be included in those moments of ours, even when the delights are merely mundane. All of these studies suggesting that people who spend a lot of time online are more lonely are a bunch of hooey to me. Just like IRL, I only find myself more lonely online if I’m not sharing these moments (and having them acknowledged) and witnessing others’.
Up until a few months ago, Facebook was serving that need. But since its IPO, my friends have gone strangely quiet. Lately, Facebook feels less like the bar at Cheers and more like the television in the airport waiting area. I run into fewer and fewer friends and see fewer and fewer intimate glimpses of their lives. Mostly, it serves up 3rd party blogs and recycled or promotional content.
I have to wonder if I didn’t ruin it myself with all of the willy nilly “liking” of pages that turned my FB feed into a ticker tape of news and memes. But even when I created a separate friends-only (no-pages) feed, there wasn’t much there that was less than two days old.
I’ve been a social media user since I was a grad student in Computer Science in 1990. (For you whipper snappers, that’s BEFORE “the web”, browsers, and HTML, when we carried our bits in a bucket uphill both ways.) BBS and LISTSERV were great for discovering other people in the world with whom I shared some obscure hobby or alternate lifestyle that, at home, would have left me feeling slightly freakish. But, like most largely anonymous forums, it was fraught with flame wars, and there was too little pay off in culling the decent people from the haters.
In 2004, I found Livejournal to be a perfect forum for a smart, single, reflective person in her early 30s. I often posted publicly, but usually I first worked out my thinking privately, in an online discussion with my handful of trusted LJ friends. LJ was the first time I really developed lasting, online friendships based on kindness and mutual respect. Years later, I’m still in touch with most of those people.
Friendster was a flash in the pan but it was fun for putting the “six degrees” theory to test and laughing at pathetic stalkers from halfway around the world, who promised big love for a beautiful lady. I skipped MySpace altogether because it would have required too much Ritalin; plus, let’s face it, I may be an early adopter, but, in my mid 30’s, I was already old enough to be most users’ parent. Even I would have considered myself creepy. And in 2008 … I joined Facebook.
Because of Facebook, I reconnected with people with whom I had actual IRL history—people I had let slip away, friends and acquaintances from high school and college, recent grad school friends with whom I would have otherwise lost touch, and even friends from Livejournal were there. All of them were in one place; and as I jotted off brief thoughts and pics, it was gratifying to see my friends cross-pollinate and my worlds merge. The most natural of these online connections quickly re-translated into time spent together IRL. And it all has come at a time in my life when reconnecting the past with the present suddenly seems valuable: my 40s. These renewed relationships (and the new ones they have led to) have in no small way changed the trajectory of my life.
But, now, I’m a wee bit lonely on FB. I’m jonesing for a friend’s funny story from the check out line, for highlights from people’s days, and for their worries, small and large, that make up adult life. I know my FB friends are still out there “liking” and lurking, but only my most talkative of friends are frequently sharing original content. Those Martin Buber-ish, “I and Thou” moments have waned as the content of my feed has become more subject-to-object relationships and less subject-to-subject ones. Facebook had suddenly morphed into a really great newsreader but a poor social networking service.
If I’ve learned anything from 20+ of online social networking, it’s that there both more vicious idiots out there than I ever would have imagined as well as open-hearted, generous, insightful, and down-to-earth folk that I would like to know better. Layer on mutual respect, fondness, and a shared history, and that’s a real relationship—online or not.
Livejournal taught me to be real by being thoughtful. Facebook taught me to be real by not over-thinking. Public forums taught me to not waste my time with people that can’t reasonably meet me in between. I ported my LiveJournal over to WordPress today and restarted blogging here because change is in the air and I need to think out loud again–maybe a little less loquaciously this time, but don’t count on it.