In Praise of Facebook

Facebook is not for friendships, it’s for neighbors.

Dear Son,

You will not be reading this for a while. At age two, you know my phone only from the underside, except when it shows you what a grasshopper is or what sound an elephant makes or what Grandma is doing on FaceTime. You can’t see whether I’m making grocery lists or meal plans, shopping or bookkeeping, or “wasting time” on Facebook. You will look it in the eye someday, though, mesmerized by all its disorienting possibilities, and I want you to know that I think it’s worth the struggle for you — and for me — to learn to use it well.

Take Facebook. It’s easy for people my age to hate on Facebook: it’s shallow, we say. It fosters unhealthy comparison. It encourages whitewashed versions of ourselves. It can’t replace “real” face-to-face friends. Every few weeks (especially around Lent) another person I respect will announce their grand exit from Candyland to give themselves wholly to the meat-and-potatoes of a few real-life relationships.

But I think that’s a simplistic view of what people are. We have shallows as well as depths — and that’s okay. Facebook is not for friendships, it’s for neighbors. It is technology’s answer to the isolation of modern life, to the subdivisions and garage doors and cross-country moves that reduce us to a sea of faces adrift in loneliness. It is the small town reborn, with all the trivialities and gossip and grumbling and well-meant-but-ill-timed advice that add up to the experience of being recognized, noticed, known.

In my own life, Facebook has kept alive a hundred slender ties to my hometown: where so-and-so vacationed, whether her child just moved away, who is having a baby (after several miscarriages). When we started over last year in yet another city, Facebook meant bypassing months of icebreakers to ask about someone’s hard week at work or their kid’s antics last Tuesday — even if I’d only met them once before. It meant picking up a discussion about an Economist article on an issue that bothers them. Or showing up at a small group meeting to find we’d all read the same blog post, along with three others on that theme, and could build our ideas on a common foundation, an intellectual community we thought we’d never replicate after college. I’ve never been half so well-read, or so aware of what keeps the people around me awake at night.

That’s idealistic, you will say, and it is. I have never been a teenager on Facebook. I have not faced the gossip, the bullying, the porn, or just the inanity we are capable of (well, yes to the last one). I will point out that none of those originated with the Internet. But here’s the great feature of Facebook: you help shape what you see. The purveyors of the Internet have a lot invested in noticing what you want and feeding you more of that. So do use it, carefully, with vision for the best it could be.

I can’t guarantee you won’t go wrong along the way. I’m sure I have. I do waste time keeping up with the latest babble. I hurt you sometimes by lapsing into my phone when you want my full attention on these intimate moments of your childhood. But I will not tell you to protect yourself by opting out of our whole cultural mess. How much easier to ban the computer altogether than to distinguish between the YouTube channels that stoke your imagination and the ones that do all the work for you, between the cheap nursery rhymes and the artistically excellent ones.

Purity, whether the “no-kissing” or “no-screentime” variety, is a tempting illusion. The lie is as old as the Garden: if we arrange these fig leaves just right — if we do the right actions — we can cover our messy motives. After all, you can prescribe behavior. It is much less likely that you will ever finish getting your heart right. If you wait until you do, the moment to live and learn and make a difference will have passed you by.

So if you need a star to steer by, remember not to swallow the line that people are somehow different now. That will spare you the arrogance of assuming that all past generations were ignoramuses without texting. But it will also spare you the anxiety of those who decline to jump into the fray, playing it safe with the forms they know, and so miss the opportunity to watch people still be people, however novel the setting.

Trace the thread of human nature, and I am confident you will find that the old wisdom still applies — and the age-old blessing that comes of living life with others, in all their silliness and profundity, together. And may you make some really good friends along the way.

Laura Trimble, of Durham, North Carolina, worked as an editor and English teacher before turning her full attention to raising her two little boys. She finds a spare moment here and there to practice writing and to chip away at the long list of books she’s always wanted to read.

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