When I was in grade school, I had a faithful pen-pal in faraway Ontario. We shared stories of life in our exotic neighborhoods, sometimes amazed at the contrast, more often surprised at how much we shared. Then we stopped.
When I’ve moved on to new schools, jobs or adventures, friends and I always assure each other that we’d always stay in touch. We mostly don’t.
My intentions are always good — to remember those birthdays, to congratulate on achievements, to share my gratitude, to send a word of encouragement when it’s needed most. The follow-through, though, is usually rated “not nearly up to par.”
But now I have Facebook, and the balance has risen into the black.
Nine years ago, we could never have imagined how a nerdy Harvard boy and his roommates could create a worldwide empire out of — what? Nosiness? Curiosity? Self-promotion? Essentially, nothing. Mark Zuckerberg created no tangible product, filled no visible need. Yet today, his creation is one of the most successful phenomena of our age.
Hello. My name is Nancy, and I am a Facebook addict.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how that silly little Internet idea has changed my world. Once I dismissed Facebook, like its jumbled predecessor MySpace, as a fad among the very young — whippersnappers with too much time on their hands who longed to substitute Wi Fi and badly spelled blurts for real human interaction.
I’ve come to understand, though, that the social media connection can be just as genuine as the time-tested ways my generation has managed — or failed — to maintain its ties.
Under all the buzz and trendy glitz, this Facebook has slipped into a spot in my life — perhaps yours as well — that was already waiting for it. Minus postage stamps, free of long-distance charges, blessedly spontaneous rather than measured and intentional … we’ve all slid into a world of direct, immediate connection that makes those good intentions simpler to achieve.
I’ve never been more aware of this than since my birthday last week. Hundreds of Facebook friends took the time out of their lives to wish me well. OK, maybe those “happy birthdays” required 10 seconds or so — but, still, I was touched. Our lives have briefly touched somewhere along the line, and now we feel at least a degree or two of connection … and, to my surprise, often much more.
I had no intention of keeping an eye on my Facebook account, day in, day out, when the bug first bit me.
Our daughter got married. Mothers of every bride on earth can understand the motivation: Hundreds of her wonderful wedding photos were just begging to be broadcast far and wide. I signed up to access this new and improved mode of motherly bragging. Far better than the prints I lugged around in my purse, Facebook was a smooth way to share fun and funny epic pix with the odd far-flung relative or colleague or friend with children of her own.
And it grew from there. Cat pictures, of course; we’re blessed with remarkably photogenic feline geniuses, not to mention our brilliant grandkitties and granddog. The occasional gorgeous garden specimen or lovely lakescape. Wise words to live by and household hints … and I was hooked. Political satire! Biting editorial wit! News stories from the New York Times and the Washington Post. Mother Jones! Alternet! Andy Borowitz! George Takei! And, of course, lots and lots more cats.
My daughter thinks this is hilarious. Her sensible, earthbound mother is not app-friendly. I don’t do Pinterest. I’m not LinkedIn. Twitter annoys me. Don’t get me started on Tumblr or Snapchat or Yik Yak. Patti is happy to remind me that, back in her own teen days, the very mention of MySpace gave me a splitting headache.
But like the smartphone she finally talked me into, I’ve come to understand that new tools can sometimes do an admirable job of fulfilling old purposes.
Along the way, Facebook has facilitated the darnedest reconnections. I was as amazed to hear from a first-grade classmate from 60 years ago, now retired from teaching English in Australia, as I was thrilled to catch up with my bestie from college, back home in Minnesota after a lifetime of adventures.
I’ve been friended by a guitar god who recalls my rock music column from when he was at South High and a fellow MSC grad who has heard more Bob Dylan concerts than anyone else on earth. I get to compliment and communicate with fellow newshounds who are still creating a remarkable collage of history in motion. I’ve caught up with the bevy of once-youthful dreamers who shared those endless bull sessions back when we thought we could fix the world. Several, it turns out, have actually made progress. Hats off to them; they’ve managed to make the world a little bit brighter.
Perhaps best of all, Facebook has spawned more than a few genuine friendships. Their senses of humor exactly match my own, and their wisdom makes my world larger. Occasionally, we’ve been inspired to actually get together — you know, over coffee, just like the old days. Others, I’ve never once laid eyes on, but we know each other nevertheless. Even if our paths crossed, they’d be hard-pressed to recognize me … possibly because I’m still using the same profile picture I loaded in back 2009.
Is this too saccharine an assessment of the Facebook phenomenon? Of course. No other invention has ever placed a more powerful megaphone into the hands of the gullible and the craven. The trick is to resist the impulse to scratch at scabs and, as in real life, search out the flowers among the weeds.
Facebook has taught me several life lessons I couldn’t have learned anywhere else. A) Don’t ever, ever read the comments. B) Put down that doggone smartphone from time to time so you don’t stumble into the traffic. Now, get back to work!