Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It's Me & It's You: Facebook, Frailty, and Friendship

I don’t want to be on Facebook.  It makes me feel badly.  I like seeing my friends’ pictures of their families.  I want to know what to celebrate in their lives. 
But it’s confusing, because it is making me sad.  And I am struggling with that sadness.  On the one hand I think it is the typical adolescent feelings of “not being liked” that rides strongly across my view, then again it is the disconnection (strangely enough) that I feel towards people I valued and believed to value me.  For me an accidental introvert and inveterate worrier friendships have not come easily.  After my mother passed away, so much of how I related to the world necessarily changed.

Then came social media, a chance to stay connected when my family moved 1300 miles away.  I came to it with reluctance and with some unease, most of it, as it turns out, completely unfounded.  I was able to see friends I'd left behind and then...the gift of having friends from college (and before and after) who I did not know how very much I missed came back into my grateful heart.  But there’s an underbeat to Facebook’s increasingly real presence.  It is disconcerting and almost prophetic in tone. 

Who we are online isn’t what we are in life.  And that slippage isn’t one that is easily or readily understood.

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Social media and mobile devices have given us immediacy of contact.  Constant connection.  Instant answers.  No time differential.  No waiting.  There is also some subterfuge, because what is on screen isn’t always what it appears.  Just as we know magazine photographs are carefully scrutinized and polished to high shine and illusory ideals, the screenshots that are presented, even of family and friends, may have been composed just as carefully.  The editing software that was only available to the media few is now (largely) available to the masses.  Because of that, perhaps, what I saw on screen was discomfiting at times.  The screen is something that offers the gaze relief—but it’s reflective.  What was once a way to stay connected to people that you value, it has become distressingly competitive and eerily isolating.  When you look at your screen through the lens of social mediawho do you see reflected back at you?

I’ve been trying to be judicious on my use of this media.  It’s so difficult because of the blog.  I have a mighty small platform.  My likes are low in comparison to similar blog pages—and I know because Facebook marketing makes it a point to let me know on a weekly basis just how poorly I’m doing in popularity and what I should do to boost my circulation.  Were it not for a certain amount of responsibility I feel towards this corner of the Internet, I think I would leave Facebook.  And that’s alarming to me.  Why would something so seemingly innocuous as this site offer me any stress at the thought of leaving it

The strange truth for me is that although Facebook is supposed to keep me in touch with friends who are so far away I cannot “see” their snapshots in any other way, it’s the people that share my sandbox here that seem to engage with me (or without me) on social media.  I may be heightened to awareness about this because my Facebook friends are small in number.  Less than 200 and growing smaller too (I’ll get to that bit in a minute) and there’s a reason for it.  On social media, with two exceptions, I will not accept a friend request from someone I do not know or have spoken with. 

Via Instagram: Me, Joe, his horrible cough, and Ulysses Moore
And this is, in part, the reason:  one day last week my son was sick, and it allowed me the opportunity to be with him and take care of him in a way that is slipping from me as the years pass by.  We found a book that I started to read aloud to him until he could fall asleep.   We took pictures and even a specific page that Joe wanted noted.  It was a way to mark a moment of our day that could be shared with family and friends who'd want to know and might be far away.  But as I loaded it up on Instagram (a preferred site for me because of its structure and visual appeal), I deleted it from Facebook.  It's a moment I'm not sure I wanted all the people who were "friends" to see.  Nor did I want to be reminded how many or few would care enough to like it or comment on it.  That made me pause.

It is disconcerting because of the way the platform works to see my own children’s pictures go unliked by friends while mutual friends pictures or updates are liked in minutes.  “Here is my son who just competed in his first tournament!” gets little attention while “Oh my word, I have a hangnail and it bothers me,” gets 50 likes in the same amount of time.  Huh.  Puzzlement.  Cue Idina Menzel’s directive to Let it go.” 

Here’s the buggery: I have tried.  Those people for whom I felt a sadness of disengagement I’ve reached out to.  It has not worked.  In fact, it seems to have
photo credit:
done the opposite.  It appears, despite my effort at social media goodwill, that I have been determinedly forgotten. 
I do not think or wish to think that it's with malice or forethought that this occurs, I think it's just life.  The passage of time, very much like my son Sam and the bookmarks that missed him, fashions the people you support to be the people you see and help carry your burdens in real time.  The ones you play with at recess, I think, are the ones you actively follow and try to hold close.  There are exceptions to this of course, and right now I can list at least two names for which this does not hold true in my life, but otherwise it seems to be proving the rule.  Many shared “friends” do not extend invitations to you in real life and real time.  And this is hurtful because of the “mean girl” behavior it mimics

I have written before how to avoid those very same reminders through social media.  Manipulating Facebook's settings so you can "unfollow" or "restrict" what you have to see of someone or, conversely, what they see of you.  And this does serve a purpose when someone you do like uses their page to endlessly promote links or political views that you do not share, rather than snapshots of their life you'd like to partake in.  The uncomfortable bit comes in when I wonder, then, how much of this person I do want to see or far more hair raising still—see me?  Then I had an especially revelatory incident when Joe competed in his first golf tournament.  I made a picture for it, and posted the following on the blog FB page:

This is my son Joe.  He is in his first golf tournament—ever.  Told it would be a learning tournament, we thought it would be good practice for him.  It wasn’t a learning tournament.  It was an actual tournament.  Joe’s not used to keeping score or choosing which clubs for a hole.  He was placed in a group with kids who had private coaches and monogrammed bags.  To say he was intimidated is putting it mildly.  As I saw him, getting yelled at by volunteer “coaches” and monitors, my blood pressure rose.  I could hear it thick and heavy in my ears.  Every hackle was raised and all I wanted to do was scream at every person there while I saw this child wipe away a frustrated tear quickly and quietly. 

“Let’s pull him out!” I said to my husband.
 John’s face was set, his teeth clenched, “He’s being humiliated out there, and I can’t say anything or they’ll throw me off the course.” 
“Please.  Let’s just leave.”  I already had Sam’s clubs packed and was ready to head to the car.  He nodded.

John texted me minutes later:  “Joe’s staying in it.  He wants to play.”

I couldn’t believe it.  I was shocked and bitter and angry.  Every humiliation I had at his age came back to haunt me, every protective instinct I had was there.  I didn’t want this for him.  Parents were quietly mocking him.  All I wanted was to get him somewhere safe and far from the maddening crowd.

“He’s staying in it.  He’s tough.”

No,” I thought, “what he is, is called brave.”  I don’t think I had the wherewithal to keep going despite being told and shown that others were better than me; I may have been forced to finish, but I would never have tried again. 

Joe has found a reserve of courage at 10.  And since he’s found it now, I’m willing to bet that it runs deep.  It’s inspiring.  And it’s made me take a step or two that I’ve found hard to move beyond and around because I’ve allowed my fear to shake away any resolve I had.  But Joe’s taught me today at a nine-hole tournament that it’s never too late or too soon to display your strength.  I hope you find courage in reading this today, and do something you need to do.  It’s never too late (or too soon) to start living the life you were meant to have.  Happy Halloween!

I posted it and someone even commented on it, and then I deleted it.  Because my youngest son, who has taken it upon himself to edit me on this platform as well as Instagram, said to me, “Did you get Joe’s permission Mommy?”  “No.”  “Well, I don’t think you should put anything about us to people out there unless you know we’re okay with it.”  Big swallow pause.  “You’re right.  I’ll take it down.”

The kids and my Dad including a wary Jake.
My kids are my champions; they encourage me to write.  They think I tell good stories.  They feel I matter and what I say matters.  But they are individuals and, so far, they can distinguish between the screen and life.  They want to be active participants in their lives and they are not characters in a book.  They are not filler spaces.  It made me look hard and fast at my intentions for social media.  And then the signs kept coming:  An innocuous status update about watching Spy, and John asking to please take it down.  “Why?”  “Well, no one needs to know what we’re doing every weekend.  I don’t want to know what they’re doing, why do you need to tell them what we are.  Just take it down.  Stick to your intentions.”

My intentions.  They were good.  No political posts.  I had enough the last election of sifting through my friends’ stances to make me actually feel despondent.  And because my views differed, I felt alienated from them not because of anything I
posted, but because of what I liked.  I couldn’t sit across from them and argue it all out.  Everything they thought I felt was transposed onto me by a “like” reported by Facebook’s algorithm.  It was sobering.  And the alienation continued until the election was immediate history and their guy won.  I said nothing either way.  I liked those pages to support those candidates true, just like I like pages or authors because I’d like to see what they may be up to, but I did not wish to discuss it unless I could actually discuss it.  So you could see my point of view and learn from it, just as I could learn from yours.  Soundbites get no one anywhere. 

I recently had an illuminating conversation with the person in charge of the social media posts for the National Museum of American History.  I was upset at a post that apparently supported anti-vaccination.  A hot button topic always, but particularly because of the measles outbreak in California last year, it highlighted the Museum’s collection on early anti-vaccination propaganda.  The
National Museum of American History
synopsis at the top of the photo was inconclusive but seemed to weigh heavily pro-anti vaccination and the folks in that camp were running with it, the shares and comments were extensive in that vein.  I posted, “poorly done NMAH.”  I was referred to by name in order to comment further.  (Erin, the moderator for these posts, offered to take down that comment later, because I told her I felt I was called out publicly for disagreeing.)  Anyway, I clicked through to the article in question, which I felt was also inconclusive and vague.   When we spoke through messages about it, Erin offered that it was one in a series, and because of the way Facebook worked only this one showed prominently in the newsfeed.  I said I understood, but because of that, then a reference had to be made to the fact it was one in a series.  She countered saying, rightly, that it would take “linguistic gymnastics” to make the article in question pro anti-vaccination, although the NMAH’s role is to remain impartial.  I agreed, but I reiterated again that no one would read the article. 
We have become an audience for whom the first two or three lines of any post is the actual story.  It isn’t enough.  You are not a soundbite, and neither am I. 
Your likes on your social media page may give me a glimpse of you, but it isn’t all you.  It isn’t all me either, but you’d know that, wouldn’t you?  If you were my friend, I mean.

 I want to offer snapshots, real snapshots of my life, which for me are my kids growing and achieving and my Dad’s status as he declines for friends and family here and around the world.  There is no other way to

do it so immediately.  Within minutes family can see my Dad and find out what my kids are up to without having to email and ask or wait for an update on a Christmas card.  Causes I want to promote—to end child trafficking, to highlight social justice I give voice to if the “click through” and subsequent research moves me to do so. 

But Jake’s words ran in my head.  Who was reading my updates and looking at my pictures?  Were they people with whom I would share these ideas and offer a glimpse of my still life if we met for coffee?  It made me realize that the answer was increasingly no.  And I had to figure out what to do about it. 

And moreover, there was a security issue as well.  I
had avoided social media for years because I did not want to be found.  Privacy meant just that.  But the blog makes that almost impossible.  I do not like to write personal updates about my family.  For me it has always been about writing ideas out.  But I did take coding measures to make sure pictures couldn’t be lifted and used.  That is impossible on Facebook.  Anyone can right-click and save a photo.   So who was out there as a “friend” who could save a photo of my children or work or father and use it?  Could I be certain that everyone on my list would not do such a thing?  The personal politics of Facebook were becoming increasingly complicated.

The platform works against me—you find out what your friend has “liked” on Facebook.  For me the liking of conservative politicians backlashed into an actual retaliation on Facebook.  I never promoted a
image © Babble  Quitting Facebook?
link, mind you, just liked pages.  But my comments have been deleted on friends’ posts and my blog page has been unliked (something I know because first, I have few in number in either camp, and second because of Facebook's marketing group).  “Unfriend them,” John says, “who needs it?”  But it seems so…so rude to do.  Yet the time spent thinking about the whys and wherefores of a particular friend’s movements on social media towards approving of my online life was unproductive and depressing.  No one, not a single person, wants to feel that they aren’t liked.

When I’ve asked friends why they don’t post more, the answer is universal, “No one likes it, and it
makes me feel bad.”  Social media, the very vehicles clouded in misty cobwebs of code ridden strands that are supposed to be cords of connection, end up slipping through our grasp because of human reactions that can be cold and unkind: irritation, jealousy, pride....  It isn't much, after all, to "like" a friend's moments of triumph and intimacy.  To acknowledge their need to be seen which folds them back into a warm feeling of being understood and necessaryI have tried to choose then not to read presumed subtext into those moments of celebration where my name is not included or my wishes unacknowledged.  I just continue to offer praise with a touch of something inanimate that transforms magically to something powerful that may mean something to its recipient.

After all, if feelings are hurt when moments represented in "posts" are ignored, then the opposite must be true too.  It doesn't seem to cost much to offer someone else, a priceless friend no less, some joy. 
To fight feelings of isolation and despair that can lead to all manners of ill and sad happenings, human connection remains the only real response.  Who would have ever believed that a keystroke could cause such security through time and distance?  It's utterly fantastic, the possibility in it.  And yet, there is a growing unease about it all.  I don’t think the subtext is imagined after all.  I think it is not subliminal, in fact, I think that the stories woven on Facebook, collectively, is a substantial metanarrative on us as the body human.  And because of its relative anonymity—the ways in which a screen allows the space to say things we may never say in real time to a real person—it has become unwieldy, seductive and far too powerful.  

 This all harkens back then to my allowing people to float in Facebook ether—why was I friends with them?  If I didn’t want to hear their stories—because they showcased a life of revelry that I could not be a part of or, worse still, if I simply wasn’t interested in them, why was I friends with them?  Did I really want them to see my Dad (and my own pain) at his disintegration?   I should only have people on that list that I could post anything without worry.  If that is the case, then, it's a smaller list.   

A "how-to" save on FB without it
it being shared on the feed
(click on the snap to enlarge and read)

I have been unfriended twice now, the first time I didn't even really notice it.  (That's saying something.)  The second time I realized it one day, that I had been unfriended by a woman who was the mother of a friend of my son.  It felt uncomfortable for the briefest of moments, then I felt relieved.  Because she was unwilling to be 'inauthentic' perhaps, to use a buzzword, to the reality of her life.  We were not friends.  And there was no use pretending otherwise. Perhaps she did not want reminders of my life or impressions in her newsfeed.  I respect that. 

So in too many fretful moments of self-reflection, I have found that I am a very difficult person to argue with, I decided that the time I spent thinking about a few people on my friends' list was inordinate.  I needed to unfriend them.  For one of these, it was not a hardship, I barely knew her.  But the other, that was tough.  Because she was someone who is living
where I am now, travels in the same real-time circles; it was even more difficult to do it.  But the truth is, we are not friends.  I no longer wished to share any part of my life with her, and that meant that I needed to let her go.  None of these decisions are done for me without prayer, and in this case, God was clearly telling me to move forward.  Instances arose where I could have spent some kind of time with her that were naturally blocked.  Even though it was my choice, I still felt sad—it was a loss.  An ending, I guess.  I felt, feel now, sad.  My friends matter so much to me, they make up the pieces of the jigsaw picture of my life.  It hurts to lose them, even if it is the best thing.  Yet, conversely, it was a small stand too, a declaration of independence.  A spin back to the real world and what I want this facet of my life to mean.

I got a piece back though—one that may be critical to how the finished product ends.  At my dentist’s chair I made a new friend, someone so lovely and kind that I felt a more profound relief in welcoming her to my circle then I did in letting go moments before.  Angela fit.  And made my picture more clear.  This is how it works.  How I knew I did the right thing.  

I don’t want to quit Facebook.  Because of it, I reconnected with some of the oldest friends I’ve ever had.  I’ve been able to communicate with my dear friend George, who lives so far away and get the
immediacy of her life.  My family can check and see what my children are doing and what stage my father is in.  A friend I barely knew in my old town has given me the gift of getting to know her better, and because of who Jessica is, I can tell you that is something amazing.  I get to see what my college roommate is up to and comment about how beautiful her daughters are.  I’ve found support and encouragement, humor and constancy.  None of this would be possible without Facebook.  Our circles seem to wane and widen dependent upon circumstance and time but the ability we have to tighten them has never been so immediate and powerful.  It can be a tool to help live my life intentionally.

In order for it to work well though, so that the people I call friend can call me one as well, I will be looking at this list with a careful eye.  And I will be unfriending more rather than less.  Maybe it’ll be an exclusive club, but I can think of no other way to make sure those circles of family, of friends, of fellowship keep moving and evolving, not just revolving around with me listless on one tilting side.  To make sure people I have loved are valued is, after all, an extremely worthwhile goal.

It may not work all the time, but I am going to try to make sure that I see what is going on both virtually and in real-time for those who I am privileged to call friend.  That has to matter, I am more convinced with what I see and read and am so despondent about, that connection is what is necessary.  To truly connect and feel less alone, means a collective ability to see and begin to make change for the better for so many in our communities.  The circles can widen so much that everyone will have a place on the inside.  

The expansion can occur because you have less to keep up with, and possibly more willingness to check in and do so now that the list is whittled down to what (and who) you find important.  And the love you give on the expansion will come back to strengthen your steps as you move through your life.

photo ©

It's the best kind of use of social media I can think of, to not reduce it and abandon it because of polemics, but to embrace it through a counterintuitive medium in the need for connection.  Real connection, real investment in each other's lives.  As we turn to the holidays that bring us back to the values and people we hold dear, I hope you'll join me.  It's going to be wonderful to see what the love in your circle brings back home to you, its center.

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