During my maternity leave, I plugged into several parenting groups on Facebook. I joined groups I eventually left and others I quickly forgot. Over the year, I reached-out of my close-friends-and-family circle and connected with acquaintances and like-minded parents. Some Facebook friends became acquaintances, others became friends. I even have a Facebook friend who was accidentally friended by my toddler.
I use Facebook as a platform for connecting with people I know. I generally hope that Facebook doesn’t replace real-life interactions although I am lucid enough to know that it has. I was never great with birthdays and now I am positively dreadful. On the other hand, Facebook has allowed me to stay in contact with people I would not otherwise know anymore. Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s not: there is a natural wisdom in the ebb and flow of adult friendships and acquaintances. There are many people on my Facebook page with whom I would never discuss faith, politics or philosophy; and yet I am treated to a steady diet of their best and brightest online — which rarely is either.
Over-connected we may be but we are more lonely and self-centered than ever. I reflected about our great connected loneliness a few weeks ago as I was driving through my suburban neighbourhood. Spring has timidly sprung and the slow melt is challenging the patience of the suburbanite. Many people shovel the snow banks and spread the snow on their driveways to make the snow melt faster. It always makes me chuckle because I may have asked my children to do just that while I was preparing supper:
“Yes, take that big shovel and shovel all the snow you see on the grass and put it on the street! Yes, go! And I don’t want to see either of you until the snow’s ALL GONE!”
The sight of grown, wealthy adults – because this is who lives in my neighbourhood, the successful along with the indebted – engaging in all seriousness in such trivial activity made me wonder how really connected we were. We Canadians live in a wealthy society by any standard and yet, by a sunny Saturday afternoon people have no children to play with, no friends to visit, no generous deed to accomplish, no lonely, poor or afflicted to comfort? No meal to prepare for a new mom? Not even house maintenance for an elderly neighbour? Maybe they “liked” a post or commented “Hang in there” to someone who was sad, posted a birthday wish on someone’s wall and reblogged an inspirational quote on a fuzzy picture of a beach at sunset. Their connection is done, now they can go shovel clouds.
Social media is not only redefining our basic need for connection, it is rapidly changing the landscape of our interpersonal relationships. We not only connect more intimately with people we hardly know, for instance by sharing intimate feelings or significant life events, but we allow ourselves to say things behind the protection of the screen that we would never say directly to someone. Unfortunately, if the screen offers protection to the offender, it provides no protection to the offended. It’s is easy to hurt online because it shows clearly, in the cessation of acknowledgment or the removal from a friends’ list, the disconnection or the cold shoulder. Whereas having to wait for a face-to-face encounter to dispatch a sarcastic comment or a passive-aggressive observation may give the aggrieved the time and space to reconsider, the online community is immediate and crystal-clear. It carpet bombs wisdom and judgement with the accuracy of a B-52.
The superficiality of online interactions is hurting us because it is a masquerade of connection. A little like our reflection in the mirror: a representation without depth or meaning. It reflects what we place in front of it, sometimes a raw unpolished version of ourselves or a fabricated distortion. It offers no context, background or perspective. The apparent clarity and immediate nature of social media stands in stark contrast with the opportunity to show ourselves only as we wish to be seen. It lies because it gives the impression of a wide intimate circle while allowing us to mask what we would normally not be able to hide in real life.
The masquerade of closeness doesn’t stop with the impression of connection but is also reflected in the unhindered expression of thoughts and impulses. What is often believed to be “authenticity” online is nothing more than the override of healthy natural tendencies such as privacy, prudence and the reluctance to share TMI. Social media gives leave to impose our thoughts or beliefs in an unbridled fashion. In the realm of social media, politics and religion become polarized and divisive. In person, they are discussed with nuance and understanding. Ideas, hopes and fears are shared. Online, entire belief systems and political paradigm are summarized in an offensive or funny quip on a meme over the incredulous expression of Willie-Wonka. Some may say that the online environment makes us more honest but I think that it infantilizes us. Growth and maturity involve learning nuance and self-censure, tolerance and good manners. Holding our noses and eating what’s in front of us. Loving our neighbour even if we don’t like him.
I have incurred and caused more than my share of hurt online. I have posted things I regretted. Lumped people in one nasty package. Generalized, shot first, asked questions later. Said things I didn’t mean. I almost lost a very dear friend over pictures of my twins’ bedroom. I was defriended by one gay and one transgendered friend on Facebook with no explanation, leaving me to wonder anxiously if I had ever unknowingly said or published something offensive to them, or if my life as a married mother of 8 was in and of itself too much of an insult to their identity. I’ve been too English, too whiny, too upbeat, too right-wing, too crunchy, too Catholic and not Catholic enough. I now try to keep my online profile as positive and palatable as I can, with some notable misses. But that veneer is making me a bit of an enigma. The working Mother-of-8 package is a “nice to know”, people like having that book on their shelf. But as I watch pictures of friends and acquaintances playing, growing and celebrating together on Facebook, I realize that I was never in the inner circle, forever gravitating. While this realization was initially painful to accept, I am re-learning to reach out in a tangible way by inviting people into my house, making tea and bringing meals to new mothers. And sometimes, people invite me too!
I feel like a sprout poking its pale face to the sun after a long germination.