One day late in April 2007, one of my students uttered four fateful words. “Are you on Facebook?”
I snorted my disdain. “No, because I’m an adult.”
I was pretty internet-savvy: I had had a personal website since 1995; I’d started this blog in 2006; I spent a good bit of my spare time back then on internet discussion boards (the late lamented ParentsPlace and Television Without Pity, and the still-going-strong Ship of Fools).
But Facebook? I’d heard of it, of course — heard that it was going to be the new MySpace and that all the college-aged kids and some of the high schoolers were hanging out there. It just didn’t seem like something I’d be interested in.
Just a couple of days after my snarky comeback to my student, I had coffee with a few other adults — my friends the Strident Women, also still going strong 10 years later — and found that a couple of them were on Facebook. And we agreed that if we all joined, and created a private discussion group, we could use Facebook to carry on the kind of snarky conversations we usually had over once-a-month Sunday coffee.
So I did it. I joined Facebook, and the rest, as they say, is history. So much history that yesterday, Facebook attempted to wish me a happy 10-year “Faceversary.”
No. Just no. I am not going to say that word.
But it’s probably worth a few moments’ reflection to think about the impact of a website that has played such a big part in my life, and the lives of others, over the past 10 years.
Facebook itself has changed in those 10 years, of course. Instead of being the purview of the young and cool, it’s now the hangout of the middle-aged and older. The kids, while they still may maintain rarely-updated Facebook pages (mostly for the purpose of getting birthday wishes from Nan and Pop, one feels), have decamped to Snapchat and Instagram and probably a bunch of other sites I haven’t even heard of. And Facebook’s influence in the broader culture has deepened immensely as it has moved from being more than just a purveyor of social contacts to a purveyor of information — and misinformation (aka “fake news”).
It’s also popular for people to decry Facebook: as a time-waster, as a perpetrator of the social-media bubble where we all listen to people who agree with us, as a flimsy substitute for real face-to-face contact. While many of the people I’ve been connected with over the years on Facebook have quietly slipped away from the site due to lack of interest in it, others have made highly public departures, announcing they are quitting Facebook because there’s too much drama, too much controversy, too much stress. Some return; others don’t. Some make it a personal discipline to self-impose limits: I’ve known many who gave up Facebook for Lent. (In the wake of the recent US election, I observed a Sabbath break from Facebook for a few months: for awhile there the news and opinions were so stressful that I needed a once-weekly break from my news feed just to feel mentally well).
I’m a big believer in the principle that very few things are inherently good or evil in and of themselves: most things, including media, are just tools. The good and evil exists in the use we make of them. So I don’t believe Facebook is good OR evil. However, on this ten-year anniversary, it seems worth taking a moment to examine both the good and bad things that have come out of this particular tool, for me.
- It’s definitely a time-waster. The whole internet is a time-waster; Facebook just distills all the potential distractions into one easy page with an infinite number of links to click on. There’s clearly an addictive quality here: I’ve succumbed to both the urge to spend hours mindlessly scrolling through my feed, as well as the urge to interrupt another activity to “just check my Facebook.”
- Related to that, there are definitely times when I have scrolled my Facebook feed when I could have been engaging face-to-face with the real people in front of me. I try not to do this, but sometimes, like most of us, I do. (Of course, pre-internet, there were plenty of time I ignored real life people to read a book, so the real issue here is that Facebook takes a bad behavior I was already prone to, and makes it easier).
- The monolithic growth of Facebook has killed off good discussion in a lot of other online spaces. I used to have a lively community of people commenting on this blog; now, when I do post, I’m lucky to get a comment or two. Even if people are interested in something I’ve posted, they’re more likely to comment on the link I put on Facebook rather than on the blog itself. Dedicated discussion sites like the ones I used to belong to are too often gone or at least struggling. It’s not that people have stopped talking about stuff, but more and more they’re talking about it on Facebook, in a forum that doesn’t always allow the same kind of thoughtful reflection that a good, well-moderated discussion board does. While everything from my blog to discussion boards would have inevitably changed anyway over a decade, there’s no doubt that much of the change that has happened has been driven by the mass exodus of virtually everyone to Facebook.
- Connection. For me, Facebook still does best what it did originally: makes it possible for me to keep in contact with people I’ve known over decades, many of whom are now far away. Sadly, I’ve lost two dear friends to cancer over these 10 years, and Facebook helped highlight an important difference for me. When my friend Jamie died, I felt the loss of someone who was still part of my daily life, because we had connected so much online — over email, on our blogs, but particularly in late years on Facebook — even though we saw each other rarely. When my friend Linda, who didn’t use Facebook or any other social media, passed away, I felt not only the loss of her but also the missed opportunities, the connections we DIDN’T have, the things I didn’t know about her life. Linda liked for people to write hand-written letters and print off photos and send them through the mail, and while that’s lovely, the reality is that the quick Facebook post, the “like” when a friend post pictures of her kid or pet or vacation, keeps that feeling of connection much more alive and immediate. Now, as another old friend from my college years battles cancer, I keep updated on her “cancer journey ” Facebook page, where I can see picture and. updates on how she’s doing, and offer good wishes. I feel as if, in her illness, I’m still a part of her life and aware of what’s happening with her.
- While connection with old friends has been the greatest blessing of Facebook for me, there have been others. For someone like me who hates to use the phone, Facebook augments email and text as a quick and convenient way to get in touch with people. Sending a Facebook message is my first go-to to make contact with someone, as long as the other person is also a Facebook user, and it’s especially good if you want to make plans with several people at once.
- A deeper benefit, for me, has been the diversity of opinion Facebook exposes me to. Yes, as I noted above, websites that promoted thoughtful, reflective online discussion have been hurt by Facebook. But the discussion that does happen on Facebook includes a wider range of people than I’d normally find on a dedicated discussion site, and I’ve often been informed and sometimes startled by insights from unexpected sources — a friend of a friend, or an old acquaintance I haven’t heard from in years.Despite the accepted wisdom about social media “bubbles,” the truth is that my circle of Facebook friends exposes me to far more diverse ideas and vigorous discussion than my real-life circles do — both because the people I know online are a more diverse group, and because I find it easier to discuss complicated and controversial issues in a written forum than face to face. So while, for example, I don’t know anyone in “real life” who voted for Donald Trump, I’m connected with several such people on Facebook. The fact that at last a few of them are folks that I knew long before the 2016 election as intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people, has challenged a lot of my prejudices and exposed me to new ideas. Even if I still think these people are horrendously wrong in their politics — and I do — at least I’m learning to listen.
Have my ten years on Facebook been well-spent? Some of the hours that have passed in those years have definitely been wasted, while others have been spent in life-changing, wonderful connection. Yes, it’s a tool. I try to use it for good more than evil; I don’t always succeed, but I succeed enough that it feels worthwhile.
Will Facebook still exist in 10 more years? Will I still be using it? Only time will tell. But on the whole, I can’t say I have any regrets about joining … even though I am an adult. I guess we’ll see how things look on my twenty-year … nope, still not going to say that word.