What’s the big deal about Facebook?
Thirteen, the son so recently known as Twelve, signed on to Facebook the morning of his thirteenth birthday. He created his account, uploaded a photo of a Lego model as his profile picture, and sent out a few select friend requests. I was at my laptop in the kitchen, waiting, and I became his first friend.
He’s up to ten friends, as of this writing, two of whom are classmates. The other eight are family members. He posts, infrequent, are along the lines of “May the Fourth be with you,” for Star Wars Day, 5.4, and “I built a cool 60s car out of Lego. It is red.” When I ask him about his inactivity on Facebook, he shrugs and parries back, “I don’t really get Facebook. Why do you like it?”
He’s dropping off to sleep and I’m sitting on his bed, so I’m spared having to fully explain the appeal of the online world. Then, too, I find myself mulling the question—why do I like Facebook and what is the big deal? My question is heighted by my current struggles to understand Twitter—they are not tremendously active struggles. I’ve been so stymied by Twitter-speak that I have been steadfastly ignoring my two accounts, one for myself and one for my business.
Thirteen is never going to know a world without computers. I did. I typed page after page in high school on a manual typewriter and survived college with a modest electric, chewing through ribbons and forever out of liquid paper. The computer lab in graduate school allowed me to access a squat flickering Macintosh II, and I carried my in-progress assignments, thesis and first professional resume around on floppy discs. In 1990, with a full-time teaching gig paying me just enough to live on, I took out a bank loan to purchase my first computer—a Macintosh LC—and a laser printer, the envy of all of my colleagues at Suffolk County Community College. It was worth every penny.
It was 1994 when I added a dial-up modem, the thing hissing and screeching across the phone line. I paid for email and Internet access on AmericaOnline (AOL), for which the monthly subscription rate was around twenty dollars. It was far easier to use than its competitor, Compuserv, and I was rewarded for waiting through the ear-splitting sign-on for that happy indicator: “You’ve got mail!”
About that time I was asked to join a committee at my community college to write a technology grant. All English teachers, we were the wrong group to try to guess the future of the computer world, but our job was to ask for monies that would move us from our own little Mac lab, where I regularly taught both journalism and developmental writing classes, into that brave new world. I remember the chair of my department saying, his hand gesturing an arc above his head, “it’s all going to be about the double-u, double-u, double-u, the World Wide Web.”
And so it is. Perhaps it’s only natural that we need programs like Facebook to organize our experiences on the web. But why do I rely on it so heavily and why do I bridle with recognition when people criticize Facebook—it’s making us more lonely, they say, or it’s a terrible waste of time.
When I joined Facebook it was just emerging out of the college world where it started—the extended learning teacher at my children’s school asked me to join because, she said, it would be a way to keep in touch over the summer. For a long time I rarely checked the site and had only two or three friends. As more and more people shifted onto Facebook, it soon became the connective tissue among my work, home, family, and pre-family lives.
And therein lies one of the delights, for me, of Facebook. I have moved across state lines or international borders fifteen times. In the world prior to the Internet, I kept in contact with at least one person from each of those moves through letters and calls and holiday cards. It has been a surprise each time, which friends have been willing to do the work to stay in contact and which have not; which have fallen away after time and which have reappeared. Since Facebook, the number in that last column has grown considerably.
Like the saw I recently bought to remove the tree branches that threatened to smack me in the face when I mow my lawn, Facebook works beautifully if you allow it to do what it does well. For me that means it provides a brain cleanser, like Snood or Tesserae once did when I owned those first few computers, between tasks. Only instead of being a video game, Facebook allows me to check in with friends and family. On the most basic level, I like that when I sit down to write holiday cards now, I have a much better sense of my friends’ lives.
But it goes deeper. Connect with one past love, an old friend, or a long lost relative and you’ve got a new reason to smile and a slightly more secure foothold in the universe. Make a new friend—as I have done—with a mom you see in the hallways at dance, getting to know each other through status updates, posted photos, and exchanged messages, and you’ll be meeting her for tea on a sunny Saturday in June. Or maybe, find a like-minded stranger—as I did when I tentatively contacted the founder of my father’s fan page—and have someone you can call upon when you need specialized assistance.
I’ve learned to tend carefully what I post to Facebook, much like writing this blog. I confess, there’s almost always a story behind the story, but Facebook offers a place to present my public face, my best self. On a bad day, I might post a status that’s a veiled reference to how I’m feeling, something close friends will intuit and respond to with messages of support; most days my mini-autobiography status updates are designed to illicit smiles or conspiratorial nods or the sense in anyone who might care to know that I’m doing just fine.
June’s full moon is shining on all of us tonight, its light and glow and phase the same wherever we are, the best connection of all. Enjoy, Rxo