Monday, February 14, 2011

A sheepish convert defends Facebook

Even as I said it, I could hear the defensive tone of my voice. “I am a Facebook user,” I told the six students in the essay-writing class I’m currently teaching for our local adult education program.

I can’t help it, though. I do feel a little defensive admitting it, in part because I was such a late convert that my own skepticism about Facebook espoused over the couple of years preceding the start of my membership last July still rings in my ears. Isn’t Facebook for kids? I used to think when middle-aged people like me mentioned it. Teens, college students, maybe twenty-somethings, okay. But middle-aged suburban moms?

Now, though, I’ll defend my use of Facebook with the best of them, even if I do so a touch sheepishly because it’s just so darn cliché to become a convert. I liked myself a little bit better when I showed some moral fiber, insisting that my only problem with the idea of Facebook was the time-suck aspect, and that I would join only after I’d managed to find time to read the entire New York Times every day.

Well, in all fairness to myself and to the spirit of compromise, ever since buying a Kindle, I’ve developed the good habit of reading the Sunday New York Times every week, if not the daily one every day. It’s a start, right?

My justification for Facebook, on which I spend probably five to eight minutes per visit, five or six times throughout the day, is that I’m a self-employed writer who sits at my kitchen table writing all day. The time I spend on Facebook feels uncannily similar to the time I used to spend in friends’ cubicles back when we all worked together in the same corporate environment. Back then, I had no trouble at all justifying the little sociability breaks with which we regularly interrupted our work day. I genuinely believed, and still do, that it perked us up and increased our mental energy to spend a few minutes every couple of hours discussing TV shows, current events, our horoscopes or office gossip in the midst of an otherwise long and somewhat tedious work day.

Now that I work alone, I do the same thing, only electronically. And in some ways it causes me to work more diligently, not less. Finish drafting the article about the new orchestra and then you can dash off a quick Facebook post, I tell myself, and the incentive works. Make those revisions to the medical website and then you can spend five minutes looking at the vacation photo album Jody just posted, I tell myself, and sure enough, that gets me back to work on the medical copy.

Moreover, in ways I never expected, Facebook has actually enhanced some of my existing relationships. Before I was a member – when I stood on the sidelines feeling a little bit scornful of Facebook users – I bought into the stereotype that it was just a way for people to banter with their high school sweethearts. But in fact, I find it much more valuable in helping me to keep track of and better get to know the local friends I run into all the time. Even in this small town where some of us cross paths two or three times a day – at the library, at afterschool pick-up, at a committee meeting -- sometimes it’s hard to get past the daily small talk in these regular encounters. I’ve known Karen well enough for casual “What do you think of the second grade project” chatting for years, but were it not for Facebook, I wouldn’t have known that she lost her mother when she was still a teenager. I see Tom almost every week at church, but the subject of his recent trip to Barbados never came up there. Reading on Facebook about the people I see regularly anyway helps me to get to know them better.

And sometimes it’s more serious than that. Last year was the first year following my friend Emily’s father’s death, and she wasn’t shy about posting her feelings when she was having a particularly difficult day. That made it easy for her friends to be supportive, whether by a return Facebook post or an actual visit. But it would have been hard both emotionally and logistically for Emily to communicate to so many individual friends that it was one of those times when she was feeling particularly low.

So I admit, my earlier contempt was misplaced. Yes, I’m on Facebook. Not for more than a few minutes, several times a day, but I’m there. Checking in on my friends, touching base with long-time acquaintances, keeping track of my nieces in Germany. For a work-at-home writer, it’s both office water cooler and village well: something that brings us all together. I’m glad I’m there.

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