Social networking seems to have been the topic of the week last week. Danielle Bean dropped the gauntlet, asking, what people thought of an article that asked, “What is Social Networking Doing to Our Brains?” and quite a few bloggers have picked up the challenge, tackling various aspects of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. (See my response In Defense of Facebook.) And this is a great thing. They’ve got me thinking, reexamining my own assumptions and trying to get a handle on this relatively new phenomenon into which I’ve plunged headlong. I thought I’d try to collect the responses I’ve seen (please let me know if there are any I’ve missed), adding my own reactions, and then perhaps take a stab at pulling my thoughts together to form some sort of further conclusions.
Behind the Scenes
First, Cay Gibson offers a very positive reflection, “Keeping a Real Perspective,” in which she describes how she’s gained some insights into her older children’s private lives as she peeks through the windows Facebook and Twitter offer:
I still find it a privilege that through these Internet mediums I am given the opportunity to “login” to a higher insight of my child’s life. I read something they’ve written, even if it’s a one-liner headline on Facebook or a short “tweet” at Twitter, and am amazed to have a glimpse of their real perspective. It’s a small part of them, true, but it’s still a very real part of them. They typed it. And I love that.
It’s like being backstage of a theatre or in the wings. You get to see more than what the audience sees. You get to see behind-the-scenes. You get to see parts of the whole performance that has placed your child as the star. You get to see the headlines that you were clueless to.[snip] . . . These small forms of communication…as I have seen time, time, and again…serve to unite us only at the pace we are willing to be united. A friendship will widen and expand to more lengthy emails, then perhaps to phone calls, then to meeting at a middle-of-the-road restaurant or like-minded conference.
And we are led to more expansive conversations and insights which bless us and leave us more open-minded and charitable than we ever were in high school drama class.
I’m worlds away from the parenting stage in which social networking even becomes an option. My girls only bang on my keyboard to watch the Caps Lock key light up. But I am already catching glimpses of their forming private worlds that exclude me. Bella closes the door to her room to play with her imaginary friends, Bella and Sophia laughing together in their room before we get them up in the mornings. Soon there will be entire interior lives that I only glimpse in flashes. So I enjoyed reading about Cay’s experiences of catching those glimpses. It’s reassuring to note the ways that the internet, and especially social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, may be a force for knitting families together and helping us to understand and appreciate each other. So often any mention of new technology only discusses how it pulls us apart and isolates us.
Lost in the Shuffle
Next, Charlotte admits she feels “Left Behind” by the various social networking phenomena:
I don’t want to offend anyone who enjoys these communication mediums, but I love blogs! A blog is a beautiful place filled with the character and spirit of the person who owns it. It offers pieces of them and their world. It opens your eyes to places, customs, family situations that you might not get to experience in your own world. Even if a blog is not visually beautiful, it can be intellectually beautiful and carry your mind to the pinnacles of thoughts you never could have imagined yourself. You can follow the conversations of the blog hostess and other readers and you can even choose to engage in those conversations as well. It is a notebook where you can quickly share a small silliness that you will just as quickly forget or a scrapbook to hold those precious things that you want to remember forever. And it can be a lovely place to share yourself with the world and a comfortable parlor to invite guests to come in and sit a spell with you. If blogging is like a home cooked meal, then social networking is fast food. And while fast food can work in a pinch, I’d rather enjoy a succulent pot roast with roasted sweet potatoes on the side.[snip]
Sadly, I feel like some of those friendships that I thought I was developing have been cut off by social networking. In order to participate in those conversations, I now have to tweet or peep or read a wall. A wall… seriously? I feel left behind. I feel out of the loop. I feel dejected and a little rejected. I don’t think those friendships were false. But now, I see some of those friends climbing onto the bandwagon and heading down a road that I can’t go.
I like what she has to say about blogging and feel a great deal of sympathy for her perspective as she finds that she just doesn’t like the pace and style of social networking sites. I find myself in agreement with her as I do far prefer blogging to social networking. To me Facebook and Twitter are are tasty side dishes that add flavor and savor to my internet use and could not possibly replace blogs as the main attraction.
One thing I’d like to note. Despite some fears I’ve seen voiced by Charlotte and others, blogs are here to stay. For one thing, it is worth pointing out that all the meta-conversation about the value of social networking must by necessity take place on blogs. You just can’t have an in-depth conversation and analysis on Twitter or a wide ranging free-for-all discussion on Facebook. Twitter and Facebook can get the ball rolling; but all the real work of hashing things out will happen in blogs.
Red Cardigan offers, in her usual thoughtful style, a reflection about discerning how and where technology is useful and when it becomes a tyrant in “Technology as Tyranny”:
Is it easier to stay in touch with friends and family via Facebook and Twitter—or do we just end up posting public details of our lives in a format where people we barely know can read our breathtaking insights into…what we’re fixing for dinner, or which child has a cough? Is online shopping a time-saver—or a money pit? Is reading the news of the day on the Internet more efficient than subscribing to newspapers or magazines—or does any efficiency we might gain vanish when we linger to post our opinions in the comment boxes? . . .[snip]
. . . Those types of technological interactions that work for us, that we find valuable and rewarding, get to stay. But anything that’s becoming an unpleasant chore or a dreary hassle can be jettisoned. We can prune our daily reads list, consider carefully before signing up on forums and email lists, examine the value of the social networking sites we may belong to, and eliminate any that are, or have become, more trouble than they’re worth.
Discerning the Internet for Ourselves and Parenting the Internet Generation
Finally, Elizabeth Foss chimes in about the blessings blogs bring and the ridiculousness of trying to hold a real conversation in Twitter; but also contemplates the value of stepping back and enjoying the silence.
Elizabeth also conversed with me briefly on Twitter about my blog post (Apt or irony that it was trying to be a deep conversation in a completely inappropriate medium? I don’t know.) and challenged me in several areas. One of which was in how to identify the pitfalls that face our children as they grow up in the internet culture when we ourselves are still learning to navigate in a new medium. How can we reliably guide them through the challenges they face and help them to avoid the pitfalls and use the technology responsibly and in ways that are spiritually beneficial? (I think that topic is worthy of a post all its own and hope I’ll be able to develop it further in another blog post. Incidentally, if you know of any good resources on the topic of parenting and the internet—blog posts, articles, books—please let me know in the comment box or via email.)
Select Your Own Society and Shut the Door
As I’ve read all the various “sides” of the conversation, I’ve reexamined my own use of Twitter and Facebook and found that I’m not really very far from where I started, though probably better for the self-examination. I think it’s false to compare these media to blogs, they do different things. I do think if you don’t like them or you find they are detrimental to you in any way, you should by all means stay away. I don’t like FB and Twitter as much as blogs, I don’t see how quick formats like they offer could ever replace blogging. And it’s incomprehensible to me that anyone would abandon blogs for social networking.
At the same time, I think each medium has its own advantages and disadvantages. I’ve also found that I tend to approach different groups of people through the different media. There is some overlap; but in general I don’t feel that Facebook or Twitter pull content away from my blog. I do think that I’ve taken a fairly conservative approach to each of these. I don’t friend everyone who asks on Facebook and feel free to ignore most of the poking and fanning and tagging there. On twitter likewise, I’ve only chosen to follow a handful of people and feel no compunction about unfollowing people if it gets out of control. I like the chatty back and forth and the quick format. It doesn’t replace thoughtful blogging, but it is nice to have a forum for the casual stuff that doesn’t make the cut of being worthy of a blog entry.
The words that keep coming back to me are from Emily Dickinson:
The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.
Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.
I’ve known her from an ample nation
Then close the valves of her attention
Select your society. Then close your doors and enjoy their company. For me, increasingly, that means being quite selective about who I friend on Facebook and who I follow on Twitter. I’m even thinking about the possibility of pruning those lists a bit as it has become clearer to me what I do and don’t want from those sites.
Right now I’m thinking of limiting Facebook to family, “real-life” friends, a few friends with whom I’ve made real connections on the Internet, and perhaps some professional contacts. I’m starting to feel overwhelmed and wishing Facebook would allow me to keep people as friends but manage whose status messages appear in my feed.
As for Twitter, I’ve been pretty selective from the beginning, feeling no need to “follow” everyone who follows me. For me Twitter is a nice place to stop and chat; but adding too many people would make it so overwhelming as to be useless. I think I’m about at a good number now and am reluctant to add too many more.
I’m also going through a similar discernment with Google Reader. Am I trying to follow too many blogs? Which do I cut? How many is reasonable to leave in my queue? That’s always a hard call. When I’ve pruned in the past it has been painful. The blogs I’ve dropped from my reader list are blogs I like but just find that they post too often for me to keep up or not often enough on topics that are of real interest to me. I do drop in to check up on them occasionally; but it’s not the same. Still, what do you do? There are only so many hours in the day that can be spent online.
The Internet for Introverts
It all comes down to personal discernment. As an introvert I find face to face time with other people, even people I really love, to be emotionally draining. I always need to retreat to solitude to recharge my batteries. This tendency plus having too very small children can lead me to become a virtual hermit. (For an introvert one of the trials of being a mother is that necessary alone time can be very hard to find when young children need to be minded 24-7.)
Now I love solitude. I am really really very comfortable with the idea of not leaving the house for more than a week. (My extrovert friends and relatives just don’t get this, they think it’s unhealthy and try to get me to leave my comfy nest.) At the same time I do need adult conversation and interaction. For me the internet is a perfect outlet. I have real conversations that challenge me, real friendships that nourish me. It really has been a life saver and I couldn’t imagine the past three years without it.
Even so, I am constantly striving to find the proper balance between meeting my needs and carrying out my duties as wife and mother, being present when my family needs me. I know I have a tendency toward spending too much time online and am constantly examining my practices and vowing to be better at setting boundaries. I appreciate that constant discernment is necessary in this as in all areas of life. And one thing I value about the Catholic online community is the support I find in so many venues, from so many friends, in being aware of the dangers and support in constantly discerning how much is too much. It is a frequent topic of conversation and that is a very, very good thing. We all should hold each other accountable for our time spent here in this virtual world. It can be a great treasure, but it can also be a trap for the unwary. I hope that in my own writing I have done my part in advancing the conversation.