Friday, February 18, 2011

Tales from the Dark Side

Now that I've spent a significant amount of time extolling the virtues of Facebook, I've got another point to discuss. A somewhat darker point of view if you'll indulge me. Because I feel that for all the ways that Facebook can strengthen relationships, it can also tear them apart.

When I refer to relationships, I am not speaking just of romantic relationships but friendships and familial relationships as well. By now, even if we don't know someone personally who has had Facebook affect one of their relationships in a negative way, we've at least read about it. We've also seen horror stories of child neglect. I would argue that some of these stories are in the extreme. People who neglect their children for the Internet would probably neglect them in some other way if the Internet/Facebook wasn't available. People who cheat on a spouse might very well cheat with someone they didn't meet on Facebook. What should be sobering, however, is the thought that although we may not be endangering the physical well-being of our friends and families, we may be engaging in behaviors that damage our emotional connections to them.

I'm single with no kids at home. I don't feel particularly guilty about sitting by myself on the couch at night and engaging others via Facebook for hours on end. (Although sometimes my cats make desperate bids for attention.) What I do sometimes wonder is if in doing so, I am wasting time I should be using to develop relationships with the people around me. Not just the people I know, but people I should be meeting. But I'm an introvert. I don't play a sport and the idea doesn't really appeal to me. I don't attend church, school or have a particular hobby, like scrap-booking or playing the guitar which might put me in touch with other people. All my hobbies are pretty individualized, like reading, cooking and gardening. Could I join a reading group, take a cooking class or join some sort of local gardening group? Probably. But I don't, partly because Facebook gives me an out. Why put myself "out there" when I can sit at home on my couch where I feel safe and talk to people I already know, even if my knowledge of them is superficial and I may never see them in person again?

This isn't to say I don't value the relationships that Facebook has brought me. I've met some wonderful people online who I would have probably never encountered otherwise. They enrich my life on a daily basis and for that I am grateful. I've deepened other relationships which has been amazing, too. What I find missing is the ability to sit on my couch in the evening with another warm body across the room. I miss another voice, the easiness of being in the physical presence of someone who knows me well. I wonder how many people, like me, sit on their couch each night and communicate with others via Facebook while their kids play on their own and their spouse sits in silence on the other side of the room, absorbed in television, or perhaps on Facebook as well. Recognize yourself? I thought so.

I'm guilty as well. I have a Blackberry. An iPod Touch. I use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Blogger, etc... I am never not connected. How many times have I checked my Blackberry during dinner? Answered a text? Checked my Facebook? Plenty of times and often to the irritation of the person dining with me. How many times have I sat and waited impatiently for a dining partner to do the same? More times than I can count. We live in the most connected time the world has ever seen. Almost any information is immediately and constantly at our fingertips and we have more ability than ever to influence and manipulate that information through sites such as Digg, Facebook and Wikipedia. We are marketed and advertised to constantly and we're learning to market and advertise ourselves, as if our personal preferences and habits are products of some sort.

I've been thinking lately that I need to make an effort to put down the phone, turn off the computer and reconnect. I've been thinking that I might start asking people to do that when they're with me as well.
I've been the person on the other side of the room being ignored in favor of the person on the other end of the computer. Sometimes it's ok but most of the time, it's not much fun. Although it's helped me develop and further some relationships, Facebook has also hurt several of my relationships. One or two of them have been damaged and/or changed irreparably. One friendship has ended for good.

I want to embrace social media and, for the most part, I do. But I have to remind myself of a few things from time to time:
  1. There are some things about me that no one needs to know about. Things that are private. 
  2. It's easy to get caught up in other people's drama, but you don't always know the whole story.
  3. The people in the room with me deserve my attention as much if not more than the ones on screen.
  4. Besides being supportive, offering my expertise/opinion and trying to make them laugh, there's not much I can do about other people's troubles. 
  5. People can pretend, online, to be someone they're not. Maybe not on purpose, and sometimes even people you may have met. Unless you know them very, very well, keep in mind that things and people online aren't always what they appear. 
When you think about it, these are pretty good rules to follow offline as well.

I love Facebook and Twitter. Foursquare is fun and blogging serves its purpose. They're all useful tools not to mention addicting and enjoyable. But they can be trouble if we let them. I want to manage my social connections, not allow them to run my life. So this weekend, in addition to spending time with my friends on Facebook, I'll be spending time with friends and family offline as well. All the way offline! And I challenge you to do the same. 

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