My ambivalence about Facebook has been in place since the beginning. I think the common moniker “Crackbook” is apt, because so much time can be frittered away in an addictive flurry of viewing status updates and links, clicking “like,” thinking up pithy responses to contribute to threads, and debating how to present one’s thoughts and identity via one’s posts and profile, i.e., one’s public persona. The part of me that wants to be firmly wedded, instead, to the land, to my tangible surroundings, to people I can touch and see face-to-face, to a physical community and bioregion, revolts at the thought of an online environment that occupies so much time for millions.
Simultaneously, I recognize that Facebook is feeding me something I can’t seem to get much of elsewhere. Is it the ability to stay connected, through the means that presents itself, to friends that would otherwise fall off the map? I’m grateful for the ability to receive updates I wouldn’t otherwise receive about new jobs, children, homes, loves, and periodic philosophical musings from friends I see rarely or never. Is it the overlap of interests and concerns with people regardless of geography, people I may have never met face-to-face? Certainly, it amazes me that I get to develop a sort of alternate tribe of assorted radicals, gardeners, farmers, foragers, anarchists, activists, permaculturists, homeschoolers, feminists, parents, librarians, writers, rabble-rousers, and wordplay addicts. It’s a bit intoxicating to be exposed on a daily basis to stimulating conversation, as well as to experience genuine intellectual and emotional communion. Is it also the ability to access that connection at any moment of any day, as long as I have my laptop and wifi? If I’m lonely, or bored, or need help with a question, the easiest and quickest place to turn is Facebook, knowing that of my several hundred FB “friends” I’m likely to find someone online and ready to interact.
I don’t mean to merely sing the praises of Facebook, however. The ambivalence is profound. For every “virtual” hug, or heart symbol, or smiling emoticon I receive, even though I know that these expressions are genuine and sent out by real, solid, breathing humans, I experience a pang of longing. Sometimes the pangs are ferocious. It’s a reminder that, embedded in the dominant culture as we all are, there is still the steady, relentless backdrop of isolation. Everyone I know in the “face-to-face” world is beholden to the demands of the industrial economy and the cultural expectations to run around like a maniac, trying like mad to just “get things done” and keep their heads above water rather than Be. I know this frenzy well. This is the primary way that I identify the source of my own sense of isolation: the fact that no matter how much I increasingly make choices to opt out or subvert the dominant culture to the degree I’m able, it doesn’t mean that those around me are able or willing to follow suit. Meanwhile, in the Facebook ether, there are people who are able and willing and pulling out all the stops to live differently, sanely, in the present moment. And the vast majority of them are hundreds or thousands of miles away from me. The virtual hugs that stretch across those miles are welcome and needed, but I can’t help but feel, in my human animal heart, that we are being horribly deprived at the loss of physical presence. We are meant to sit around fires together; we are meant to work alongside one another; we are meant to burst into spontaneous song; we are meant to watch out for one another, hold each other up, feed each other when we’re sick, keep a collective eye on the free-ranging children, delight each other with games and stories, mesmerize each other with artistry and problem-solving, and demonstrate through our smallest, wordless actions that we are present and profoundly connected.
As optimistic, positive sorts are so fond of declaring, humans are an innovative, adaptive bunch. I’m not an optimist, but I do recognize Facebook as a tool for adaptation in the environment in which we find ourselves, this weird, transitory space at the end of empire. I resent Facebook for inserting a virtual tribe in the space where a literal tribe might have existed. I resent it as a symbol of corporate domination. But I also love to see the flourishing seedlings of ideas, and relationships, and yes, the capacity to transform those online connections into face-to-face meetings and tangible action.
Thanks for the fire, friends.