Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Can social networks be true communities?


My friend Neil died suddenly last week; I hadn’t seen him in a very long time. We knew each other well in college and then lived near one another in Boston for a few years after we graduated. We didn’t reconnect until Facebook and didn’t talk much, but we read each other’s status updates, made snarky comments on posts, and maintained a digital presence in one another’s lives. I learned that he died from another friend’s status.

Neil is the third person whose death I learned about this way. The first was a high-school friend whom I wrote about in a previous blog post and the second was a local friend’s child who died in the crib before I and most of the community got to meet him. In each instance, the loss was overwhelming, and during all three, I was able to read and communicate with others about the sorrow I felt. When I learned about Neil’s death from Brian – fewer than 24 hours after it happened – he and I were able to chat and remind each other, not just how important Neil was, but how lucky Brian and I were to have each other as friends. For a week now, all of our friends have been posting pictures, sending our condolences, and communicating with the family via Facebook.

There are those who object to social networks because they claim the interaction is shallow and unreal. The argument, as I understand it, is that digital lives are only virtual and that their two-dimensionality replaces real communications, intimacy, and friendship. I certainly understand these points. If I were to choose not to leave the house in service of my digital life, I would be missing something important. A status update does not replace a conversation and a webcam is not a substitute for human touch. 

Yet, at the same time, I, like many people, have friends all over the world. Many of these are people whom I really love, but would never get to see, write, or phone. So, the fact that tons of my friends are on Facebook is a wonderful thing. I can keep up with their lives, give my two cents and get theirs in return. I can see pictures of their kids and celebrate their successes. I can commiserate with their losses. 
   
However, if this was my only defense, then the critiques would hold: Facebook would still be a shallow compromise. Instead, I would suggest something different. The fact of the matter is that the grief I felt at my friends’ deaths was real and the solace I received from talking to others was genuinely healing. The photos were no less powerful on the computer screen than in an album and the chats were as cathartic as a phone call. 

I have been on the other side of this too. When we lost a family member recently, my wife and I read the condolences regularly. They helped. They didn’t make the grief go away (it’s still very much there), but nothing can except, perhaps, time. Human interaction takes many forms and ultimately, the power of the contact depends on how much of oneself people are able to communicate. I have a Facebook friend who clearly has some form of social anxiety disorder. Faecbook allows her to be gregarious in a way she can’t otherwise be. I’m sure the same is true of people who are homebound for any reason.

I object to the term virtual reality. There is no so thing. A flight simulator is, indeed, a simulation as the term describes, but the sensations, adrenaline, lights, sounds, and textures are as real as any other. We are all bodies surrounded by sensation. We have an internal and external life and the first gives meaning to the second even if the second is somehow only a replica of something found in nature. With only a moment’s thought, we can make ourselves afraid, anxious, aroused, curious, angry, complacent, or most of the other human emotions. There is nothing virtual about the imagination. It’s just real in a different way. Plato thought art was immoral because it only copied real things. I think those who object to Facebook are sharing some of the same attitudes.

To those who think Facebook is somehow destroying modern relationships, I suggest that the burden is on you to show that we are less of a community than we would be if Facebook didn’t exist. I also wonder what your definition of community actually is. I can’t imagine it is simply physical proximity or that you would argue there is a significant difference between a voice on Skype and a voice on the phone. 

Almost two thousand years ago, Augustine argued in City of God that neighbors could be in two totally different communities solely by virtue of the values they hold dear. He may have been right. Community is about a common goal and if that goal is maintaining a friendship over a long distance, then social networks are invaluable tools and communities to boot. I learned this from Neil when he passed away. I just wish he were still around for me to thank him

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