Social Media-Mediated Relationships: Facebook Economics

There’s nothing quite like planning a wedding (in this case, my second) that gives you pause to wonder about our life journeys.  At a certain point, the details are all in place and you are more excited about the event than anxious – until the RSVPs start coming in (or not) and travel arrangements are made.  Then it becomes a strange mix of: “did we offend someone?”  “do they approve?”  “do they care less than we thought?”  “have we grown that far apart from former friends?” It’s this latter question that has me thinking today – I wonder if people change as much as we think they do?  Or if it’s more a process of becoming.

Does Facebook help or hinder our sense of self, and our relationships with long-lost high school buddies?  When I left my hometown in Canada to go to college in the States, I didn’t expect to lose touch with my friends as I did.  When I returned to visit my family, my breaks didn’t align with the Canadian university breaks and I never got to see anyone. This was before Facebook.  Before we all had personal computers with Internet access.  Maybe it’d be different today.  Perhaps I’d have stayed connected.  It took planning this wedding, and looking for old pictures to display at the reception to start to wonder about my long-lost friends.  And I remembered the laughter, the band rehearsals.  I can still hear my friend Jessica’s unmistakably distinct trumpet playing, and my friend Mandy singing “Misty” with the jazz band.  So, I looked Jessica and Mandy up on Facebook, and some other friends as well.  Now I see that Jessica has two kids, slightly younger than mine, but adorable.  I can see Jess in her eldest daughter so clearly.  In some ways, Facebook allows us to think we’ve reconnected, to have a window into the lives of our friends, without really connecting.  I know when her daughter loses teeth, but haven’t reached out to say: “Hi. I remember you. I think of you from time to time.”

One thing’s for sure, Facebook has helped me economize my friendships – for better or worse.  As a parent with young children, I don’t have the kind of time I once did to maintain social relationships.

It’s much easier for me to keep people updated on Facebook about major life events (first days of school, what kind of cookies we’re baking), and to use the “status” platform to reach out for and receive help and support, than it is to spend 30 minutes per week per friend on the phone to maintain those friendships.  As a result, I hardly ever talk on the phone anymore.  In fact, I talk to only two people on the phone, and only because they don’t use Facebook.  Has my life become lonelier and somehow less fulfilling because I’m not spending so much time with a phone glued to my ear? Hardly.  Instead, I am able to play with my kids more, to have a glass of wine on the back porch with my fiance once the kids are asleep for the night, to have infrequent moments of silence and solitude, while keeping my Facebook friends within reach.

So, if you find yourself spending more time at the keyboard than talking into an earpiece, don’t worry. Perhaps you are economizing too, or reaching out to friends over the miles (and saving long-distance charges).  There are many positive ways to use social media to develop, maintain, or grow friendships.

But… a little goes a long way.  Many of us can get a bit obsessed, even addicted to social media, and it can distract us from daily living.  Sherry Turkle, psychologist and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, cautions social media users against becoming perpetually distracted by their media devices.  Turkle is often interviewed by the media because of her belief (a popoular one among some academics) that social media/technology will negatively impact our interpersonal relationships.  I don’t find this to be the case, but I do safeguard my time with my family.  When I was growing up, we were never allowed to answer the phone during dinner.  The same rule applies in my own house (even to me) now – we don’t answer the phone/door/or smartphone alerts during dinner.  Or at times when we’re playing with the kids. Or in bed.  Or on Sunday mornings before we’ve had our coffee and read the paper.  Most of all,” Turkle says, “we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.”  With Turkle’s words in mind, I’m going off the grid for the Labor Day weekend – and encourage you to do the same (as soon as you like this post!).

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