Facing up to Facebook

Mar 11, 2009 |Jenny Schroedel

Hmm, I wonder, what exactly is happening to my brain?

When I sit down to write I try to rein in my staccato thoughts, to organize them into something cohesive, but instead I'm assaulted by possible status updates, such as the one I just posted: "Jenny is writing about Facebook, listening to an ukulele jam session and watching chickens strut about."

Hmm, I wonder, what exactly is happening to my brain? Facebook. This is my brain on Facebook: scattered, unruly, even more distractible than usual (and that is saying a lot).

There's no getting around it, Facebook is addictive: It's fascinating to see photos of your friends from preschool holding their newborn babies, to discover where life has carried people from every phase of your life, and to hear sound bites from people you love all over the world. It's just a nibble of news, really, a handful of photos, a few quotes — but it is something after all, a chance to reconnect and to rediscover.

And yet, for all the appeal, I can't help but think that most of the time I spend on Facebook could be accompanied by Bono singing, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for...." Because for me, at least, Facebook offers a tease of an encounter but not the fullness. It's like gazing at a window display of another life — you can see just enough to be intrigued, but you can't get in. I mean, you can poke, or even "superpoke," but the glass is still there.

Keeping Up

Communication is accelerating faster than I could have imagined. I've met each new trend with some skepticism, but then warmed. When blogging first started, I was horrified. I thought it was like tearing out all the pages of your journal and tossing them to the wind, to be scattered around the world. I thought that the whole point of keeping a journal was that it was supposed to private.

But then I started reading blogs and realized that good blogs are a gift. They help us make sense of our own experience, they make us laugh, and they give us a chance to step out of our own skin for a few minutes and experience another life, which is almost always a relief.

When my husband got involved with Facebook, I was skeptical. The first time I took notice of his status updates, he had written, "John is lava tube spelunking." I thought, "Now why would anybody actually care?" But that was before I started writing my own status updates, and realized that they are a genre of their own, to be judged in context. Now that I've been mining my own life for pithy updates, I see the beauty of his.

An Evolving Art

I enjoy the kaleidoscope of status updates that meets me every morning when I turn on my iPhone, like a mosaic created by school children, with quirky twists and turns, moments and lives cobbled together, funny, moving or mundane. I love it when old friends make me laugh, and after a night of waking multiple times to tend to my toddler and take the puppy out, I confess that I take comfort in the news that I was not the only one.

Facebook has become especially appealing now that I live in Hawaii, thousands of miles from the places and the people I knew growing up. It alleviates some of the loneliness I feel living on the most isolated island chain in the world.

Please Do Not Disturb

Facebook does offer a few conundrums: I log on for contact with the outside world, but I get oddly bent out of shape when people try to "chat" with me. When a face with words pops up on the corner of my screen, I feel irked and cornered.

My husband tells me that my loathing of "chat" is merely my own neurosis, and perhaps nobody else feels this way. But my own irritation is suggestive of one of the strange aspects of Facebook: I'm sitting alone in a room updating my status and I seem to think I'm doing something "private" when I'm actually talking to several hundred friends — who are all, in a sense, in the room with me. Why does is bother me so much when they want to let me know they're actually there, ready for conversation?

No Strip Tease, Please

I value transparency, but I sometimes don't know what to do when friends broadcast information about the very most private parts of their lives. I feel especially protective of young girls who offer information that makes them vulnerable.

It's almost as if people don't believe that their words will actually be viewed by the hundreds of friends, many of them merely associates, some of them just friends of friends. My husband, a priest, chuckles at the Facebook group, "My priest is on Facebook, so don't write anything bad on my wall!"

But sometimes, people use these updates to cry out for help. Last year, a female student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa updated her status, saying she was "empty." Then, she took her own life.

It seems so tragic that she could say these words in a status update, but she couldn't go to the dorm room next door and ask for help. She spoke in such general terms — revealing her pain but not her plan. Perhaps this was intentional — she wanted to broadcast her agony, but she didn't want anyone to pull her back from the edge.

From the Mall to a Cathedral

When I first got on Facebook, I had apocalyptic thoughts: I imagined that the experience offered such instant gratification, at such speed, that the whole practice of reading books and visiting friends would fall by the wayside. Rather than meeting at a coffee shop to discuss their troubles, friends would exchange non-existent Starbucks "drinks" while perusing status updates.

And sometimes, when I see my 7-year-old daughter hunched over the computer furnishing her Webkinz's room while our puppy, Meli Hoku, yaps at her heels for attention, I fear the apocalypse has already come.

But I take comfort in the fact that come evening, Ana doesn't snuggle my laptop. Instead, she is calmed by the presence of Meli Hoku snoring beside her on the bed. And when I shut down my computer and open a book and linger over the pages, I remember the value of inhabiting the physical world: the smell of paper on ink, the hum of the crickets outside the window, the sweet lingering silence of a day shutting down.

Life in the tangible realm offers us something to hold and touch and smell. And for me, it is like stepping out of the mall, with its flashy displays, glaring lights and factory-fresh french fries, into the quiet candlelit beauty of a cathedral.

I don't mind the mall, actually. I like to stroll through and see what's happening there. But every day, I need some quiet. I need space to listen, to reflect, to become. It is in this receiving space where true encounter becomes possible, where the very best in us rises up to greet the One who placed it there first.

Copyright 2009 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.

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