“May you live in interesting times” has been widely attributed to an ancient Chinese curse, though no reliable sources exist to verify that claim. Nevertheless, someone thought of and expressed the sentiment to someone else, and we owe that someone a measure of thanks as we live today through what, by any metric, meets, with absurd dark ease, the standard of “interesting times.”
I’ve found myself musing on the expression repeatedly in recent years and almost obsessively in recent weeks, as the coronavirus shoves virtually every other concern off the media wires and our own conversational threads with the people in our lives.
And as it happens, Facebook—criticized and reviled (often, with good reason) for its incursions on our privacy and cunning ability to coerce us into frittering our lives away watching endless cat and cute kid videos—has emerged as a primary conduit for those conversational threads.
Which makes it both a good thing, and a bad thing, as so very many things are.
My own Facebook Friends list is now at a somewhat moderate, by many people’s standards, 250. (Google just revealed to me the average is 338, a stat you can now use to dazzle your friends at your next virtual coronavirus cocktail party.) They represent a combination of real world friends and family, simpatico workplace associates, and some “friends” with whom I have virtually no real world relationship and whom, in some cases, I have never even met in the flesh. (Strange and interesting how that latter happens on occasion…)
I also have many real world friends and family who resolutely avoid Facebook, and others whom I know are on Facebook but we have never bothered to be-Friend each other there for no discernible reason other than simple inertia.
Have you ever in your Facebook-scrolling days reached a message at the bottom of your screen that says, ‘You have now exhausted your Facebook stream, please check back later for more posts!’ ??
I do not think you have!
Like many people, I have had an ambivalent relationship with Facebook since my late brother convinced me to give it a try during a getaway we enjoyed with each other back in 2009, shortly before he took ill with a malignant brain disease and died the next year. (His page is still up, by the way, which just provided me with one of those comforting, slightly eerie experiences unique to the digital world as I tumbled down the rabbit hole of his page and saw him, heard him, felt him, mourned him yet again in a 30-minute scroll, first I’d taken in several years; I’m glad the page is still up.)
I have vowed to quit the platform multiple times since then, though I’ve never carried out that threat.
I’ve also resolved to severely curtail my usage many other times (intermittent success on that front), and other times concluded I would use it only for friendly social purposes while assiduously avoiding any political content or discussion for fear of getting into unnecessary and irresolvable disputes with people for whom I otherwise have a high regard.
And then Donald Trump became president, and I decided that any such apolitical resolution would, in the service of our republic and my own conscience in these chaotic, unparalleled times, have to go right out the window.
But now we have arrived at this Covid-19 point in history, a point without precedent, really, in anyone’s life who is still above ground and able to reflect on it. And Facebook has emerged, along with various other social media tools (Instagram, Twitter, texting, FaceTime, Zoom, and even old-fashioned live phone conversations) at its absolute peak of good, purposeful use, a lifeline of communication and commiseration and information sharing (not all of the latter valid, alas) in a period of lostness and disconsolation.
Scanning my newsfeed these dark days is like getting a greatest hits compilation of all the news, information and spiritual consolation sources one couldn’t possibly get to on one’s own in a day—presented, filtered, and in a powerful sense, approved by generally trusted sources whom one knows personally (with a few exceptions, as noted above).
It would be interesting to break down the percentage of posts these days either directly referencing Covid-19 information or serving an intentional purpose of social undistancing and spiritual buoying in this fraught time.
The occasional madness and evil intent aside, scrolling through Facebook these days more often than not serves as balm and ballast, however sobering the news is. It’s a conduit for soothing my nerves, sometimes venting my spleen (see “Trump, Donald”), and the comforting sense that sanity abides and community still prevails among friends and friends of friends and the sources they go to for good information and perspective.
Here’s what I beheld with a quick scroll when beginning to put this piece together last week:
- A link to completing the 2020 census online rather than dealing with a possibly virus-laden someone at your door;
- A friend sharing photos from her old neighborhood, back in the day…;
- An ad for a “Ditch Mitch”fund to support Mitch McConnell’s opponent in the Kentucky Senate race, in which she has an actual chance to defeat him, yayyy!;
- A link to an article on emptying prisons of low-risk inmates to reduce coronavirus risk;
- A You Tube link featuring Joan Baez singing,“Imagine”;
- A CDC fundraiser ad with Facebook offering 2-1 in matching funds (yayyy, Facebook, but no, this is not a license for Trump & Co. or you to privatize the agency into “The Facebook Center for Disease Control”);
- A link to a piece on Ralph Lauren donating $10 million for coronavirus relief (that’s a good look, Ralph!);
- Another on Andrew Cuomo as “America’s Governor” (I can hear Gavin Newsom grinding his teeth now);
- A link to a buoyant piece on Amy Klobuchar’s husband’s recovery from coronavirus and release from the hospital;
- A photo of a “Bee Immortal Tree” in China that is “covered with beehives” (Long live bees!);
- And finally, just to provide some balance lest you think I have become a mush-minded raving optimist, an article on a minister who leads regular Bible study for various Trump cabinet members. This particular man of God wrote on his website recently that the coronavirus is the “consequential wrath of God,” raining down on us as punishment for the homosexuals, environmentalists, “depraved minds,” and assorted other sinners we harbor in our midst (Grrrr!).
As you know if you’re on the platform, I could have gone on…and on…and on, Facebook sometimes resembling the Milky Way in its fathomlessness. Have you ever in your Facebook-scrolling days or nights reached a message at the bottom of your screen that says, “You have now exhausted your Facebook stream, please check back later for more posts!” ??
I do not think you have!
No, Mark Zuckerberg will not likely be winning any popularity contests now or ever across the great sprawling earth where Facebook now beams itself to some 2.5 billion active monthly users. I had my own Kafkaeque nightmare with his creation just a few months ago when I posted a pearl of wisdom regarding the human body and accompanied it with a tasteful, glorious shot of a male torso, perfectly lit (shown below).
Within minutes, I got an email telling me it had been removed for its prurient content and I would be banned from the site for three days. Catching a small note at the bottom allowing an appeal if I thought the judgment had been in error, I jumped on it right away, thinking surely this decision had come from a robot that probably misjudged a shoulder blade for a breast.
What I got for my trouble was a near immediate extension of the ban to seven days, without explanation, followed by another appeal box check-off by me. That got the post back up on the page for a few hours—until the next note informing me my continuing violation had now resulted in extending the ban to 30 days.
Finally, I reached a human being via email (which Facebook does not make easy), who professed great sympathy with the absurdity of my plight, and after a series of polite back-and-forths, pronounced himself unable to help me, all my “Surely you jest???” entreaties notwithstanding.
More absurdities abounded through that situation, one in which I know I am not alone.
All that said, there’s still no denying the platform Zuckerberg hatched in his Harvard dorm room in 2004 remains immensely popular, even if our multi-billionaire friend Zuckerberg is not.
It’s a kind of reverse on some Christians’ “Hate the sin, love the sinner” maxim, becoming, in Zuckerberg’s case, “Hate the sinner, love the sin.”
Yes, it is appalling what Facebook does with our information and algorithms.
Yes, direct, face-to-face communication (remember those quaint days?) is always preferable. Lacking time or proximity or a virus-free time for that, a check-in via a live voice or Facetime call, or text, or an impossibly quaint pen-and-paper letter or card, still provides a qualitative experience of focused, directed communication with one or a few people that is more intimate than shotgunning out thoughts or photos or obsessions and depending on faceless Facebook algorithms to get them in front of your audience—which they do in limited, algo-driven, somewhat mysterious ways.
But in truth, having direct, regular communication can be a challenge with just 20 or 50 friends even in normal times, much less 250 or 500 or in some cases, 1,000+ who consider it worthwhile for one reason or other to hook up as a Facebook friend.
In the end, Facebook, for all its predation of our privacy and its vulnerability as a platform for hate and misinformation or just plain untoward social preening, also provides an unmatched platform for keeping up with others in our lives across time, geography, generations, aesthetic sensibilities and not unimportantly, senses of humor (however occasionally twisted).
And perhaps most importantly, in times of great social stress as we are experiencing today, Facebook is functioning more true to its original vision as a kind of socially cohering Town Square where we can and do meet, rant, praise, question, humor, inspire, inform, affirm and sometimes even argue with each other, the great human swell of concern and mutual support (trolls excepted) rising up to meet perhaps the great existential challenge of our time.
Not counting climate change, of course, which is a whole other, even more serious matter that we are, by necessity, having to put off paying much attention to for another day. Not many days, though, given that hurricane season is just around the corner, and fire season not far beyond.
It’s always something in this life, as we should know all too well if we’re paying any attention. Rising to meet whatever that something is defines every generation through its long, half-tortured, half-triumphant propulsion through history.
World community of a sorts in play here—a very Facebookian idea….
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Computer keyboard by Sam Albury via Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@sammisamuel21
Durham street shot by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/