“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….
Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
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: email@example.com
Computer keyboard by Sam Albury via Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@sammisamuel21
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Durham street shot by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
One night last week, here in corona virus land, the INTERNET WENT DOWN. We couldn’t connect to anything online, and I was thwarted and frustrated in the interruption to my nightly binge watching ritual. Then a darker thought arose of the absolutely real and widespread panic that would ensue in the general populous if that sucker didn’t get fixed pronto. Now more than ever we seek, yes, distraction but also connection, and the internet, Facebook included, is the conduit.
There is also increased time in nature, and making art and cooking, and of course working (should you be fortunate enough to have work that can be done in this fashion) that is the hallmark of this strange time, but I am most impressed with the creative and generous employment of the digital and electronic world to allow people to share and connect: humor, jokes, concerts, photographs. Humans will go to such heroic lengths to connect, and it is a reassuring and humbling thing to witness.
I also wanted to add a little to your story about the completely tasteful photo of the male torso: a mother was sitting on a bench at a mall, discreetly draped and breastfeeding her infant. The bench happened to be in front of a Victoria’s Secret store, the windows of which were plastered with larger-than-life photos of scantily clad buxom young women, their chests on display for one and all. A mall security guard appears and informs the mother she must cease feeding her baby immediately or be arrested for indecent exposure.
Yes, Angela, we are social, herd-based animals, and sometimes the herd congregates around the social media watering hole. Especially times like these. (Other, more normal times, the watering hole is still the local pub, as it will be again, someday…) We are connection cravers, indeed.
Wonderful story about the breast-feeding mother. Made me laugh, albeit ruefully, ironically, with a slight bark, but in the end, that’s all one is left do at such an absurd situation.
Thanks for the video, Drew — I had not encountered any of the Playing for Change videos and just spent the last 45 minutes on You Tube watching several — just what we need right now!
I know Facebook is a real connective asset for millions of people and you’ve clearly outlined some of the “yin and yang” of the almost endless pros/cons in this post. My bias is firmly on the “it ain’t worth it” side of things. My 26 yr old daughter Zoe nailed a primary issue a few years back coming to the realization that most of Facebook was a self curated media illusion where people create an image of who they would like others to think they are fostering all kinds of emotional turmoil. Of course that’s to say nothing of how Facebook is perfectly set up for all kinds of digitized targeting in which it’s increasingly easy to not just identify potential buyers for endless products etc but so easy to weaponize messaging to foster division, hatred, fear, etc in less savory groups… (see 2016 election for exhibit #1). Former Facebook execs have come out like Dr. Frankensteins bemoaning what they helped to create, one described their clever algorithms as prizing attention at all costs resulting in a “race to the bottom of the brainstem” (Sean Parker on CNN 2017) . Yet small businesses who want to target advertising to build their customer base would be crazy not to use Facebook since it so owns that advertising space – serious quandaries to abound! I also loved the anecdote about the picture and Angela’s great Victoria’s Secret story… plus Susan getting turned on to Playing for Change – GREAT stuff – had not seen their version of this Stevie Wonder tune, always loved the song and they do it right! In that spirit we can honor the passing or Bill Withers by checkout out their version of his classic Lean on Me : https://playingforchange.com/pt/videos/lean-on-me-pt/
Kevin, I’m going to go back to my line about Facebook being “a good thing, and a bad thing…as so very many things in life are.” Your daughter’s assessment gets at one potentially bad thing about it, but it’s too cynical by half, I think. Sure, some people use Facebook “to create an image of who they would like others to think they are,” but how does that make it any different than life itself, in which all of us try to put our best foot forward in cultivating and presenting a Self that we are comfortable with and which we hope fosters connections to other human beings in our orbit?
All of us have a social Self out in the world and a private Self, available only to family (sometimes, not even to them). When the disparity is too great—upstanding local banker and United Way president beats his wife at home—it is toxic and false. But all of us are much more full of warts seen only in long-term relationship by our intimates than we let on in public, whether that public is via Facebook, the Kiwanis Club, a group email, or a blog. Thankfully, our intimates forgive us in seeing the whole person (or they don’t, and they head to therapy).
My own experience of Facebook is that most everyone I know there is pretty much exactly who they are in real life. Their “voice,” their concerns, their obsessions and joys and blind spots reflect the person I know. That doesn’t mean I am privy to various aspects of their psychology or daily habits that drive their spouses nuts over time, but which only their spouses know. But that’s exactly how it is in real life, too, quite apart from Facebook.
At home, we let our hair down among intimates, revealing Selves (whether we want to or not!) that we don’t show the wider public. And even closer to home, we harbor a Self of intense privacy that absolutely no one knows. Hopefully, it’s not Jekyll and Hyde, but more Andrew-1 and Andrew-2, Kevin-1 and -2, variations on a theme, public and private. Meanwhile, we share stuff in public, whether presenting something to a live audience as I know both of us do, a Facebook audience or mass email, that makes people think, or laugh, or adds to their information storehouse, and allows them to benefit from our public Selves, as we do theirs if they choose to share.
One other thing I didn’t even mention: social media’s extraordinary capacity to buck up people in difficult times. Not everyone chooses to share challenging times of loss or grief or disappointment on Facebook or any other public venue, but when they do, the outpouring of care and support can be genuine, voluminous, and deeply affecting. Sure, the person also appreciates and needs private emails, cards, visits, but Facebook provides a unique, immediate opportunity for your herd to let you know you’re not alone. It’s just one more means of fostering community.
In the end, Facebook is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used for good and bad ends. Good people tend to use it for good ends, bad or surpassingly fake people for bad and false ends. But my experience tells me people tend to be pretty much consistent across all the presentation platforms of their lives, whether that be Facebook, the workplace, text message chains, Zoom, or daily breakfast meetups at the local coffee shop. I really don’t recognize any part of a “self curated media illusion” there, though it is certainly possible if that is what one’s intention is.
Thanks for piping up about this. Made me think—a very effective use of the social media known as a blog! :-)
Thanks Drew, I agree with much of your commentary but can’t resist a couple of rejoinders. My daughters’ comment I think get at a very real difference and that is the Facebook amplification factor – while the prediction to create a persona for public consumption is not the result of social media I think a medium like Facebook adds an entirely new level making this especially pernicious for teens who are so flummoxed by the challenges of fitting in/peer acceptance and such as they try to figure out who they are/want to be. I would also say this notion of amplification and intentional targeting with very few established norms or “guard-rails” results in Facebook often bringing out much of the worst in human beings (unintended consequence I assume) – while it may be true people “remain pretty much consistent across the presentation platforms” the ability for deranged and serious twisted folks to have outsized impacts on our culture, in my view, outweighs the many benefits of social connection and such. This is no doubt stretching analogies but what the heck – I see it kind of like the guns issue – the difference between Texas/Florida and New York or England is stark in terms of violent results, while one might argue there are no more/less inherently violent people in one or the other – the amplification factor of easy access to guns/stand your ground and other, in my view, crazy-ass laws directly fosters far more net harm. Smart techies should be able to figure out how to create those “guard-rails” to mitigate some of these issues thus improving Facebook – even if it cuts into some of their absurd profits! Ah heck, it’s obviously complicated and I don’t claim to have thoroughly thought this out but that’s one of the cool things about a great blog like this one!
Thanks, Kevin, this helps. I agree that the platform may be especially pernicious for teens, in that it provides a highly amplified, more public tool for some of the more cruel social judgments known to that more socially vulnerable population. (Though pre-Facebook, social cruelty seemed to do a pretty good and thorough job as well, judging from many teens’ memories and later memoirs…)
But here’s what I think you are missing in your concern for that population: as of 2020, Facebook users in the 13-17 age group totaled just 2.4% of users worldwide. The 18-24-yr.-old age group adds another 14.5%. That leaves a mountain of 83.1% of users who are 25+, including 37% over 55-yrs-old. Here’s the link to the full demographic profile, including by gender: https://www.statista.com/statistics/187041/us-user-age-distribution-on-facebook/
Now while it’s true that every human of whatever age is subject to social injury or at least unease if FB discussions turn tempestuous as they sometimes do, I would say that the overwhelming majority of Facebook posts are of the positive, informational, family reports, humorous, life-style-and-good-cause-oriented nature that I refer to in my post. Next time we’re together, I could invite you to scroll through my feed with me to verify that. Content of that ilk is the good or at least benign stuff that dominates Facebook and makes it a competitor for other entertainment options such TV, You Tube, reading, etc. In the end, I think it’s an error to ignore that mountain of either beneficial or at least harmless content while focusing strictly on the relatively small (but real, for sure) amount of injury the platform can do to some users, either socially, or with respect to privacy, fraud, or brainwashing ala the Russiagate of the 2016 election.
The problems and shortcomings of the platform are certainly real and worthy of continuing oversight and suspicion, but that reminds me of online life in general, or geez, LIFE in general, which is full of snakes and fraudsters coming at us from every direction, but which we deal with as we can. It’s a bit like credit cards: fertile hunting grounds for nefarious types the world over, but that’s the cost we are willing to bear for all the good and convenience they provide us.
And speaking of nefarious fraudster types, here’s a piece I’m going to post on Facebook today, but since you’re not on the platform, I’ll deliver it to you via this social media tool, though you may very well have seen it already, Bro: our friend Matt Taibbi with a bombshell report on the coming corporate-pigs-at-the-trough feeding frenzy coming soon with the Covid-19 bailout package. https://taibbi.substack.com/p/resetting-the-bomb?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=cta A fun cat video it isn’t!
Thanks again for making me think! I’m glad to report that is still an edifying activity for me, my senses apparently not yet completely dulled by the intellectual desert of Facebook… :-)
Andrew, first I must say Kevin’a initial comment resonated. It is my impression that the majority of your eloquent commentary is done in proper AP Style book 3d person but with a journalistic flair that sits somewhere between H L Mencken and David Brooks, which gives you some wiggle room.
Then I open this piece up and and I get this equally entertaining first person piece in a really different voice, granted a grammatically different voice but a substantively different voice, at least to me. Since I have not been part of the blog for too long I am guessing that may be a function of the fact that we simply may not know each other that well. Still erudite, literate, clever, but very here. Closer to the microphone. I need to take that guy out to lunch as soon as my hip is healed.
I talked about Kevin’s comment earlier. I wanted to relate a story re: Facebook. About 10 years ago while I was teaching the the Journalism School at UNC some of the students in my senior class asked if I had a Facebook page. I said yes. The next class they came in tremendously upset. “You said you had a Facebook page” …” I do” “We know, but it has nothing on it” ” you just asked me if I had one and I do. You did not ask what was on it” ” But, but , but …. we couldn’t find anything out” “So what do you want to know, just ask me.”
” So endeth the conversation” Ergo my reaction to Kevin’s comment. My Facebook page has a picture of me standing at the Kennedy Space Center in front of the plane I flew in the AF. I guess if you were a good journalist you could infer or find stuff out based on that. And I have one friend, my wife Sudi. And Durham , NC and the zip, I think, Have not been to the page in a long time.
Call you about that lunch in a couple weeks. Maybe in our backyard 10 feet apart.
Glad to see you’re feeling somewhat spry again, Bruce! You may hold some sort of record for being the Facebook user with the fewest Friends, and if we take into consideration that your one “Friend” is your wife, we can almost say you have zero actual Friends, which is surely at least tied for the record. Sorry to inform you, though, that if you’re not getting onto Facebook at least monthly to see what your wife is up to (which begs the question, “Why don’t you just ask her across the breakfast table?”), then you do not qualify as a Facebook “User.” I’m sure that fact crushes you, but you’ll just have to learn to live with it, pal. (Or bite the bullet and log on once a month in order to keep your status among the Facebook Faithful.)
Cheers, Mate! I will look forward to that 10-feet-apart luncheon meetup. Maybe we can take a quick scroll through my Facebook feed just for fun. I’ll bring my laptop— just have your binoculars handy!