Twitter, Facebook, and biscuits

My grandparents live on a county road in southwest Missouri. My great uncle lives just behind them, just across a dirt road. My mom’s cousin lives a couple of places down. When we buried my cousin some years ago, we didn’t need a car to get to the church and cemetery. The community, such as it is, doesn’t stretch the bounds of geography. The concept of social networking exists only insomuch as it applies to somebody saying, “I’m going to head down to Aunt Ann’s.”

On any given afternoon, any number of people could show up to sit on the porch, sit in the kitchen or just hang around the hummingbird feeders. Ashtrays will fill, be emptied, and refill while pot after pot of coffee makes its way into people who long ago grew immune to caffeine. In her younger days, if folks were hungry, Grandma would cook–catfish, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits, venison, crappie, perch, or whatever came off the truck after the latest hunt. It would, no doubt, be a meal you’d remember–unless you’re from my family and every meal is just as good and plentiful.

A few years back, it was pretty clear my grandparents were getting older. My mom worried about her parents. She fretted that they would get sick or stranded somewhere while nowhere near their home phone. She bought my grandpa a throwaway cell phone that she convinced him to carry in case of emergency. It took more convincing than I thought necessary. Grandpa looked at it like it might give him the cancer.

I was assigned the task of programming the thing and getting it up and running. My mother, who in the interim has learned to use all varieties of computers, e-mail, etc–wasn’t entirely sure how to set up the cell phone herself. Hell, it’s only been a year or so since my parents actually got a cell phone for each of them instead of carrying one. My dad hardly saw a need for both of them to carry a phone.

These are my people. These are the folks who could literally talk all day about nothing but the weather and how the fish are biting. They are communicators and I love them for it. These are also people who have no use for cell phones, e-mail, and computers. If you mentioned the words Twitter and Facebook over coffee at Grandma and Grandpa’s, you would get a blank look and asked if Twitter was a new kind of fishing lure.

The people of my generation–and all of you younger folk–have had a good laugh at the Baby Boomers’ exasperation over the years. The Boomers have scoffed at the idea of VCRs, cable, e-mail, computers, cell phones, and this Internet thing. I recall no small amount of hand wringing over how e-mail would be the death of the letter writer, how there was no need to have a cell phone when you had a perfectly good phone on the kitchen wall, and how the Internet was a vast wasteland good for nothing other than corrupting our youth.

People my age have a hard time leaving the house without a cell phone. If forced to write a letter longhand, they’d probably give up before they’d written a hundred words. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law are just young enough to not remember a world without the Internet. I’d bet good money they couldn’t find their way around a library. We are people of a technological age that the 50+ set has a hard time grasping. We snicker at them because they just don’t get it and are afraid to try.

I have a friend named Bill. Bill is a worldly guy. He went from living in California to–well, just pick a country and he’s probably either lived or visited there. What’s more, Bill is just about as savvy as you could possibly want when it comes to technology and the Internet. He’s made his living off it for years and continues to astound and impress in his field.

A couple of days go, Bill updated his Facebook page with the following message: “My god, I’m an adult and I’m typing my ‘status’ into a website for other adults to consult. WTF is wrong with me?”

I was taken aback.

It’s one thing for my wife to avoid Facebook and Twitter. She values her privacy and, if I’m being honest, isn’t what one would call an early adopter on anything that involves being plugged in. Once she is introduced to something (iPhone, RSS readers, iPods, etc), she can really get into it. Nonetheless, she rarely goes willingly.

Bill is different. Bill embraces new technologies and finds ways to make them work for him. Yet, he wrings his hands over his use of Facebook. The unasked question in his angst goes something like this: “Why in the hell would I do something like this? Why am bothering to connect with people I haven’t seen in years and update them on what I’m thinking? Does what I’m doing really matter to these people?”

Keep in mind, I haven’t seen Bill in a few years. Despite the fact I enjoy his company and usually feel like I have a lot to learn from him, our paths do not cross very often. So, it makes me happy to know I can catch up with him on his blog, Twitter account, and Facebook page. I said as much in response to his Facebook message.

You live in Bavaria, or Belize, or Bali, or something…I mean, without your blog, FB, Twitter, etc, how often would people actually know what you’re doing otherwise?

I’m sure that people once said, “Why are we talking on the phone when we could be talking over the fence?” And hey, of course we miss the fence, but if you can cook biscuits while still socializing with your friend a few doors down, why not? I mean…BISCUITS.

I’m not picking on Bill exclusively here. Many of my friends in the 30-45 demo are getting heartburn about Facebook and Twitter. What’s worse for them is that they hear so many people talk about it and wonder why it’s so important. So, they do it and still feel silly. The question keeps coming up. “Why am I doing this?”

I hate to be trite, but, “Why not?”

Let’s look at my day.

I didn’t leave the house until a little before noon. In that time, I saw one person other than my family. I had a brief chat with my neighbor. If I used my grandparents’ social networking skills, my neighbor would’ve been the only person I talked to today. Later in the day, my mom called on my cell phone. This afternoon, I returned an e-mail from a college friend. This evening, I chatted via instant messenger with a friend across town.

All in all, that’s not so bad. It’s much better than my grandparents and parents could’ve done. And if those were the only communcations I had all day, I’d be fine with it.

But that wasn’t all. I also used Twitter to communicate with a fairly large number of people I know. What’s more, I checked in on Facebook to learn a high school friend had run a half marathon and another friend was recovering from being pepper sprayed.

Now, was any of it meaningful? Not so much today. I ask, “Does it have to be?” Most of our day-to-day interaction is fairly benign. Why should we expect any more from online communication. Moreover, I’ve managed to get back in touch with dozens of people I haven’t seen in years. Old friendships are being rekindled and recent friendships are growing stronger.

Listen, I don’t have a piece of Twitter or Facebook. I have nothing to gain but their service. And, yes, even I sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed by the constant stream of useless information. I do not, however, feel the need to wring my hands over the grand meaning of it all. As far as I am concerned, they are just another way to communicate.

Wouldn’t it be nice to sit around a plate of Grandma’s fried chicken and chat? That would be great. If I had the chance, I’d do it right now. Alas, my life requires me to be in a lot of different places. Your life requires you to be somewhere, too. In the days before we had all these great communication tools, relationships that were forced apart by distance had little chance of survival. Now, it’s possible for me to keep up with Bill while he’s bouncing about Thailand, my brother while saves some dude’s life in Missouri, and the people who pay me to write while they jet across Europe.

At a wedding a year or so back, the priest took a good while to talk about how our society has come to think of relationships as disposable. As society grows increasingly mobile, it’s very easy to let friendships slip away. To get the most out of life, we have to move fast and go places, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave people behind.

Twitter and Facebook are not going to save our relationships, but they are small tools that can help us foster what is already too damned fragile.

I just don’t see anything wrong with that.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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21 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    As usual, I’m the fortunate tweener that’s been there at the dawn of time, which ever you choose to use for that. I love them all and I hate them all. They’re all funny to me, and they’re also unbelievably valuable to me. The bottom line is you do what you can to keep up with the people you love and the people who love you. Because, really, pard, nothing else matters.

  2. Tom says:

    Brad – this is one of the best “plain folks” rationales for using Twitter, Facebook, or even blogging. As our office’s resident tech guy, I get questions about social media all the time. I think now I’ll just point them to your blog entry.

  3. BadBlood says:

    I can understand people being uncomfortable with using it. To be frank, it’s a bit presumptuous to think that someone somewhere wants to know my latest 140 characters worth of thoughts. I’d be pushing it out there. Nobody asked. To assume so many people want to know can be uncomfortable to those with a smidgen of ego suppression. You could possibly counter with the fact that the act of following your account constitutes a willingness to ask. Maybe.

    However, it would also be unwise to dismiss their usefulness. Reconnecting with old friends has never been easier. It sure is convenience, and people love things that are convenient for them to use, even if it comes with inherent limitations.


  4. emme says:

    Even though I may be considered a “boomer” I have embraced technology. I’m still not over the FB terms of service debacle though and have my account deactivated. Perhaps after reading this I will consider using it again.

    One thing social media has allowed me is to establish relationships with people I might not otherwise meet….like, you, for instance.

  5. otis says:

    Point of clarification…when I talk about laughing at the Boomers, I only mean it insomuch as it applies to folks who never really got around to learning what the kids were doing. I have many a Boomer friend I’ve made right here in the intertubes.

  6. Astin says:

    I’ve spent plenty of virtual ink railing against Facebook. I still think it’s evil. The only way for FB to be effective is to reveal your personal information to the world, and provide that to the powers that be behind the scenes. They’ve shown very little respect for that.

    Twitter, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. It’s microblogging, pure and simple. Anybody who doesn’t know my online identity doesn’t know my twitter account. The Twitter powers know nothing about me either. I have no fear that my Twitter activity will be used in a way that affects me, because it’s anonymous. Something FB can’t be if it’s to be used to its full extent.

  7. Little Willie says:

    Astin – NOTHING is anonymous. If you write it, say it, or type it… it can always be traced back to you. always. trust me on this one. you are being watched {waves at big brother behind screen}.

  8. Cindy Willis says:

    I was a resistant facebook joiner because I also like my privacy, but now I like it – everyone is so task-oriented these days it’s nice to drop people a line without having to come up with a reason. On the other hand, it’s also nice if a lot of your friends are chatty girls and you don’t have time for an hour-long phone conversation – a few swapped comments and you’re still in touch.

  9. Drizztdj says:

    You had to bring up fried chicken and biscuits three hours before dinner didn’t you?

    Being homely its a boon to “reconnect” with the friends I’ve met via poker that are scattered across the US. Being hearing disabled I shy away from the phone at all cost (but the hearing aids have seemed to help this a little). Thus, I’ll choose to text someone, or comment on Twitter/Facebook before making a call.

  10. Astin says:

    @Willie – Yes, but it takes a bit more effort to do so when you don’t volunteer the information. With FB, chances are you’re on their with your REAL NAME so that your old high school friends and enemies can find you easily, or identify you when you find them. Then there’s the beauty of the beacon ads experiment where FB would broadcast your Amazon, etc., purchases to all your friends. Their most recent ToS debacle just continues to make them seem dodgy as hell. Twitter has my alias and my public e-mail address.

  11. Jim The Knife says:

    Blogging is pure unadulterated “CATHARSIS”.
    Every blogger I’ve spoken to on the subject agrees.
    What “I GOT” is that Tweeters and Facebookers are,
    for the most part, folks who don’t have the talent
    or time to write a full-blown blog, so they tweet
    or facebook a sentence and gain a small measure
    of catharsis. Good for them.
    Go get em. I, however, don’t need or want it.

  12. T says:

    To get the most out of life, we have to move fast and go places

  13. T says:

    Damnit…I had something really funny to say…now I’ve ruined it. Never mind.

  14. Bill Rini says:

    First off, thanks for all of the nice things said. I had no idea that my status message would impact you in such a way. To be honest, the comment was made more as a joke.

    Obviously I have embraced both Twitter and Facebook. I’ve been on FB for . . . I don’t even know how long but it was way back in the day I can assure you. And Twitter I played around with when it first came out but most of my friends weren’t using it yet so it had limited utility until more of the poker world jumped on board. There’s no doubt that both are great tools for connecting with people. Especially FB where people from your past can reconnect pretty easily and it has such a low learning curve that even my dad gets it (sorry dad).

    The joke (which I guess was only funny to me) was intended not necessarily to poke fun at the utility of the tools but at the way they are far too commonly used.

    See, I think you make a very good point when you say “Most of our day-to-day interaction is fairly benign.” It is. Especially mine πŸ™‚

    It’s one thing to say that a tool is useful in connecting old high school buddies but does everyone need to know if your baloney sandwich was yummy? In fact, I think you make several good points that support the feelings behind the joke. Hearing about your buddy getting pepper sprayed would be like “Whoa, dude, what happened?” and you want to hear the whole story. It’s interesting. It’s something that is useful to other people in the sense that it is an experience most people who know him might like to know about or hear more about.

    But like I said, most people don’t care about the benign aspects of our lives. Would you jump on your phone and call all of your friends to tell them you really liked your sandwich? Of course not because you know they don’t care.

    And then there are the people who go out there and try to get as many friends or followers as they can and then have nothing to say except to post every minute detail of their life from the time they wake up “Woke up tired today” to when they go to bed “Tired now. Going to bed.”

    And that’s what the joke is making fun of. People who post their “status” when it is of no relevance to anybody else.

  15. Da Goddess says:

    I’m happy I took up blogging when I did. It was something I had been dreaming of doing long before I did it, long before I knew what a blog was, long before I discovered there was such an easy method of putting together a journal of my musings that didn’t require me to know “code”. It was as if God Himself had presented me with the most magnificent gift in the world.

    Blogging opened doors for me that I never imagined existed.

    But Twitter? It means nothing to me. Facebook is tolerated only because I want to keep up with a couple of people.

    Even though there are those who consider such tools as the be all, end all in communication, I prefer to do without. All the more for them, then, right?

    I love that my folks have embraced the digital age to the extent that they have. I find it amusing that I can email my dad. My DAD! Who’d a thunk it? Certainly not I! And my mom, I want very much to get her started with computer graphics. She’d be fantastic. But neither of them will ever have a Facebook page or a Twitter account. And for that I’m glad.

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