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.