In Defense of Facebook
© Jack Cashill
Facebook users, now about half of all adults, defend their participation as guiltily as if they were dabbling in palm reading or pornography. Non-users think even less of users than users do of themselves. Just ask.
What they almost all fail to recognize is the role that Facebook plays in extending America’s national gift for voluntary association into the 21st century. If your skeptical co-workers think Facebook infra dig, Alexis de Tocqueville surely would not.
Say what you will about French dandies, but Tocqueville came to America in 1831 as a 25-year-old, stayed less than a year, and summarized his findings in the most prescient book written about this country before or since, Democracy in America.
Although Tocqueville did not use the word “philanthropy” per se, he saw the uniquely American penchant for forming voluntary associations as “more deserving of our attention” than any other feature of our national life.
For Tocqueville, the urge to combine made democracy a workable proposition. “The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes,” he wrote. “In this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.”
Among its virtues, Facebook actively encourages its users to associate. “Create a shared group for you and some of your friends,” read the instructions, “like your movie night buddies, sports team, siblings or book club.”
Some associations fulfill more substantial needs. Facebook, for instance, has groups for breast-cancer survivors, divorced parents, unemployed workers, and any number of other subsets of humanity seeking solace or advice.
Given my own interests, a few of the groups to which I belong are political in nature. Like Tocqueville, my allies and I tend to believe that citizens “become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another.” I suspect that even those whose beliefs run fully counter to my own have convinced themselves of much the same thing.
Where Facebook has an advantage over other social media is that it permits users to set the tone. My e-mail, by contrast, has no controls. From what I have seen, drafting an e-mail frees the libido and licenses the sender to say whatever vile things come to mind. If there is a book on e-mail etiquette, quite a few of my correspondents have yet to read it.
In my universe, however, civility reigns. Facebook has bestowed upon me the ultimate social tool, the power to “de-friend.” Given that my political allies can interact with my personal friends and my relatives, Emperor Jack tolerates no profanity and no nastiness. The few people I have had to de-friend slumped out of Jack World as crestfallen as Adam out of Eden.
Once, a cousin of mine posted a picture of herself with Bill Clinton. Of course, I had to respond, but every response I conceived seemed, if not nasty, more snide than I would have liked. I posted none of them.
Forced to honor my own code, I came up with the perfectly civil response. A few months earlier, a friend asked if I would I like his ticket to a VIP reception with the irrepressible Sarah Palin. How could any healthy, red-state male resist?
As part of the deal, my friend and I had our picture taken with Sarah. Once provoked, I pulled the photo from the drawer, scanned it, sliced off my friend, and posted it under the Clinton photo with the comment, “Terri made me do this.”
Terri got it. In the good-natured exchange that followed, I noted that although I had my hand behind Sarah’s back in the photo, I could not bring myself to touch her. Terri, of course, could not make the same claim about Bill.
One common gripe among users and non-users alike is that they don’t want to be bothered reading seemingly inconsequential posts like Sally’s cat “pulled out the basket from the bookshelf, hopped in, and explored” or that Molly’s “house is too quiet today.”
Although the names have been changed, both of the above postings appeared on my wall today. If I chose not to read them, I would spend no more than a few seconds passing over. But if I were Sally’s father, I might interpret her comment as an invitation to connect and engage. If
Many postings are more obviously serious. As I write this, the top posting on my home page asks for “thoughts and prayers” for a friend of the person posting who is having surgery for breast cancer. The post has already drawn 30 supportive comments. Another post from two hours ago alerts the poster’s friends that his dad has “suffered a major medical crisis” and asks them to offer “a prayer of God’s healing.” It has drawn 45 comments.
As I went back to edit this piece, I learned that the breast-cancer surgery referenced above was successful. “Please know,” writes the poster, “that we appreciate every single thought, prayer, and concern.”
I am sure there are risks, especially for adolescents, but my own experience has shown what a powerful community builder Facebook can be. When my mother died in 1993, my three siblings and I decided that the way to hold the increasingly far-flung family together was to return each summer for a week to the New Jersey shore town we frequented as kids.
Although most of our relatives and friends are now on Facebook, that communication has not made the annual gathering obsolete. Just the opposite—it has spurred attendance. Before Facebook, most of us would have had no contact with most of the others throughout the year. Now, everyone knows each other a good deal better.
About two years ago, one of the friends who spends the summer week with us fell ill. Living alone, she started posting updates on her condition. Faced with a choice of coming home to an empty house after a day of chemo or finding a Facebook page filled with support and encouragement, I might have done the same.
A virtual community of care emerged around this otherwise solitary woman. For those in the area, the community became more than virtual. When she announced her recovery, they celebrated together. The rest of us celebrated on Facebook.
No need to apologize for using it. Tocqueville wouldn’t.
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