First, a bit of catch-up… I’ve been off the blog for a while. A few things have happened in my life since the last time I blogged here:
- I started a new job as Administrator of Educational Technology in Waltham, MA
- I bought a house in Newton, MA, and moved into it
- I had a baby girl
Needless to say, life has been a little distracting, but one of my many goals for the new year is to make time for one of the most important things in my life — my writing — which has taken a backseat to work, family, and running over the past year and a half or so. With a few papers that need to be revised, a book on digital PD that’s been slowly creating itself in my imagination, and a grant project that’s practically begging for some collaborative writing, I need to get my act together. So here’s a promise: I’ll be here more often this year.
Now, for today’s topic: a thank you to my Facebook Friends and a bit of reflection on the role of social media in my (and our) lives. I recently celebrated my 31st birthday. It was a special birthday, in that it was my first birthday as Mommy. It was a completely unspecial birthday, in that nobody really cares that much about the number 31, nothing particularly exciting happened, and I was really too exhausted to celebrate in any way other than getting a few more hours of sleep.
But something struck me on that 6th day of February as I nursed my daughter, talked to my husband, and dinked around on my smartphone: I know the most incredible and amazing people. As they chimed in to wish me a happy birthday on my Facebook wall — a social media tradition I’ve never thought about much — I couldn’t help but notice the diversity of these people and reflect on the experiences that brought them into my lives. My FaceFriends live all over the country — no, all over the world — and I am able to continue knowing them because of social media. This makes my life richer, fuller, and more exciting. This makes me an empathetic human who understands many different walks of life, in different places, through different lenses.
My partner and I are now living in our fourth state since we started dating back in 2002. At each step of my career, I have met incredible people. I have tailgated on muddy, grassy fields at 7am with them. I have established conference traditions that involve 5am runs in new places with them. I have seen some of them only once every other year, others I haven’t seen in nearly a decade, but their lives and experiences are important to me. We swap war stories, we share career wins, and we celebrate life’s milestones together. Sure, we post and comment, but we also message, text, and playdate with our puppies and, now that I have one, our babies.
Many have argued that social media renders relationships “meaningless,” or worse, that social media actually undermines human relationships. See here. Or here. Or here! Or here. Research from my alma mater has even shown that social media can make us “unhappy” (there is also research to counter this argument). These narratives posit that because of social media, we have fewer and less personal face-to-face interactions, we empathize less, and we become obsessed with a “perfect” version of life based on others’ curated social media personas. I’m not here to argue that these perspectives, some of them based on solid research, are false. I’m here to offer an counter-narrative.
Those of you who know my research know that I am particularly obsessed with social ties, what they represent, and how they influence our actions. My dissertation focused on how teachers’ colleagues, friends, and social learning impacted their teaching. As part of this research, I statistically examined not only teachers’ face-to-face relationships, but also their digital ones. This research and my personal experiences have led me to believe that social media, though certainly fraught with problematic issues related to cyberbullying (especially for today’s youth), can be a force of good in this world. Technological deterministic views would have us believe that social media is making us less empathetic and more detached. I take a more constructivist view, believing technology is what we make it (especially considering we made it to begin with).
As I have moved from state to state juggling work, school, and social, I have sometimes struggled to make and keep human connections. We live in such a mobile society, and my life with my partner is an excellent example of just how mobile, and in some cases “uprooted,” we have become. We have never lived in one place for more than four years. We have never really felt “settled.” We’re hoping to stay put this time, but who knows where life will take us? We have followed our careers across state lines and, ultimately, across the country. My social media life has allowed many of my connections to remain stable, and has even fostered new face-to-face connections. Here are just a few examples of people with whom I have digital/face-to-face relationships that social media has either started or kept intact:
- The woman who taught me to love English
- The woman who taught me to teach English
- The new mom down the street
- A bunch of new moms in my town
- My running friend from north shore
- My running friends from Indiana
- My teacher friends in Michigan
- My teacher friends in Indiana
- My college friends
- My former high school students, who are now doing things like getting married and having kids (what?!)
- My professor friends in Ohio, Arkansas, Indiana… really all over the place
- My family in Illinois, Connecticut, California, Ireland, Michigan… really all over the place
…you get the idea.
Many of these relationships would have fizzled, or never existed, without social media. The people I know and keep in touch with online hail from Connecticut, New York, Tennessee, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Florida, and Ohio. They are teachers, professors, students, parents, researchers, and administrators. Some of them, I have only met once — some of them are my best friends in the world. Some of them went to high school with me, and some of them I met last week. Some are coworkers, some are cothinkers, some are cowriters, and some fill many of these roles.
A few times, people have asked me why I display so much of my life on social media. Certainly, I understand why many people keep quiet. There is evidence that posting about your vacation on social media increases your risk of being robbed, for example. Others simply believe that one’s family life should be very private, not for the eyes of friends who wouldn’t otherwise participate in your day-to-day life. I not only understand these perspectives, I agree with them. The “me” that’s on Facebook is only “part” of me, not the whole me. I even curate for particular audiences: some only see the “professional me,” others see the “family me.” The pictures I do post of my family show our joyous moments, because I believe in spreading joy. They show our raw moments, because I also believe in #keepinitreal. They document our story, but only a shred of it. In and of themselves, my posts about my life and my interactions with friends in comment threads, while representations of relationships, rarely constitute the entirety of my social ties with an individual. These posts and comments are glimmers of relationships that have history, that mean more to me than a passing comment on social media or a photo of my dog. My social media self keeps up with my not-so-little-anymore cousins in Illinois, shares pictures of my daughter with her grandparents in a single click, and engages in academic discussions with my friends from graduate school.
Certainly, my anecdotal account is just that. It fails to represent the very tragic things that happen on social media. Teens and adults alike, and increasingly younger children, struggle with being tormented and sometimes are, unwittingly or knowingly, tormenters of others in spaces that feel falsely “anonymous” or safe. Social media can be used to harm one’s self-esteem, one’s public image, even one’s entire life. I won’t rehash these stories here — many of my readers are educators, and could tell ten of their own stories. Others of you have undoubtedly heard more than your fair share of these narratives on the news.
I offer my counter-narrative because I believe it shows how purposeful use of social media — use that spreads positive messages, that shares carefully-chosen moments with curated audiences, and that uses social digital spaces to bolster, not replace, “real” relationships, can be powerful (even beneficial) to our lives and the development of our social intelligence. I also believe this narrative has implications for today’s youth, who rarely hear such narratives. Instead, they hear horror stories about how social media sharing can harm, hurt, or humiliate them. They hear much about how not to use social media, and little about how to use it as productive members of a digital and global society.
So what if we changed the narrative?
Thanks, FaceFriends, for shaping mine.