In Defense Of Social Media

I am hovering very close to becoming a social media addict.

There. I said it. Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery.

Except, I’ve decided, I don’t want to recover. Not completely.

Remember the early 1990s, when the Internet was just coming into mainstream, popular use? There was, at first, much joy about the new “communication super highway.” We would never have to use paper again!

But then doubts crept in. There was this dark thing, this “social media” that threatened to transform previously healthy, well-adjusted people into socially awkward tech nerds who never talked to anyone in person. Far from connecting us to the outside world, social media were isolating us in cellars from which there was potentially no escape. Sociologists studied the phenomena and issued stern warnings to go outside to the sunshine. In 2013, Spike Jonze weighed in with “Her,” his Oscar-winning movie about a man who fell in love with his computer.

Until fairly recently, there was a pretty healthy balance between my interaction in the physical world and cyberspace. But the scale tipped heavily toward virtual after I relocated six years ago.

I was a liberal black Jew transplanted to a conservative area with few blacks and even fewer Jews. It was hard to meet people I could relate to, and anyway, I didn’t have opportunities to socialize much. As an overworked, harried single mom, my whole world was consumed with my job and my children’s extra-curricular activities.

I was a news junkie, so my position atop the slippery slope had always been precarious. It didn’t take much to go from spending hours online reading newspapers to spending hours online sharing articles, jokes and urgent puppy and kitten videos.

It’s not that I didn’t know I was catapulting toward an abyss. “Court,” I would think, “You’re spending way too much time online. You need to get out more. Get a freaking life.”

I tried. I joined a book club. Volunteered at my synagogue. Went to the swim parties and back yard barbeques of co-workers and neighbors. It was all fun, but even as I was doing it I sometimes found myself formulating the next social media post in my head. Whenever I caught myself in the act, that disembodied voice hissed, “You do realize you’re pathetic, right?”

Right. Pathetic. Focus.

Lately, though, I’m not so hard on myself.

You see, all that judgment is predicated on the foundation that there is a concrete dividing line between the “real” world and social media.

I didn’t realize how fuzzy that line had become until 2011, when Facebook offered me the chance to sort my “friends” into categories, including “family,” “close friends” and “acquaintances.”

My white father’s interracial, interfaith marriage didn’t go over well with his kin, so I have never met the vast majority of his relatives. My black mother was estranged from her emotionally abusive mother for much of my life, so I didn’t grow up close to that side, either. For me, the supply of folks to label “family” was pretty limited.

Then I got to “close friends,” and realized that category was tough, too. Certainly there were people on my friends list who I actually knew and talked to face-to-face. But then there was this whole other crowd of people who I had never technically met, but who were at the very least close friends, and maybe even family.

College classmates who barely spoke to me when we were in school who I now touch base with online a few times a week. Members of online communities I belong to for journalists, Jews of color and single moms via adoption. In the context of “real” life, many of these people would be strangers.

But this is what I call “real.”

Someone you can call in the middle of the night when you’re upset?
Just recently, I was afflicted with a severe case of stress-related insomnia. I went online and was surprised to find several virtual friends awake and online, too. We “talked” for a long time, sharing words of encouragement and remedies for getting to sleep when rest evades you. I felt better when I logged off.

Someone who is thoughtful and kind?
Last month, after I posted about what a bummer it was to be single and working on Valentine’s Day, someone I knew only from Facebook called me at the office to wish me a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Someone who comes to your aid in a crisis?
I recently posted that I was worried about my dog, Tiffany, who was clearly in pain, but there was no room for a veterinarian in my check-to-check single mom budget. Several online friends insisted I get Tiffany examined immediately and chipped in to pay for a late night animal hospital visit. The problem was a defect in both knees that required surgery to the tune of $3,500. Upon hearing the diagnosis, the same Facebook friends rallied again, putting up a Go Fund Me page and sharing the link far and wide. It raised just under half the money for the operation in less than a week. The balance became moot after another Facebook friend talked his vet into performing the surgery for exactly the amount of money that had been collected.

The point is that defining who is a “real” friend is sort of tricky for me, especially when you factor in that some people I’ve met online are now friends offline, as well.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily a good idea to entrust your social life to strangers on the Internet. There is, to be clear, some inherent danger in risking emotional intimacy with people you don’t actually know. Ask any teenager who has been trafficked in the sex trade after bonding with predators disguised as online confidantes. See the documentary “Catfish” about a whole cast of fictional characters one woman created with multiple fake Facebook accounts. Then there was that notorious hoax involving former Notre Dame (now NFL) linebacker Manti Te’o’, whose virtual girlfriend turned out to be a fraudulent persona invented by a male acquaintance.

But doesn’t every relationship involve a bit of risk? Is giving your phone number to a cute stranger you meet at a bar any safer than chatting with a friendly virtual contact with a nice profile photo? How do you really know who anyone is until you get to know him or her better?

The key, obviously, is to take common sense precautions. I avoid, for instance, sharing where my kids go to school, or my home address, until I’ve vetted a contact as trustworthy.

Having said all this, I know that even when virtual friends are genuine, it’s important to step away from the computer and into that sunshine once in a while. I’m going to work harder to do that more, even as I acknowledge that sometimes, my virtual friends are the sunshine.

Courtenay Edelhart is a journalist, Reform Jew and single mother by choice via adoption. She lives in Bakersfield, California, with two children, an obnoxious Chihuahua, and assorted dying houseplants.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.

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