It was my birthday on Friday and I turned 31. Usually at this point in life is when birthday's become progressively less fun and only serve as a reminder that you are getting older. But Facebook makes birthday's awesome!
I received a multitude of positive messages, a couple pictures of flowers, and even a song on Facebook itself. And off Facebook I got more attention too.
Now the cynic will of course argue that these people would not remember my birthday if Facebook didn't remind them, but is that a bad thing? I seriously can't keep track of hundreds of birthdays in my head, but do truly appreciate and care for the people who are my friends and acquaintances and love having the opportunity to let them know it. And is this any less legitimate than the calendar or address book that our Grandma's had? They didn't memorize all that information either, they just used a different form of technology to keep track.
So yes, Facebook makes birthdays decidedly better.
I am the oldest of 11 siblings. Right now I have 3 nieces and 1 nephew with three more on the way (yes, 3). When we get together for Thanksgiving with just immediate family it is close to 30 people. This number may very well double in the next decade or so.
While I realize that maybe it doesn't take 30 phone calls to organize YOUR Thanksgiving dinner every year, I am guessing their are birthday parties, baby showers, and evenings out that are much simpler to coordinate now. Being able to add the location, details, and even choose who sees what (surprise party anyone?) saves time and frustration.
When technology becomes problematic is when it replaces real interaction. But it also has the potential to expand and improve that real interaction.
Coming Together for the Greater Good
While there are all kinds of things that I could say about the Ice Bucket Challenge, for now let's just use it as an illustration of the huge potential of social media to rally us around the common good. Can this go awry? Yes. Can we get caught up in liking things rather than doing anything? It is a real problem. But my gut tells me that people thinking about what needs to be done to make the world better is an amazing first step. And then galvanizing action is the next one.
I am sure that I would not have run as many 5k races for important causes with my kids, or felt comfortable enough to share them as much as I have, without social media. Again, who really wants to call up 100 people and say, hey, there is this race benefiting a really important cause, want to come?
Efficiency matters. It helps us make bigger strides forward as humanity when we can remove the communication barriers that stand in the way. This is one way to do it.
Communicating In Emergencies
Thursday, my middle son was in the hospital all day (yes I know, big week). He is on antibiotics now and doing much better, though it was a scary few minutes for me as Mom. My cell phone did not work in the hospital room. But you know what did? The wi-fi on my laptop. I was able to message my sister to pick up my other sons from school, share updates with my family at large about what was going on, and even have my son do a Google Hangout with his dad in Toronto.
When you are dealing with the loss of a loved one, a major crisis, illness, etc. it can be exhausting to try to communicate with each person who needs and or wants an update. It can even feel like too much effort to ask for the help that you need because you feel so overwhelmed. At the beginning of 2008 when my eldest son had his stroke I remember spending way too much time on the phone telling people what was going on and feeling like I just couldn't repeat it all one more time.
And the support and love that you get from your more loosely connected contacts that might not even know otherwise can be invaluable, which brings us to the last point.
Strengthening Weak Ties
If you know me, you know I am a bit of a geek and LOVE to learn new things. One way I do that is by taking free online courses from Harvard and other Ivy League universities through EdX.org (highly recommend!). Right now I am taking a course called the Science of Happiness all about what makes us happy.
While we probably all know that social connections make us happier, one thing I was surprised to learn is that it is not all about those few close relationships. What are called "weak ties" are essential to our wellbeing. Most of the positive changes in our life (meeting our soul mate, getting a great new job, etc.) happen because of these friends of friends.
Just like Grandma's book of birthday's, these extended connections used to be a lot harder to nurture. While getting on the phone and out to meet in physical spaces is still important, we can now maintain and grow ties with a much larger network. This is the basis of civilization and human progress.
As always, the important point is that these weak ties to not replace the close ones. Arguably, this is an area that we need to work on as a society, and probably worth exploring in a future post. But this is not an either or question. We don't have to choose between close friends and loose ties. We can have both. And will be happier the more we are able to cultivate both. Technology opens that door where we don't have to make those kinds of choices. If we learn to use it as the wonderful tool it is, it can open all new possibilities.
What do you think?
I would love to hear in the comments below your thoughts. Do you think social media has an overall net positive or net negative effect? Any ways that Facebook has made your life better not mentioned above? And if you are tired of hearing all the doomsday social media articles - share this one! :-)