Anyone on Facebook knows that one of its virtues (or vices?) is the ability to connect with old friends and acquaintances: your middle school girl friend who moved states before high school, that guy who used to pester you in biology class, your mother’s high-school friend who likes to keep tabs on your growing children. In fact, a survey last year by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that the majority of people on Facebook report “connecting with current friends and family” or “reconnecting with old friends” are the major reasons why they use the social network.
There is nothing like an election cycle to highlight just how tenuous some of these social ties might be. Despite the fact that we surround ourselves online with people we tend to know offline, if your Facebook feed reads anything like mine did for the past few months, I have no illusions that my extended “friend” network is a bubble of like-minded peers. If anything, the bubble is my offline life: as a professor at a liberal arts college in New York City, I live in a pretty “blue” world. It was my Facebook feed—full of angry, snide, ironic, irate political posts from across the political spectrum—that helped me track the views and opinions of real people outside the bubble of my real life.
These reminders of difference were not always very comfortable. More often than not, I was left wondering how much I really knew these “old acquaintances,” who seemed to inhabit a different country than the one I live in. But just as my indignation would rise, my self-referential bubble would be burst by a snide remark by a newer acquaintance, painting in broad strokes “red” America (including my home state) that I knew to be just as disconnected from the complicated realities of the people who live there as those same people’s political views seemed disconnected from my life.
All of this might just be another kind of bubble—“Professor mines Facebook feed for sociological data”—distancing myself from all of these acquaintances and friends to draw some anecdotal (and not at all original) commentary on the polarization of American politics or the need for more nuanced political maps (like this one, perhaps, in which my home state of North Carolina and my adopted state of New York look pretty similar). Except that in other Facebook practices, my life is intertwined with all these people. We like each other photos and comment on the perils and pleasures of raising small children. We cheer each other on through marathons and job interviews. We console each other through illness and death.
There are good reasons to worry about the shallowness of these connections. How much does it really cost me to “like” a post when nothing else is being asked of me? Or to say “I’m praying for you” in a comment line when I haven’t seen the person in question in 15 years? On the other hand, isn’t this exactly what offline communities do too? The quick word of hello in the grocery store checkout line. The moment of gossip in the church parking lot. It is precisely my small town, red-state upbringing that taught me the value of “superficial” connection in maintaining a sense of community across difference.
There is a moment of surprise when someone you thought you’d pegged reveals another side of himself—the vitriolic political post gives way to a generous comment to a friend in need. Embracing the lesson of that surprise just might be a practice of charity, and online social networks, as much as any other network, can help us cultivate that virtue.
Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University (starting Fall 2012) and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.
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