I woke up Wednesday morning to a shock. Palming through the Metro section of the newspaper, which is the first section I read (being over-40, I still love to actually hold the newsprint in my hands), I glanced at the obituaries with an odd, predictive sensation of fear.
There, at the top of one of the columns, was a picture of the 6-year-old son of a colleague. He had died, very suddenly, on Saturday.
Putting my premonition abilities aside, the next thing I did was a nod to the fact that I straddle the age-fence when it comes to old-fashioned newspapers and new fangled social media. I ran to my computer and opened my Facebook page. And there on my colleague's page, which I had not looked at in a while, were hundreds of messages, outpourings of support, and a linear track to the story that had unfolded over the past few days.
I slunk down in my chair and started to cry.
I'm not close with the mom – we've gotten to know each other a little over the years because we do the same kind of work. We've met a few times for lunch and have really enjoyed each other's company. We've called on each other for a few work-related favors. But generally speaking, we're not really friends.
Which is why she is one of the many people in my Facebook "outer rungs" whose page I have, in essence, turned off. I have a number of people in this category – I just don't have time to keep up daily with people whose lives are not more intimately connected to mine. It's not a reflection on how much I like them, or want to be their Facebook friends. I enjoy all of my Facebook friends, and try to check in with those folks once a month or so, just to keep up. It's more a time management tool
But now I feel bad. I feel like I wasn't there at the beginning of the Facebook string, which went from trotting off for a mani/pedi one day, to the next day's story unfolding of how her son was unresponsive in the morning, rushed to the hospital, and then the terrible news that he had died.
So first, I am so very, very sad for my colleague. I have reached out to her, and hope that when she is ready, she will be open to meeting me for a cup of coffee. I have told her that I, too, lost a son, and that it was so comforting for me to talk with people who intimately knew the pain I was experiencing
But what is most remarkable for me about this story, eying it with some distance, is the social media aspect.
My musings about Facebook and its place in our lives began when I became a bit of a Facebook addict. At first I thought Facebook was the purview of young people (which it was) and I was way too old to be a part of it. But an old friend college invited me on, and the tsunami of addiction soon began.
I was on Facebook several times a day, looking at friends' posts, playing word games and beginning to doubt my sanity. I would get Facebook friend requests from people I barely know, and at first, I would ignore them. If they came back a second time, I would send them a polite message to let them know that I limited my Facebook friends list to a list of very close and intimate acquaintances.
But I also began to see the prospect of Facebook expanding my own network of blog readers. I allowed myself a little more latitude with who I allowed to become my friend. I started thinking of Facebook as a broader community, one in which, when I had time, I could participate, but when I didn't, it no one would take offense. I also began to use it for some professional outreach, and "friended" clients and organizations with which I was affiliated. My personal Facebook page became an amalgam of the personal and the professional, much like my life.
I learned how to filter my Facebook time, the same way I have learned how to do this in superstores. You go in, go straight to the aisles that have your basic needs, and if you have a little extra time, you allow yourself some browsing and roaming.
After a couple of years on it, I feel like I am now in control of my Facebook life.
Several months ago, the Washington Post ran a story about a young woman who died as a result of giving birth to her first child. It was a terrible, tragic story. But the thing that made it stand out was that the reporter essentially used the woman's Facebook chronology to tell the story. The reader was allowed into the intimate circle of family and friends who had been a part of her life through Facebook.
Was this journalism? Was it sensationalism? Or was it merely an unusual entrance point into a sad personal interest story?
I haven't quite decided.
So this week, I am once again faced with the question of how we think about and use Facebook. My colleague has been using it to tell her own story. She has posted pictures of her son, given updates about funeral arrangements, and offered thanks to her community for their support. In return, there has been a huge outpouring of sentiment on her page – it is heartwrenching to read.
I am grateful that I had the ability to tap into her community and be a small part of it during this awful time. Facebook allowed me that access. But I still shiver a little bit at the absolute public nature of our lives today.
As both a blogger and a Facebook user, I often put my life on display, but I still am very sensitive to what I share. I know that most people don't really care about the day-to-day minutiae of my life. But I imagine that they would want to know about the big, important things, both happy and sad. And I guess that this is the magic of Facebook. It offers us the vehicle for instant communication with a broad band of people who are now woven together by dint of the fact that they are our "friends."
I suppose my Facebook community is merely another one of my interlocking community circles – people whose lives I touch and who have touched mine. But I remain cautious. Just as I am extremely mindful, as a writer, about what I write and publish about my personal life and my family, I am very deliberate about what I post on Facebook.
Would I post something as painful and personal as the death I read about Wednesday morning? Not sure. But I do know that I appreciate having the Facebook access to my friend's story so that I can offer comfort and assistance in a way I could not have otherwise.
Perhaps this is the ultimate success of Facebook – bringing people together in new ways they never imagined possible. A zeitgeist moment indeed.
Photo by codemastersnake via Flickr