Thursday, February 16, 2012

Patching a Broken World, Part 2

Into this fragmented, scattered, cocooning society, enter Facebook. Like any other tool, its use is entirely up to the person controlling it. Facebook has been much criticized for its high profile misuse. There are posts bragging about drinking binges or sexual exploits. There are inappropriate photos that may come back to haunt those with more naïveté than discretion. There is gossip and backbiting. There are all of these things in the rest of the world, too, but they are more visible on Facebook.

There is also much more to see on Facebook. Connections and other beautiful treasures beneath the surface of life can be more readily seen there. I belong to several support groups, based on mutual interests. One group to which I belong brought together homeschooling women who use a certain intellectually challenging Christian curriculum. It turns out that we all have a tremendous amount in common beyond our choice of curriculum for our children. In a closed group on Facebook, 110 women, most of whom do not know each other in person, share their struggles and triumphs. There are many posts about discipline issues, medical problems, and housing situations. There are multiple prayer requests every day. We have found that this Facebook group is the fastest point of connection to a collective pool of love and wisdom that we can find no where else. No one talks about the curriculum that was our original commonality. This a sisterhood of women from all over the world, from Alaska to Africa, of people who would never be able to establish this community of kindred spirits without Facebook.

Facebook also brings those we have lost back into our lives. I have lived all over the world, leaving dear friends along the way like so many breadcrumbs. Even when I was standing still, other people were moving away, so I have lost the ability to see many of my friends in person. While I long for the days when people never travelled more than 10 or 20 miles from their birthplace, that is not our reality. Social networking has enabled connection to the lost beloved: high school friends, college roommates, old cubicle mates, Swedes I used to have coffee with daily, my first and fourth grade teachers, old friends’ Moms, people from our former church, and a Japanese exchange student.

Facebook is both time machine and teleporter. It enables me to cultivate relationships in a way that in person interaction cannot. It has stepped into the gap created by an alienating society. It will never replace in person relationships, and I am not suggesting that it should. But for the way that it creates millions of connections between people and reveals the hidden ones that were already there, I count it as a beautiful example of the common grace that God extends to all parts of the world, and one of the few mercies of this isolating age. It is new, but I can say with the writer of Lamentations 3, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

Patching a Broken World, Part 1

What is our world about, interpersonally? What is the nature of our ties to others in the 21st century? Call me a kitchen table sociologist, but these are the questions that keep me spaced out over mugs of coffee some days.

I first became a mother in a very different place. American society in the 1990’s was not discernibly different from the one I knew as a child in the 70’s and 80’s. Telephones were the major means of communication in those days, although you might still receive the occasional card or letter. Maybe you forgot, but we used to spend a lot of time on the telephone, talking to people with whom we had an in-person relationship.

Those in-person relationships were not what they are now, either, but stop right there: This is not an anti-Facebook rant. If you stick around, you will understand. In-person relationships in America started changing a long time before Mark Z thought of creating a social network. By the end of the 90’s, society was looking very different than it had just a few years earlier. People were holing up. According to author Cindy Vine,

The word 'cocooning' was first identified as a trend in the late 80's early 90's by an author called Faith Popcorn, in her book 'The Popcorn Report: The Future of Your Company, Your World, Your Life.' She basically looked at society and saw that people were going out less as they were cocooning in their homes because work was busy, hectic, and the news in the papers and on TV told them that it’s dangerous to be anywhere but safely ensconced in their castle.

The effect of cocooning in my life was dramatic. In the early 90’s, the workplace was akin to a second family. Professionals would hire on with a company and expect to stay there for life. Consequently, relationships between co-workers and their families were taken seriously. When our eldest son was born in 1990, I stayed at home with him while my husband worked at a large engineering firm. Much of our social lives revolved around his workplace. There were parties galore, both at work and on the weekends. A couple of his female co-workers befriended me, and even babysat on occasion. Even the stay-at-home wife of a junior engineer was included in the company social scene.

In 2012, the workplace based social life is as endangered as job security and pension plans. People know that they will be changing jobs several times over the course of their careers, so co-workers and their families are not included in our social lives as often. In addition, the recent lean economic years have driven companies to cut out events that used to be taken for granted as a pleasant part of working life, such as office parties, golf outings, and dinners with clients. The workplace is now just a place to work, and while the occasional friendship may spring up, there is not a social network in the office to support relationships in the same manner. Such relationships only endure on the TV show, The Office.

Workplace alienation is only one symptom of this societal shift away from old-style community. I have used the workplace as an illustration, but the move away from traditional communities can be traced to a general feeling of impermanence. Not only is my job not permanent, but neither is my church, my best friend, or even my spouse. (Yikes, not my spouse. We are dealing with the theoretical.) I may feel at liberty to change churches when it no longer suits my needs. My best friends may very well move across the country.

All of these transitory relationships reflect two opposing forces: The uncontrollable change that is thrust upon us in the modern world, and the power that we have to choose exactly what suits us as individuals. Individual needs begin to take precedence over the needs of the group, partially because there is no longer a group. These forces feed on each other. The more I feel that my social structure is crumbling due to forces outside of my control, the more I pull into my “cocoon”. The more I pull away from society, the more its groups disintegrate. (Continued in next post)