Friday, January 8, 2010

Opening a window on a world of pain

Whenever I read or hear some wonk pontificate on how the Internet, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Flickr, or fill-in-the-social networking-blank du jour is bad, good or indifferent you can pretty much bet that I got a big old eye-roll going on.

I can’t help myself. When some naysayer talks about how Twitter is a useless tool and some cheerleader talks about how the world will certainly never again need another means of communication beyond the tweet, I wonder: "Why rush to predict the future? Time will tell."

I probably shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve written often about real friendships I’ve made with virtual strangers after I opened up a window to my life in Flickr. I’ve learned to temper knee-jerk opinions of new applications, and wait to see if they fly, like Twitter seems to have done or flop like a previously praised private social network that shall go unnamed.

But it’s been difficult.

The internet has wedged me into this place. I want to sing its praises while protecting myself from its potential for harm: which as far as I can tell is a virtual sense of belonging in a place of actual isolation.

A woman stopped me on the street a few years ago as I was taking a quiet stroll with my newborn son to ask me what I thought of the neighborhood. She was thinking of moving. I was chatty and told her everything that filled my head. She asked if there were good mothers’ support groups locally. There were, I said, but I couldn’t tell her if they were any good because their schedules (smack dab in the middle of the day through the school year) didn’t jibe with mine (working days, full time and on maternity leave in the summer).

I found all the support I needed online, I told her.

She winced. She was a psychologist whose interest and study had been exclusively on mothers. She didn’t believe virtual hugs could take the place of real people.

I suppose I just shrugged. Some other psychologist somewhere, I imagine, would disagree with her and prove just the opposite with their own empirical data, or just more hyperbole crafted to resemble research.

‘Round and ‘round we go.

Of course, all that was before my beloved moms’ group collapsed under the weight of its growing membership; before it imploded in a storm of bad feelings and even worse communication.

A year later, I visit Twitter several times a day. I look at the lines of text and click on links. There’s always something to laugh at, something to admire, something to make a person think. There’s also something to make a person cry: There’s a diagnosis, a death, a struggle, a loss. There are prayers sought and given quickly.

I don’t know what to make of it now. I suppose it adds to the pain of existence; adds to the anxiety of getting through the day. I suppose it also proves we, as a society, still have the capacity for compassion for people we don’t really know. Sometimes.

Other times it underscores mob mentality; it seems to circumvent basic compassion. Yet, if you think about it, that happens everywhere. Friends in real life divorce and circles of support change. People move on, die, have difficulties. Real life isn’t any easier. Maybe that's the point some would make. Easy isn't necessisarily good for us.

I don’t know what any of it means. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I just know that here, there and everywhere it is difficult to be indifferent.


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