The pros and cons of Facebook

Posted May 10, 2009, at 9:19 p.m.

Facebook is like a perpetual wedding reception. Remember your wedding reception, when after the adrenaline rush of the ceremony had passed and you realized, quite abruptly, that you were standing in a room with a lot of people from various parts of your past who know too much? When you saw your college roommate talking to your cousin, it kind of made you freak out a little. “What if she tells him about my college days?” you thought. “And what if he tells her that I was the master of ‘Super Mario Brothers’ when I was 8 years old? What if he tells her that I still play Super Mario Brothers’?”

It was like all of your worlds were colliding, and in front of people (grandparents, old neighbors, your second-grade teacher) who should never really know anything about your life after you turned 18. You wondered whether the room might explode. Then, when you discovered your brother and your sorority sister slow dancing, you figured that it probably had.

This kind of awkwardness is alive and well on Facebook all day, every day. Signing on to the social networking site (Note: People don’t like people who actually network on Facebook) is like willingly subjecting yourself to the atmosphere of your wedding reception again. And if I remember correctly, you got drunk at your reception to dull the pain. (Drinking + Facebooking, like Drinking + Dialing = not a good idea.) Facebook caters to people who intentionally call answering machines.

There was a time when it was not unusual for me to stay on the phone with my friend Kristi for two to three hours. That was before the popularity of e-mail and Web sites like Facebook. Back then, I actually knew how to communicate with another human being. The phone was a tool for catching up with friends. I was not afraid to leap over small children for the opportunity to answer a ringing telephone. These days, however, the phone is like a hot potato tossed back and forth between me and Dustin:

“You answer it.”

“No, you answer it.”

“But what will I say?”

“I don’t know; how about ‘Hello’?”

“I’ll let the answering machine catch it.”

It’s not that I don’t like talking to friends anymore; I just don’t know how to do it without prompts like, “Sarah is ________.” Sometimes even, I call friends when I know they aren’t home, just so that I can talk to their answering machine instead. (Of course, if you are one of my friends, be certain that I have never done this to you in particular.)

Back when talking on the phone was all the rage, people without call waiting were akin to someone isolating themselves from every possibility of communication, perhaps even on purpose. Today they are the same people who refuse to try Facebook on principle, or the ones who leave their account with that cold, witness-protectionlike universal silhouette in place of their photograph. They are most likely the only ones left who know how to talk on the phone.

Facebook keeps military friends in touch. The Christmas card lists and address books of military families are long and full. As we travel the globe, we make friends from different backgrounds, and because we usually live near these friends for only two to three years at a time, they remember us within the context of a specific time in our life. (Imagine how the room might explode if all these folks got together.)

Before Facebook, it was difficult to maintain these friendships through the years as we changed and grew apart from one another, often on opposite sides of the country or world. It wasn’t possible to keep intimate friendships with everyone we had met. There weren’t enough long-distance minutes or postage stamps. Therefore, a serious downside to the military lifestyle was the accumulation of good friends from whom we had grown apart.

Thanks to Facebook, this is no longer the case. My military friend Beth, who was transferred to Japan, is on Facebook, and despite the physical distance between us (I’m here enjoying my Monday while she is across the globe waking up to Tuesday), we have remained a part of each other’s daily lives. Beth’s Facebook status updates tell me that she is volunteering at her children’s school or taking them to baseball practice. I see pictures of her daughter’s birthday party and their living quarters on base. No telephone call or postage stamp required.

It’s true that in some ways social networking sites are making it more difficult to interact with people in reality, but without Facebook, I might have lost touch with Beth altogether. For that, I am grateful. (Which isn’t to say that I’m at all opposed to calling Beth’s answering machine in the near future.)

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Sarah Smiley’s new book “I’m Just Saying … “is available wherever books are sold. You may reach her at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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