Facebook Can’t Make You Happy, but If You’re Already Happy, Perhaps It Can Help in Other Ways
I spend a lot of my free time with children — mine and other people’s. Children exhibit a seemingly boundless ability to love blindly and energy that is so singular to childhood and so beautiful. I love watching their minds evolve and seeing them learn how to make choices as they do. But, talking to kids nonstop isn’t always the most invigorating way for an adult to spend their time.
There are times, after an evening of fart jokes and endless requests for my attention and energy, when I long for the stimulation of adult conversation and engagement. In direct contradiction to this feeling is another equally valid recognition that I’m also at a phase in my life where my kid/s are small and I am genuinely tired and don’t want to put on pants or leave the house even after they are sleeping, even if I have childcare.
I know social media gets a bad rap largely because studies show that it creates an impulse in users, which I think has perhaps always existed in Western society, to keep up with the Joneses and to compare their normal to everyone else’s highlight reels. It would be untrue to suggest that I’ve never felt jealous of anyone’s fabulous vacation, wedding venue, or new baby, but for me, facebook provides something that outweighs those risks and has been invaluable to me in other ways.
For me, as someone who is mostly and gratefully satisfied with my own life, it provides less of a mirror in to other people’s live than a place that houses a somewhat free marketplace of ideas, advice, and inspiration. In this way, facebook provides a direct and often real time connection to other adults, both like minded and not, with whom I can engage in writing without combing my hair. Much like the AOL instant messenger of my youth, it has been a constant cure for loneliness for me during these early years of motherhood, when I haven’t had enough energy to engage in in person ways, but still want to know what other adults think about from big social issues down to the minutiae of parenthood.
Because I am fortunate to consider myself happy, most days, it feels like a win, win situation…except, of course, when it isn’t.
There is also of course another well documented downside to social media. I’ve been attacked online. I’ve been called names. I’ve been mansplained to. I’ve had a stalker message me with the express intent of pilfering photos and other information from my private facebook page, which he then shared in a public forum with the intent to defame me. I learned about that little loophole regarding the increased access to your profile that even messaging with strangers on the platform grants the hard way. I have learned to block and delete people, although this is something I do sparingly.
Despite its pitfalls, for the most part, the expanded access to ideas feels worth it to me. I like knowing and trying to understand what other people think because it helps me understand why society operates the way it does and how we can work together to change it where it is lacking. In my insatiable quest to consider things, I could never have access to as many ideas by reading as many books, having as many real time conversations or attending as many in person forums, as I have access to on social media, facebook in particular. I could never watch as many full length Ted Talks on such a wide variety of topics as I get to engage on with other people online.
I’m a member in several facebook groups where people share and hold ideas very different to my own. Being able to see how people truthfully think and communicate “behind the scenes,” has been illuminating for me. As long as the community is respectful, I push myself to stay engaged in groups like that, where people think differently than I do partially because of what I call the Hillary Effect.
When Hillary Clinton was running for President in 2016, I could never have imagined that she wouldn’t have been our 45th President, because it seemed like everyone I engaged with online agreed with me that she was the most qualified candidate and that the alternative was a racist, sexist megalomaniac. He couldn’t possibly be elected. It was that cut and dry for me. Even Republicans I knew weren’t impressed with him or interested in supporting him in any way. And yet, he won, with a large boost from educated women no less. For this reason, for me personally, November 8, 2016 is a day that will live in infamy. I realize now that this perception was due to the fact that my immediate network — which is pretty diverse, mostly college educated, and living on the coasts — by and large votes the way I do.
I learned something about my network and the bubble in which I live from that and it terrified me. Did the rest of America think that differently from the way that I did? Yes, I know that Secretary Clinton did in fact win the popular vote, but that still doesn’t change the outcome of the election. Active facebook engagement gives me the opportunity to look behind the veil and to see how the other half thinks and operates without painting them all with a single brush stroke. And it’s not just on politics.
I’m in groups where I have seen people post toxic things and make toxic comments. When I have the time and energy, I challenge them, but as I’ve gotten older, I feel less of an impulse to do so. Instead, I read sometimes vitriolic statements as a temperature read and reminder to keep voting and engaging with people who want to see positive change.
I’m in groups where members have asserted that beating their children is productive and mandatory, that Blue Lives Matter as a way to challenge and silence anti-racist agendas, where racist and sexist comments are made, and where people, as they often do, fail to understand one another after even hours of back and forth debate. Sometimes these things happen on my own private page where I try to act as a mediator when possible and if I think it will be helpful.
One of my favorite groups is one that I am in with 12,000 other lawyer moms, in which I think we have only unanimously agreed on a single topic ever. Apart from getting answers to softball questions, like “does this rash look funny to you?”, it also provides a perpetual source of thought provoking, mostly respectful, discourse on a wide range of topics that run the gamut from Black Lives Matter to infidelity. It can get very real, which I’m sure can be uncomfortable, but I find it extremely refreshing.
Apart from addressing my own desire to engage with others, I stay in these groups and on facebook because I want to be a witness. Also, having made that mistake in 2016, I don’t want to forget that not everyone thinks like I do ever again. The virtual marketplace of ideas is a reminder of something very important to me — that there is plenty of work left to be done in terms of healing and challenging injustice and that for many of us, doing that, even unwittingly, starts with examining our own unfiltered and unchallenged ideas. Having to write them out and express them in ways intended to be persuasive or informative, strengthens my own convictions or, when effectively challenged, forces my thinking to evolve. I’m grateful for a place to do that that honors my sometimes hectic schedule and desire to remain in my yoga pants in my happy place at all costs.