Like me, like my social network
February 12, 2014
Maybe it’s a sign that I am spending too much time on Facebook, but I woke up last week and figured out how to drive traffic to our newspaper’s website, njjewishnews.com. See if you can resist stories with headlines like these:
JCC leads latest effort to serve survivors — and you won’t believe what happens next!!
Synagogue hosts interfaith tribute to King — just see if it doesn’t make you cry!!!
Federation recruits teens for Sandy relief — and their reaction will amaze you!!!!
Adath Israel celebrates its 90th anniversary — and you’ll be amazed at how much you won’t believe what happens next!!
The 10th anniversary of Facebook was an occasion for pondering the impact of the social network to beat all social networks (for now). Is it making us more connected or do we feel more alienated? Does social media make revolutions or divert real activism into virtual desuetude? Have we traded our privacy for convenience? Is that cat hysterical, or what?
Back in 2008, when I came late to the Facebook party, I praised it for allowing me to connect with long-lost friends and far-flung relatives. I also complained that it echoed the parochial real world in which I tend to travel: Jewish job, Jewish neighbors, and now hundreds of Jewish “Friends.” Don’t get me wrong — all of my best friends are Jewish. I was just hoping for a little variety.
Six years later I am still active on Facebook, and those Jewish Friends tend to be an asset. I check Facebook a few times a day to see what my fellow Jewish professionals and activist types are reading, posting, and arguing about. Over time, I’ve weeded my feed so that most of what I see are people sharing articles on, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the latest rabbinical brouhaha, all useful in my line of work. Twitter, of which I am also a late adopter, is handy in the same way, although trying to keep up with the relentless stream of tweets usually makes me feel like Lucy at the chocolate factory.
And in general, because we’re dealing in a world of “Friends” and friends of “Friends,” the comments that follow these posts tend to be a little more reasonable, or maybe just less unhinged, than what you find among the comments that follow anything posted to a news site or blog. I don’t spend much time reading comments outside of Facebook — it’s less a conversation than a grievance factory, where anonymous people shout over, across, and at each other. I’m never sure how seriously to take dire reports about how “the Internet” is reacting to, say, the Coca Cola ad with the multilingual rendition of “God Bless America,” or the idiots who attacked Cheerios for featuring a biracial couple in its ads. Anonymity breeds incivility, and you are likely to say things incognito that you wouldn’t dare express in mixed company. Such comments are great fodder for Stewart and Colbert, but do they really reflect our society’s subconscious?
By contrast, Facebook usually allows me to post a response to something a Friend has shared and not be called names. The other day I disagreed with a professor I know only glancingly, and he responded, “Andrew, your point is well taken.” Imagine! Usually, I’m the only one who says that.
Occasionally, Facebook can mirror the non-virtual Jewish community at its best when it comes to celebration or mourning. The long struggle of “Superman Sam” Asher Sommer, a Chicago boy who would eventually die from leukemia, turned Facebook into a vigil and inspired many to raise money to fight the disease. Friends of the Middle East expert Barry Rubin learned from him about his struggle with brain cancer and were able to tell him what he meant to them before he succumbed earlier this month. And Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby thanked all those who mobilized around the search for his missing teenage son.
Nevertheless, Facebook can also be an awful time suck, even when I limit my “Words with Friends” games to occasional bouts with my two sons. Here’s a little secret to gaining a few more hours in your day: Do not “Friend” a magazine called Mental Floss. The listicles they post are like crack for English majors: “11 Naughty-Sounding Scientific Names (and What They Really Mean),” or “15 Words That Don’t Mean What They Used To.” (One of those words, by the way, is “awful,” which used to mean “commanding awe,” not “dreadful.”)
Ultra-Orthodox leaders are said to be up in arms over a smartphone messaging service called WhatsApp, and worry that their followers are using it to bypass community restrictions on digital media. A Satmar rabbi reportedly told followers that the app destroys one’s “Jewish spirit.”
Facebook doesn’t destroy my Jewish spirit, and at times even gives it a little boost. It’s a tool, and, like any tool, it is only as useful as the person wielding it. And you’ll excuse me, but apparently two monkeys were paid unequally — and I am anxious to see what happens next!
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.