Friday, October 24, 2014

A digital cautionary tale

While looking at the iPhone in the Apple store one day several years ago, I was wondering about how one might post to their FB status from this curious new smart device. So I logged in to browse and did what seemed like the most intuitive way to close out; I hit the home button. Unknowingly, idiotically, I had left my Facebook account logged in on a public device.

I remember how wonderful my day at the beach was afterwards, and how much I enjoyed the long blissful summer day with my mom and kids, completely oblivious. As I look back on this, of course, the sheer stupidity makes me cringe, but I had no idea what I had done until I returned home and heard the messages on my answering machine. An old friend from junior high had seen a rather unusual post, assumed I'd been hacked and tracked me down right away. When I logged on, the physical sensation of shame was immediate and all-encompassing as I read "my" status. We at Blicky Kitty like to keep it PG as I do on FB, so won't repeat it. I can say with full confidence that my digital interloper was an adolescent boy, however. It must have seemed too good to be true, and maybe he'd gleefully called a few friends over. "Hey check this out! Some stupid lady left her FB account open on here." During that entire summer day any of my Facebook friends–friends from church, second cousins, professional aquaintances, ministers, old friends, blogging buddies, colleagues of my husband, in-laws and school friends who might have logged in would have read that I am big *&^#*% who likes to take big *%@&$#*'s in my @#$%&. Not only did it provide a brilliant retort to all the Apple Store utopia, which still reliably mesmerizes me, but the pure, unadulterated shame of the experience was so tremendous, almost lovely in it's perfection. It's not like I would ever judge someone  if they chose to be a big *&^#*%, or that I would find anything about *%@&$#*'s inherently shameful, it's just that few would expect a person to discuss them so publicly and with such poorly-inarticulated nuance.

I deleted the post and sent out an apology (pointing out that if I were to disclose something like that to everyone I know, I like to think that I would at least choose to phrase it more artfully) and left it at that. But the range of reactions was truly fascinating. My first impulse was to go running to the Mister, who barely even looked up. Having no connection to social media, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Oh well, don't let it ruin your day." The following morning was church. I sought out one of the ministers who always seems to know the perfect words to comfort: "Oh I know, I saw that and it was so obvious that wasn't you. I felt so sorry for you right away!" My younger, hip cousins were thoroughly entertained. One had gleefully captured a screen shot of it so we could all have a good laugh at the next family gathering–and we did. There was one person who posted a shocked, "Laurel!" under the status, thinking that I had indeed been its author. I deleted the status too quickly to have remembered who it was, but I often amuse myself by wondering. For the most part, my younger acquaintances were more amused than horrified and saw it as a frightening, yet screamingly funny fact of contemporary life. My friends who were closest to my age showed a mixture of empathy and dread. In the end, I guess I just concluded that being open to shame is a trade-off I am willing to make for being open to others in a medium that we still struggle collectively to define.

There is certainly no shortage of articles weighing in on the relative benefits and drawbacks of social media; Facebook in particular. Stephen Marche posited in his article for the Atlantic that, for all of our interconnectedness, and new types of interactions, we are becoming lonelier. Others feel that FB is an artificial window into the lives of others and that comparing ourselves to others makes us feel as though we're missing out. There is no question that as a medium, Facebook is fraught with pitfalls and the ever-looming specter of public shame. I have learned this lesson, not just once, but several times over during the process of learning the medium.

Facebook is a medium, and like any other, if you put dumb and negative things into it, that's exactly what you get in return. There is nothing about Facebook, chat apps, email or skype however, that define our connections to other people in any real sense. If we approach the medium in ignorance we risk not only shame, but feeling hurt, left out, inadequate, or lonely. As my eldest daughter has started to define her own relationship to digital media I have tried to step up my own literacy and my own wisdom on the subject. Here is my stab at a few ground rules that I hope are healthful and helpful for even those who have been less catastrophically careless as I have.

Be as courteous as you are offline
Some days I feel like if I see one more 12-year-old girl on my kid's Instagram feed sticking her lips and tongue out, my head will explode. Would you sit before yout teachers and do that, or would stick out your bum and bend over while you are visiting your grandmother? One truly hopes not, because it might seem a little odd at best. Kids, I say this with love and and respect: please refrain from saying anything online that they would not willingly announce to everyone you know. Something you write during a fleeting moment of poor judgement is potentially permanent if you say it online, so unless you would stand up during assembly, or in a hallway and shout it in a loud voice, you should not be typing it online.

Be as kind as you are offline
I often wonder if people who leave cruel screeds in online comments say things like this to members of their family, or friends. Maybe so. Interacting through a screen removes us from the ability to perceive subtle expressions on the human face. Adolescents need time away from screens to learn how to treat each other with kindness before they start spending large amounts of time online. I know, this is counter-cultural and I am a mean, mean parent for limiting time online.

Be as wise as you are offline
I...umm...can offer no guidance in this area.

Use social media to find wisdom and beauty in others
I know it sounds nerdy, but I think the reason I keep coming back to FB despite moments of abject shame and public mocking is that I am inspired and awed by the amazing things that people do and the insights they post online. People disappoint us, yes, but people are also amazing and they often astound us with their talent, their brilliance and their goodness. Amanda Palmer's TED talk nails this aspect of modern social media interaction. When we give ourselves over to the kindness of others there is a way that people rise to our high expectations. 

Use social media to enrich the connections you already have
It's no substitute, but if you have five minutes a year to talk to your third cousin who might even live on another continent. It's really cool to know they they also love the tUnE-yArDs, or that they are planning a trip to an Italian city where you once lived, or even if they have had an illness in the family. Perhaps the interaction you end up sharing will be more direct and more authentic as a result.

Cultivate the art of being away from a screen

I am not convinced I love the term "unplugging" because it implies a physical dependence on social media that is somehow at the core of our nature. Being social is in our nature. But nature is also in our nature, and we will all unwind far more if we take a walk outdoors, get a little bored, let our minds process our day by conjuring up the random little thoughts that float through our fatigued grey matter like clouds. My own mind needs to experience things like the pungent odor of decomposing fall leaves interspersed with the cloying scent of ripening wild grapes, the sight of migrating birds, stopping for a rest and the sound of something other than chimes and alerts to feel truly centered and real.

That's all I have to offer today, gentle readers. I'm off to go *%@&$#*.

I'll leave you with this offering of mandatory fun: