How Should We Respond to Facebook “Friends”?

Image credit: DigitalTrends

Image credit: DigitalTrends

Something weird happened recently. Well, maybe it wasn’t weird. Maybe it was serendipitous. I’m talking about my Facebook feed. Social media­–­that nebulous electronic siren that pulls our attention toward all manner of idiocy and information like perpetual exploding impulses of light flashing in front of our eyes­–so central to contemporary life that its effects deserve some critical thinking. At least, that’s what I’ve attempted to do following a recent encounter with digital serendipity. Think.

What happened?

Nothing that probably hasn’t happened to you before. But for me, this tiny (or huge, depending on how you look at it) event spurred me toward analysis of my own behavior.

It was during my morning routine. After brewing coffee and packing lunches, I sat down in my corner chair, flicked on a lamp, covered my feet with a blanket, got up to find my reading glasses, sat back down again, sipped my coffee and began to read the daily news on my phone. This is the time of day I scroll through social media much like I used to read the morning newspaper. I read news stories, blog posts and watch the occasional cat video. I also skim what’s happening with “friends”. But here’s the thing about Facebook friends. Facebook curates our news feeds. So we see posts from the same sources most of the time. You could have hundreds or even thousands of “friends” but only see posts from a small fraction of them on a regular basis.

Of course, I could always do a search on each friend’s name to discover what they had for dinner last night. But I don’t. You don’t. We simply scroll.

So I was scrolling. And for some reason, up pops a post from a woman I only know peripherally (like most Facebook friends). Her post announces that her young son has recently finished eight months of treatment for leukemia. The post went on to thank all those who’d been praying for their family, bringing meals and helping to schlep their older kids to activities. Her youngster will now embark on years of long-term maintenance that will include a regimen of medicines and therapies that don’t sound like a joyous childhood adventure.

First, I’m stunned. This woman’s child has been gravely ill for months and I had no idea. People are commenting on her recent post praising God for her son’s improved health. They knew. They’ve been praying, possibly bringing those meals she talked about or in some way helping this family.

I had the nerve to click a button and become “friends” with someone on Facebook only to discover that I know nothing of her daily life. I am not a friend. I am a voyeur. And now I know something. Something big. Do I have an obligation to respond?

I could have kept scrolling. Convince myself that it would be weird to comment on something that’s been going on for months and that I’m only now learning about.

But I couldn’t do that. A friend wouldn’t do that.

So I commented on her post. Admitted to not knowing and to feeling privileged that now, as a result of the digital gods and algorithms, I’m able to be a part of those praying for her son. I should probably make more of an effort to support this family beyond typing a few nice words and tossing up a momentary prayer. But will I? Would you?

This leads me to more thoughts about social media connections. A friend once commented that it seems so many more people are experiencing tragedies or health challenges. But then another friend responded that it likely only seems that way because of social media.

Think about it.

Our circles of “friends” are exponentially larger than the social circles our parents travelled in. People were once connected only to those in their neighborhood, church, kids’ sports team or social club. If you moved away, that was typically the end of your connections to certain groups of people except for maybe an annual Christmas card. You’d often never know what was going on behind the scenes with people you’d only met a couple of times at your kids’ preschool fundraiser.

But these days, we’re “friends” with all kinds of people all across the country. People we barely even know. And we get to know things about these people that we’d never have known without social media. Thus, we get the feeling that more people are dealing with tough life issues. Not necessarily because that’s true. But because we “know” more people!

This could be depressing to think that our electronically expanded social circles simply bring us a barrage of bad news. But flip it on its head and consider the blessings of Go Fund Me pages and Caring Bridge sites. Without our ability to connect to larger audiences, we’d have smaller pools of folks contributing to good causes and fewer people praying for miracles and less donated meals to families with a sick kid.

Yes. Our social circles are larger thanks to social media. We have more “friends” than ever before. But what is our responsibility to respond when social media alerts us to the hardships of these friends? I’m not sure I’ve figured that out. But I know for certain I’m not supposed to just scroll.

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