"You spend too much time on Facebook," Ray said the other night from his side of the bed.
"No more than you do on Huffington Post," I replied. "And, I end up reading the same things you do because of the links people provide."
Like almost every person I know, regardless of age, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, or spiritual beliefs, my life has been dramatically impacted by the Internet. For me, it started with email and Web pages, then YouTube, and now Facebook. I occasionally write something on Twitter, but only because people have signed up to follow me, and I feel guilty about not participating. But on Twitter, I don't read other people's entries. It's mostly self-promotion, which gets old quickly. I haven't yet gotten hooked by Instagram.
Ray and I do all of our shopping, banking, reading, corresponding, and research on the Internet. I haven't opened a cookbook in years. If I want to know how to cook Beef Wellington, I Google it. We get weather reports, movie reviews, show times at our local theaters, the latest headlines, photos from family, and responses to texts, usually all while we're watching television. Our GPS gadgets are obsolete, as are Christmas and birthday cards, desktop calendars, stationery, stamps, book shelves, malls, catalogs, checks, cameras, guide books, restaurant review books, telephones, and, most importantly, isolation. As long as I have access to the Internet and to electricity, it doesn't matter whether I'm sitting in our living room in Fort Lauderdale, or in a remote cabin in the Adirondacks, I'm as close to community as I choose to be.
When I begin to feel a little discouraged about the world of today and tomorrow, I scroll through Facebook and feel an instant connection with others who share not just my sentiments, but also my values. Looking at heart-tugging pictures or videos that some people offer makes me feel less anxious about the dire headlines in the New York Times. Reading inspirational quotes posted by others provides me the same spiritual uplift that I get from reading books of daily meditations.
"There's so much junk on Facebook," Ray said.
"Skip it," I replied. "I only read what interests me. And, I click on 'like' to let people know I'm staying in touch with their lives."
Recently, Ray and I celebrated our 38th anniversary, and my entry about it on Facebook prompted over 200 "likes," and over 100 comments. I loved reading the messages, and each name from "likes" prompted a memory of the person, or an experience of surprise and delight that a stranger had bothered to offer best wishes to us.
Many of the people who are on my Friends list are gay and transgender people who live in other countries. I say "yes" to everyone who asks to be friends, except for straight women who are looking for a husband. It makes me happy to know that the loneliness and fear that I experienced as a child as a result of being gay in a gay-negative world aren't necessary for young people in remote places. These young and old gay "friends" participate in Ray's and my love through my posted updates and photos. Older gay and transgender people who feared isolation in their final years now have a way to stay connected with people like me who value their thoughts.
There are names that pop up more frequently than others when I scroll through my Facebook entries. Some people use Facebook as a means of expression more than others do. I often don't know, and certainly don't care, anything about the person's age, appearance, education, or financial status. I know them by their patterns of expression, and of what they find of interest. Some people talk a lot about drinking or eating. Other people can be relied upon to comment on the latest outrageous statement by right wing extremists. Mostly, I learn what people are feeling about their day. As a result, I find that I have developed a relationship with their spirits as opposed to with their human forms.
There are reasons why social programs on the Internet aren't necessarily good for us. Face to face community building is heavily impacted because we needn't look people in the eyes. Young people are perhaps now less skilled in interpersonal communication because they're less practiced with reading facial expressions. Words are misspelled, or shortened to an agreed upon sign language. Handwriting is now block lettering. Thank you notes, letters, and old standards of written courtesy are nearly gone. But such radical change has happened in the past, and will happen again in the future. The invention of television made me much less likely to be outside as a child than my parents were. The stories the TV daily provided me made me less likely to seek distraction in a book. Every generation is impacted by advances in science and technology.
What I like about Facebook, and similar sites is the ability it provides us to create communities of people with whom we feel safe and valued. If you find that you have unknowingly added a friend who vexes your spirit, you can eliminate him or her from your world in the click of a button. If you choose to, you can spend your days connecting with grade school friends, second cousins, former lovers, fellow vacationers from exotic trips, other activists, other atheists, other fans of "Game of Thrones, all in a simple scroll down of entries. You get access to the most popular YouTube offerings because a friend wants to share the joy, sorrow, hope, or amazement they experienced in watching it. The varied interests of your Facebook friends expands your awareness of world events, cultural trends, and family dramas.
The U.S. government so respects the power of Internet social media that it tries to introduce it to the populations of countries where community dialogue is suppressed. The U.S. government knows that if it can enable citizens in Third World countries to communicate electronically, democracy has a much better chance of emerging and succeeding.
The Catholic Church knows the power of social media too. The Pope writes a blog.
The iPad has replaced the television as a necessity of life. Young people who are looking for something to give their parents as a gift should stop looking. No senior ever has to dread going to a nursing home social gathering again, because he or she can now sit in his or her room and Skype with their grandchildren.
As a senior, gay man, I excitedly and gratefully open my Facebook page knowing I will never again feel alone. I don't need to go to a bar or to a fundraiser to interact with gay or transgender people. I don't need to go to a gay resort or to a gay neighborhood to feel the company of others like me. That, for me, is a great step forward for my generation, and those who followed. However, as Ray will remind me, it will admittedly never replace the human touch of his love.
Brian McNaught was named “the godfather of gay diversity training” by The New York Times. He works with corporate executives globally, is the author of six books, and is featured in seven educational DVDs. He and his spouse Ray Struble divide their year between Ft. Lauderdale and Provincetown. Visit Brian-McNaught.com for more information.