I never had much of a social life growing up. I usually had maybe one friend that I would spend time with regularly, but I always felt left out of social circles. I always felt outside, not in. When I got to high school, I felt a little more “in” with a couple of groups, but I was still dancing on the edge, as I always do. I wasn’t one of the kids going to regular hangouts, study groups, parties, or things like that. I wasn’t good at the little social skills, and it seemed like the only interactions at which I was any good were physical. I had friends, but I was never anybody else’s closest friend.
I’ve spent time in the online world since I was 15 years old. Back then, it was IRC though the college servers. I remember being so amazed at how we could chat in real time with people who might be across the country or even across the world. I remember how my typing speed increased so that I could keep up with the conversations as there would be twenty or thirty people talking at once, and seconds lost could mean losing your thread as it scrolled off the screen. I remember talking to people who were watching as the Rodney King riots unfolded. I remember “netquakes.” I made friends on IRC, but it was all online, no face time. I could talk to them, but they weren’t in my real life. The one time I met somebody that I had been talking to online for years, it was strange and awkward, and we never spoke again after that.
After I left school and got married, IRC started getting surpassed by online bulletin boards and email lists. By the time I got pregnant with the triplets, I was spending as much time on places like BabyCenter as I had been before on IRC. I learned things from other people, I engaged in debates, I found out about whole worlds of culture and practice that I never would have found on my own. As I think back on that time, I don’t remember having many friends or doing things with other people. Sometimes I would join interest groups, sewing circles or MENSA things, but those never lasted. Sometimes I would go out to the CI or 6th Street. Sometimes I had flings with people I started out talking to online, but they never lasted. Sometimes we hooked up with other couples or groups, but that never lasted, either. Every once in a great while I would get together with Laura, the only person I kept in touch with who had known me since grade school, but although she was probably my best friend, I know that I wasn’t hers. Evenings were watching movies, sewing, reading, playing games or chatting online, all done alone or with Brian.
After the triplets were born and I moved into motherhood, the same pattern continued. I mostly stayed in my own world. Friends never wanted to hang around for very long when the triplets were babies. No church family, no close friends, no playgroups, just me and the kids and Brian. I wasn’t housebound or anything. I was determined not to be, so we went shopping, we went to the mall, we went to the park and stuff. But it was just us. The closest I got to a social life was while I was working at the CI, and I felt like I was part of a private club. We’d stay late after work and hang out, or go to somebody’s house and hang out in the hot tub. I got invited to a sleepover, I even had a friend take me out for my birthday, which was a first. That only lasted for as long as I was working there, though. When I lost that job, I lost a bit of my membership status, too. It wasn’t the same.
I have one friend that I picked up when we moved to Michigan, that I still keep in touch with. The fact that we stayed friends and close for as long as we did is probably more her doing than mine. She would call, she would suggest getting together, she would remember birthday gifts and invite us to Christmas parties. Apart from her, my social life was still mostly bulletin boards and email lists. I tried going to various things in person, like the cross-stitch circle that I attended for years. I found out how little a part of that group I was when the store closed and they started meeting at different houses, and of course nobody came to mine. Just like playgroups.
Looking back, all of that changes with the advent of Facebook and other social media. Suddenly I had a way to keep in touch with real people, people I was related to or who were geographically nearby, using the communication method that had always worked best for me: the computer. I found out about local homeschooling groups that I could join, that didn’t mind me being there. I found people I could talk to, and I had a way to keep up with their lives even when we weren’t talking in person. I found a religious group that was real and open and that I could practice with. Not all of this happened on Facebook. In fact, a lot of it was elsewhere, email lists and such, just as before. But something happened, something changed with the coming of Facebook. Something changed in our culture maybe, mainstreaming the idea of an online social life, normalizing electronic communication.
In the past few years, I’ve had so many firsts. I’ve been able to help people in need. I’ve gone on a “girls’ night out.” I’ve had people show up for a freaking birthday party! I’ve gotten back in touch with family I hadn’t seen or spoken with in years. I have a network of friends now that I can turn to, groups of people who help each other out, trade kids, share teaching, celebrate joys and sorrows.
I have never had this before. And it is something amazing and awesome and wonderful and comforting.
Whatever amount of time I spend on Facebook, it is no greater than I ever spent on bulletin boards, in chat rooms, reading books and magazines, all the other ways I’ve “wasted” time my entire life. The difference now is that the time I spend online actually translates into real world benefits, things that everybody should have but that I couldn’t manage to hold on to before. This is no detriment. A Facebook “addiction” is not a problem. It’s more like a stepping-stool, one that I am very grateful is there, and one that I will never, ever complain about being available to my children and their friends.