Thursday, December 23, 2010


I have, of late, had a recurring vision. It is of an old man in a remote cottage, at his desk with a ham radio, sending messages into the night to his fellow radio operators. Except, I think, it is not a ham radio, but a computer, and he’s writing on Facebook.

The meaning of this vision for me is that, in spite of the important controversies plaguing Facebook,* it really is a superb (and still-developing) means by which people can communicate with one another. This may strike the reader as an understatement, but the epiphanic part of my vision is that, beyond posted photos of youthful drunkenness and minute-by-minute reports of children’s cuteness and what one had for lunch, Facebook – and whatever it evolves into – will certainly become a meaningful connection with the world - and, more to the point, with friends old and new - for the elderly and isolated.

Although people in both generations have wondered if “the parents” should get involved with Facebook (thus somehow invading the turf of the young and diminishing the cool factor), it is fast becoming as commonplace as the telephone. The use of the telephone, too, is part of my new Facebook revelation. Until recently, I supposed that the phone would be preferable to all other distant-communication technologies because, after all, you can speak directly to another human being. I’ve come to believe, however, that Facebook (and e-mail, too) offer more depth of communication – on an ongoing basis – than the telephone. Of course there are exceptions – a forty-five minute phone conversation between two people in love is undoubtedly more intimate than a series of e-mails, and it will always be good to hear the voice of an old friend. But a phone call, even with a good friend, will always come to that “er... uh... well, den….” moment (not to mention the delay and over-talking that happens with long-distance and cell calls – what’s that all about?); a similar juncture in an e-mail or Facebook message is an opportunity for more thought, or to go on to the next point. In that regard, an e-mail or Facebook message is more like an old-fashioned letter (and I mean old-fashioned – from the days when the letter was it), than it is like a telephone call. (Although it does seem odd to crow about a progression that goes from the spoken back to the written word.**)

I want to emphasize that I am speaking of e-mail or Facebook messages that go beyond the trivial; what I have in mind are little essays of communication, again, like letters. (When I get an e-mail from a friend, I’m disappointed if it’s brief. Am I running against the tide?) This is not to say that there is not an appropriate place for the quickly-dashed Facebook report, even from the old guy in the little cottage. (I just posted, “Hey, we get to fill our krumkake tubes with whipped cream on Christmas Eve!”) I guess my point is that the combination of off-hand quips and weightier conversation that the Facebook/e-mail medium makes possible offers a sense of connectedness that, while no match for sitting across a pub table with someone, has something of the immediate feel of real communication. It has the sense of keeping you connected.

OK, I’ll say it, maybe I’m thinking of either Caryl or myself alone -- widowed. It seems that Facebook and e-mail would go a long way toward enhancing the quality of life of the elderly – especially the isolated elderly. So I'm not talking about an amazed, “Hey, Granny’s on Facebook!” but, rather, “Geez, Granny’s on Facebook all the time – she uses it more than I do!"

Studies show that the home-bound elderly receive, on average, one visit per month – from anybody. Facebook and e-mail can reach into that void with real depth of communication, and, all right, maybe even a report every-once-in-a-while – between old friends – of what one had for lunch, or a posted picture of a cute grandkid.


*Issues of privacy and “tricky” advertising are very important and need to be addressed with more urgency than they have been so far; thus, my endorsement of Facebook is not without hesitation.
**Tim Wu, in his new book, “The Master Switch,” reports that when the telephone was invented, the telegraph magnates laughed and said, “Well, maybe it can be used to tell someone that they have a telegram waiting.” Later, they tried to kill the new technology.
What happens when all those aging computer users start to forget all those passwords and user names, stranding all that information on their hard-drives or in the ether? Another issue for another time.
 I also opined on Facebook in this earlier blog post.


Caryl said...

Here I thought you were working on your Christmas sermon, when all along you were blogging about modern day communication. I must say I enjoyed the ol' blog. Thanks for sharing the good thoughts.

Brandi said...

First of all, I want to say that I would love to be your friend on Facebook! I love hearing about Norwegian delectable pastries like krumkake (and lefse, too of course!).

But, I also want to add that as a young mom, with 4 kids going each and every direction, it's so much easier to stay in touch with my grandparents through Facebook and email! By the time I get around to thinking about calling my grandmas, it's 10:30 (or later some nights). So, onto the computer I go to leave a message or send some pics so they can see them from miles away!

I do have to say that at first I was surprised my grandmas were befriending me on Facebook:) What a funny elderly person using the computer. Although I'm sure it's as much of a surprise to them as it is to us! But I have embraced it and actually love to see that my Grandma K "likes" my photo or status update! It's a great way to keep up with our steady changes in my life!