What Facebook Is Good (And Not Good) For

Published in Online Spin, June 8th, 2018

We gathered to raise a glass, just a half dozen of us. We knew him from high school, which had come to a capped and gowned end more than 25 years earlier. Some of us had been closer with him than others, but we all had a similar sense of him: big smile. Huge heart. Funny. Friendly. Made you feel good.

Heartbreaking that he was gone.

One of our number had spent a few years in the same part of the country with him, and shared his stories. Every three or four weeks, they had gone hiking along the Marin headlands, six hours over hill and dale, along waterfront and down parkland. They would argue about politics: the guy I’m having a drink with, a liberal; our departed friend, a libertarian.

“We would stop at the top of a hill and just yell at each other for 20 minutes. And then we would sort of come to our senses. What the heck had we been doing? We would shake our heads, agree to shift the topic to more important things -- like girls -- and continue on our way.”

I reveled in these stories, being one of the people who had not been as close with the man we were celebrating. The stories gave me a glimpse of him, a confirmation that my sense of him -- big smile, huge heart -- wasn't just superficial but fairly accurate. I was grateful for the opportunity to feel a connection we hadn’t realized while he was alive.

Our small group of commemorators had come together via Facebook, where I first heard about his passing. That’s where I saw the message: “I won’t be in town for the memorial on Saturday -- anyone feel like catching up for a drink on Thursday?” I myself was on a fleeting visit, and jumped at the opportunity: “Sounds great -- who else wants to join?” And boom, there we were, toasting what had been and what could have been, thankful for our good fortune and present to our collective grief.

The experience was a clear demonstration of Facebook’s virtues. I might not ever have found out that our friend had passed away were it not for our alumni Facebook group. And I wouldn’t have known that that one guy, whom I hadn’t seen for years, was only in town for a few days. The get-together might never have happened.

But it also demonstrated there are reaches of our humanity where social media hasn’t arrived yet. No price can be set on the value of hearing stories about our loved ones from people who also loved them. No thumbs-up or sad face can replace a fierce hug. No photo of a candle, no matter how perfectly sentimental, can replace an actual tear, making its wending way down an actual cheek.

My friend’s stories held their own vital message, and I heard it loud and clear.

So here is my recommendation for today. If you are going to argue with someone about politics, don’t do it on the Internet.

Take someone you disagree with for a walk. Five hours is a good length. Waste the first hour or two getting the small talk out of the way. After a while, switch to politics; work yourself up into a lather. When you reach the summit, get it all out. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour, whatever it takes.

Then stop. Come to your senses. Shake your heads. And switch to more important topics.

Our lives are just so unutterably, incomprehensibly short. Try to make yours count.

Kaila Colbin