Monday, August 10, 2009

The Web of Facebook

Delivered August 9, 2009, at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax

The first time I ever had a look at facebook I thought, frankly, that it was just awful.

People seemed to be posting things like, “I came home from work and took a shower” or “I had Thai food for lunch. It was good.” The very format struck me as the epitome of navel gazing. Or rather, navel gazing and then displaying the lint you’d picked out to the world. I couldn’t imagine why I would care. I certainly didn’t want to get involved. Whenever someone mentioned facebook I had a whole spiel at the ready about how I wasn’t into that kind of thing and I could get my social needs met in real life and blah di blah di blah di blah.

Then, about a year ago, I signed up for my own account. I entered into it in what seems to be the usual way, begrudgingly and out of necessity. Facebook was the only communication channel that the Halifax-based homeschooling group Comedy of Errors used. I was too keen to know what they were doing and when to let the social media website aspect put me off.

Once I had dipped my toes in the ocean, however, old acquaintances slowly began to contact me from the four corners of the globe and pass the word on to other friends that now Elisabeth, too, was on facebook. As they began to contact me I slowly sank into the sand, barely paying attention to what was going on at my feet as I became incontrovertibly entrenched.

They say to preach what you know and explore your passions, and frankly, facebook has been at the nexus of mine for a while now. It was the first thing that leapt to mind when Dean asked me to preach today. Still, I was concerned it might not seem relevant to everyone here (and hopefully I’ve already established my abhorrence for navel gazing).

But when it came time to submit a description to the newsletter, Dean didn’t call me to ask for the sermon topic. And he didn’t send me an email. He sent me a message on Facebook. And within ten minutes of receiving his message, facebook sent me a link from to an article in the UUWorld about congregations using facebook to deepen their connections with congregants and widen community exposure to their churches, and I said, “okay, facebook it is. Perhaps not so navel-y after all.”

One of the first people to track me down once I’d joined was Nancy, a friend of mine from high school. Nancy was the vice-president of our drama club. I was the secretary. We’d been fast friends during the teenage years, before going our separate ways. Nancy had kept in touch with several dozen people from our hometown, and before I knew it I was chatting with all the people we’d eaten pizza with at lunchroom tables all those years ago. Back in high school it was Nancy who had introduced me to the Grateful Dead and, I guess not incidentally, other pleasures.

Unsurprisingly, she still has wonderful things to offer me decades later.
We’re both major foodies now, Michael Pollan-following organic, local, sustainable types. It’s something I often write about on my blog and in my professional writing, while Nancy’s done me one better and started a small, organic farm with her husband’s family in their home community of Northfield, Minnesota. Her day job is at an upscale food market, and we both like to check in on facebook at the end of a long day, to talk about children and books and wonderful food.

In fact, food and facebook have seemed to go hand in hand for me in a marvellous number of ways. Sylvia, one of my favourite professors from college, incited massive jealousy by telling me about the new Brazilian restaurant in Tucson. I sent her the recipe for my chile chocolate wedding cake, and she posted a link for all her friends to see. Some of my most interesting updates come from Henry, a Taiwanese architect, photographer, and inveterate foodie living in Quito, who takes gorgeous pictures of Ecuadorian street food to post on facebook. For those of you who remember my apple sermon, you may be interested in a tip Henry gave me: his mother used to soak apple slices in a bowl of cold brine in the refrigerator on hot days. They’re just delicious.

On Thursday mornings, I go to our famer’s market, where I talk to real life friends, then go home, put away and process freezer stock, and then I get on facebook to say, “hey, everyone, here’s what I got at the farmer’s market this week and here are the delicious, sexy things I’m planning on doing with it; how about you?” and all sorts of people respond, from friends I had just said hello to at the market, to Joy, whose mother’s farm-fresh tomatoes I ate as a child, but who now lives and surfs in Hawaii. Susan, who I sang with in the Carl Sandburg Children’s Choir, posts pictures of her gorgeous preserves. Natalie, who dated my older brother in high school, posts pictures of her purchases from the farmer’s market in my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, so I know what’s in season just now where my parents live and can compare it with my own market and my own garden.

I used facebook to ask Doug, a college friend of mine who now works for our alma mater, to help me connect with current student food activists at our school for an article I was writing, and he in turn used facebook to send me a link to an article about Monsanto “unintentionally” spraying the organic crops in the fields of Iowa farmer and Grinnell College dining hall food provider Andy Dunham.

Marya, who I met at a summer program in Vermont twenty years ago, links from facebook to her blog Accidental Vegetables, about her adventures with community supported agriculture in Portland, Maine. From her I stole the idea of rhubarb infused gin, which I promptly made and served to my friend Nilanjana. Nilanjana lives at 122 Our Street in Lunenburg and I live at 211 Our Street in Lunenburg, and when we make plans to get together and enjoy rhubarb gin or a tomato and lemon thyme granita, we do it over facebook. It’s turned out to be just the right tool to connect my interests in local food with an international web, honing my postmodern sense of the local.

Facebook has even helped me make new foodie friends, like Alice, who lives in the next village over. I had met Alice in passing a few years ago when I asked her to sign one of her books for me, but we didn’t really know one another. Then facebook’s automated system began suggesting to me, fairly insistently, that we might really want to be friends because we had so many other friends and interests in common. I ran into her at the farmer’s market in her village and said something utterly dorky, like, “facebook wants us to be friends!” Luckily, she thought it was a fine idea and we made a date for coffee. Alice came to my house for the first time this week. She wrote me a message on facebook to ask me where I lived. I sent her a message back with a picture of the front of my house and directions from the farmer’s market in my village.

Thanks to facebook, I’ve taken nearly everyone I’ve ever known who is also computer literate, thrown them up in the air, and let them bounce down into new coalescing configurations. One of the people I’ve most enjoyed getting to know again, and another old choir friend, Kerry, who grew up with me in Illinois and now lives in Maryland, surprised me by being facebook friends with Joanne Elder Gomes from the Fredericton congregation. It was a most unexpected joy to explore what passions the three of us had in common. When my old roommate Ross in LA got a teaching position at the college in Northfield, Nancy’s hometown, I was able to introduce them (over facebook, of course) so she can hook him up with the best local food sources in their part of Minnesota. In Ross’s case, that means especially finding the good doughnuts. I was proud to help.

The process of creating community on facebook has had its surprises. Many people I thought were absolutely fascinating when I was young are... not. People I had no use for in college turn out to be hidden treasures. The lesson here apparently is that I have terrible judgement, or used to, at least. At this point I’m convinced that it’s best to postphone major life decisions until you’re at least thirty and only then if you had a happy childhood. It’s been odd to get reacquainted with so many people from my past, and odder still to have them interact with one another in a single, albeit virtual, space.

To be honest, facebook appeals to my personal strengths, and it’s not equally for everyone. One of the things I like best about the format is that it lets me carry on conversations in real time, while allowing me to edit for the kinds of dumb, blurty things I often say when I’m speaking with my mouth. It’s a great way for blurty mouthed people to connect. My wit sparkles best when I take a second to shine it before I show it off.

Like many of my generation I’ve moved here, there, and everywhere in my adult life. Given my postmodern, fractured existence, I haven’t really known the kind of social cohesion that has been the normal experience of the vast majority of humanity. I feel a bit like flotsam on the ocean, sometimes, in Lunenburg. I’m cast adrift from everything I knew before. Despite its downsides, I had gotten used to my pieced-up life, and having a space for it to be knit together has made me feel whole at some times and socially naked at others.

Facebook connects me with the world, with the earth. It brings me closer to people I see every day in my neighbourhood, and with friends who’ve experienced me in all my stages and moods and hairstyles, from people who changed my diapers to people who’ve learned how to diaper from me. It’s scary and it’s fabulous. Standing up for my beliefs in front of a wide audience, one that includes friends of my family and many social conservatives, for instance, is often discomfiting. And yet it grounds me in my beliefs to stand up for the rights of babies to nurse when and where they are hungry, and of their mothers to feed them peacefully and without prejudice.

I love how facebook connects me with people far away, but I love even more how it connects me with people in my community. Not only do I foster valued friendships with people I know in “real” life, but I get a sense of their friends and wider communities, as well, which helps me to get to know them in ways that I might not necessarily without facebook, and also introduces me to other people in my community and throughout Nova Scotia. I still haven’t been to any of the Comedy of Errors events, although I am well informed about what I’m missing.

Facebook is a corrective for our multifaceted, postmodern culture, full of people like me who move long distances several times in their lives. I am moored by facebook, by a web of people who have known different aspects of me, know my family of origin, think of me as they knew me then, underneath what they know of me now. It’s sane making. Facebook is a virtuality that creates a reality.

The desire to make many rich deep connections in multiple aspects of being is human. It’s normal mammalian behaviour. Facebook is a new way of doing an old and beautiful thing. With bad ads and some annoying games—but on second thought, that’s not so new, either. There are other negative aspects to facebook, of course; for instance I wasted approximately million hours while writing this sermon by fooling around on facebook and pretending that it was research.

All of our readings today are unsolicited pieces shared with me on facebook in the last couple weeks or so... the Smokey the Bear Sutra came to me from the aforementioned Alice. Our closing words today come from Sylvia Bass West, former director of lifespan learning for the CUC. She happened to post them five minutes before I sent the order of service to Sandra this past Wednesday, just as I was searching frantically for one more piece to round it out. I was very grateful. The Maira Kalman piece was posted by Doug in Iowa. And both the opening words and the Mark Belletini reading were offered by the Rev. Matthew Cockrum, a seminary classmate of mine who is particularly gifted at finding and sharing meaningful words.

Facebook is an ocean, and guess what, that’s where the fish are, bobbing on a sea of connection, between people and information, people and technology, people and people. As Fritz Kuehn at the First Unitarian church of Dallas puts it, “The ideal is that a real multigenerational, multiethnic, multi-interest opportunity conversation happens in a unified space.” For me, and countless others, facebook has been an qualitatively invaluable digital web of interconnected being that doubles as a safety net for the disposessed of the postmodern age. It is infused with qualitative worth. In other words, there is no price you can put on knowing and being known.

But don’t get me started on twitter.

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