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The Dangers of Facebook: an Expat/Recent Grad Perspective

October 4, 2010

I am not an avid Facebooker. In fact, I’ve hardly been on Facebook since graduating and moving to China. In fact, I think my profile picture is still of me in my cap and gown. Also, I have not seen the new movie about Facebook “The Social Network” (I’m pretty sure it’s not one of the eight foreign movies selected by the Chinese government to be shown in Chinese cinemas, although the illegal DVD copies will surely show up soon).

However, I know that one of the film’s general messages is about the emptiness of online communities, especially if they replace real communities. In my current situation – basically devoid of community – I have quite a few thoughts about this right now that I would like to share.

I have had 22 wonderful years built around communities and rituals. As a child, my community was my family and our circle of family friends. Rituals like my mom’s Christmas cookies, going to the beach or Disneyland, and watching the Power Rangers or the Rugrats every evening with my siblings.

As a teenager, my community shifted to theater. My voice teacher Jeanette, my high school theater directors Mr. Friedman and Nancy, and my dance teacher Robin became my mentors. My peers involved in theater became close friends, and their devoted parents and families formed a warm cocoon of development for us all. Every show was a complicated ritual: audition, rehearsal, opening, striking, each with many moving parts. I cried my eyes out at the end of our last performance of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” knowing I’d have to leave this community behind.

Then there was college, a sprawling web of many communities, all tied together by over 350 years of history of our great school and its many rituals: shopping week, the Harvard-Yale football game, commencement. Within Harvard, I was part of so many smaller communities, each with its own history and rituals: Lowell House and our bells, the HRDC theater community and all its lovable (sometimes hateable) quirkiness, and most of all the Veritones, my a cappella group, with 25 years of tradition in music and friendship. I wasn’t just part of something, I was part of many things, many rituals. And instead of adults constructing these communities and rituals, we were. We were always shaping them, creating new traditions.

Then, after the epic ritual of Harvard commencement, and many tears, I left and moved to a strange land, far from everyone I love except the one I love the most. I’m blessed to have Rick with me.  But one person is not a community, and I feel the gaping hole of community.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this emptiness. It’s not just an expat thing. I think tons of recent college grads are going through these pains. Growing pains? Just changing pains? I don’t know what to call them.

Here’s where Facebook enters my musings.

I’ve always been a “bad Facebooker” – I don’t respond when people write on my wall because I don’t even notice; I’ll go for weeks without checking it, etc. I’ve mostly used it for the picture features (esp. tagging friends). So I’ve already felt myself moving on from college in a big way, as much as it sucks to let it go.

But I know a lot of people who are Facebook addicts (I’m not pointing fingers, I promise!), and I’ve been wondering whether Facebook helps or hurts these growing pains.

I think that the real danger of Facebook today for my generation is that it tempts us to cling to our old communities, ones we’ve moved on from. I’m not saying it’s all bad – I wish I were better at keeping in touch with the many people I care so much about – but I think being able to feel the skeleton of communities that were hurts our ability to form new ones in our new wheres and whens.

If I want to feel a sense of community again, I won’t find it by suddenly becoming a “good Facebooker.” I won’t find it by posting pictures of everything I do online. I won’t find it by extended old inside jokes, or trying to remain on the inside of my old world. I need to build one here, in Shanghai.

Trouble is that I”m already discovering just how challenging that is. I’m not surrounded by people my age. There are no activities fairs for me to find people with common interests. This is a big, big city. The theater scene leaves  a lot to be desired. No musical theater.

But there is something I have as an expat here that I should grab ahold of: I’m an outsider. As laowai, whenever I lock eyes with another foreigner, we smile. Recognition. Ah, yes – we are both outsiders in this strange, strange world. I’m sure we have so much in common.

I need to find a way to harness this and start building my community here and now. I also need to make more of effort to stay in touch those I love – don’t worry, you all! I’ll never leave you behind! And whenever I’m home, or at Harvard, it’ll be “just like old times.” But nothing can replace that in-real-life connection you feel with people who are actually present.

Watch out for Facebook.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    October 4, 2010 8:37 pm

    Very wise words, Momo. I’m glad you have such fond memories of my Christmas cookies!
    Love you & miss you!

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