It’s Complicated

“It” being my relationship with social media.

How liberating it would be to delete my digital self! The potentially horrifying future ramifications of shady data collection policies aside, social media platforms are also an exhausting time-suck that can make the most confident individual question whether he or she measures up to family, friends, and the most distant acquaintances. Online life requires self-promotion and self-branding, and can encourage superficiality in our relationships (case in point: the practice of substituting a quick “happy birthday!” Facebook post for a phone call or card).

On the other hand, “happy birthday!” is not always a weak stand-in for some grander effort– often it’s an easy alternative to silence. And isn’t it kind of nice to be reminded of people whose life paths have intersected ours at some receding point in the past and to take a few seconds to acknowledge that intersection? On a practical level, of course, social media also helps us to maintain a professional network and a database of resources for finding apartments, job opportunities, advice, or just a friendly face in an unfamiliar city.

Internet-based communication serves an especially important function for expats like me. Without it, my decision to live abroad would feel a lot more like abandonment. Of course, digital interaction is no replacement for the embrace of a loved one or having a good laugh with them in the same physical space, for looking into their eyes and reassuring them that everything will be alright, for handing them their favorite drink or exchanging a knowing glance. But I can send part of myself to some secondary, bodiless dimension to hang out with similarly bodiless projections of my friends, and that’s an amazing second-best thing.

In this way, I often hang out with my brother and my best friend from college– we chat in real-time on Facebook and Gchat. I hear my mom’s voice at least once a week, and I know that my food enthusiast of a father has had extraordinary success with a new recipe because he sends me a picture of it. I feel terrible missing weddings and showers and reunions, but I get to peek at photos the same day. I hate that I haven’t met some friends’ and siblings’ significant others, but like knowing that they can pull up my profile and say, “this is her.” As romantic and delightful as old-fashioned letters are, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to rely on them for news about my relatives and friends in other parts of the world.

At the beginning of the 20th century, my Italian great-grandfather had to do just that. He arrived alone at Ellis Island with fifty dollars, a big wooden chest, and almost no English. I’m honored to share blood with such a person, and wish I were even a fraction as courageous. I now live the same distance from my family and hometown friends as my great-grandfather did, working and socializing in a language and culture that is foreign to me. But contemporary life in Western Europe and the United States is much easier than it was a hundred years ago, and of course my experience as a French-speaking, middle-class, college-educated American abroad for the love of it is vastly different than my ancestors’ gamble for a better life. Still, being an ocean away from so many of the people I love can be lonely and guilt-inducing, and I don’t know if I would have spent so much time here if it weren’t for Skype, Gmail, and Facebook, my tripartite magic portal.

My great-grandfather could never have played wingman across the Atlantic…but I can.

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