Facebook: Yes? No? It’s Complicated!!

Somewhat more than thirty years ago a brilliant young woman Journalism student in the Ateneo, where I was teaching, came to my office to chat about her boyfriend. He was a new student and in some ways a special guest of the Ateneo: he was actually and truly a Laotian Prince – a member of the royal family who had been expelled from Laos by the Pathet Lao at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. He was a good looking, absolutely charming young man with a sophisticated international education. Yet he seemed vulnerable, almost needy, far from his family and country of birth, and totally unsure of his future.

The relationship ran its course; I don’t know exactly when and how it ended. The young woman became a successful international journalist and never married.

Last week the journalist messaged me about a different matter but mentioned her Laotian Prince. I asked if she were still in touch with him and where he had settled down. She said she had written him twice over the years but had not been answered. I asked if she could perhaps find him on Facebook. His sister, she said, was on Facebook, but she had not had the courage to write her.

Let’s just see what happens next! (She WILL write her!)

Facebook. What is it good for? Is it really just good for posting pictures of cats (or your latest meal) and picking fights with people you don’t know? It IS good for tracking down old friends, former classmates or students, even long lost family. Such reconnections do sometimes turn out to be harmful, but most of the time not. And then they are fun, sometimes quite intriguing, and they sometimes do spark healthy, nice new connections. I recently reconnected with an old Peace Corps friend who has had an interesting life in the last 50 or so years, and at this point is still working in causes I find really important: gender issues, disability issues, human rights issues. Funny how widely separated paths now converge at some points!

And you are bound to get into interesting posts if you have interesting friends! I don’t count time spent reading about raising children with disabilities or using music to alleviate dementia — or the wonderful Mighty Girl posts – as wasted. These things give me lots of interesting information and nice things to think about. I love my Panthala poems that come in everyday, sometimes with just the right message for the day. Sunday mornings I am engrossed in BrainPickings, Maria Popovo’s thoughtful collection of readings on creativity, the value of literature, philosophy: this morning on Walter Lippmann on the usefulness of personal curiosity and unstructured adventure in a tribute to Amelia Earhart, and commentary on what she calls an “Illustrated Serenade to the Art of Listening to One’s Inner Voice Amid the Noise of Everyday Life.” Each one of her short essays has multiple links to her own original sources.

During these really cantankerous times in Philippine and American political lives, I count on Facebook and all the articles posted there to sort and absorb issues, keep track of what’s going on. My good friend Jane posts from all the national newspapers, and others post Rappler articles and other international releases. But I don’t read that comments, as I am, like so many people, appalled by the tone, the hostility, the ugliness that I find there. This is much worse than mere “picking fights with people you don’t know” – there are personal attacks, violent language, even death threats. The ANTI social media.

But probably the worst thing about social, or anti-social, media is just the fact that it lulls people into non-critical thinking, non-critical attention and scrutiny, blind acceptance of whatever point of view or simple factual error is repeated the most. This is really dangerous, and when it plays such a large role in how we elect presidents, or think about political issues, we are in trouble. I think we have already seen the harm this has done in the Philippines, and if we care to notice, we can see what it has done and is doing in the U.S. How many people still believe that Barack Obama was born in Africa? How many believe our current government is actually respecting the law and due process? We have to guard our own minds against believing things simply because we hear them so often and so loudly. This is simply sloppy thinking, and we can perhaps serve as witnesses to better ways of judging and evaluating, although there is little comfort in that. But we can’t throw out the internet even if we want to, so here we are.

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