There's a lot of discussion these days over what Facebook can and cannot do.
Facebook positives: We can reconnect with old friends, keep faraway relatives looped into family news, find camaraderie and support with groups of like-minded people, and even make new "friends," albeit mostly virtual ones. Sometimes, as we saw in Egypt, Facebook even can fuel a people's revolution.
Facebook negatives: People we want to forget find us. Status updates reveal dark sides of friends and family members who used to keep their mortifying opinions to themselves. Self-edited news feeds too often reflect our made-up minds and narrow our exposure to alternative points of view.
Our daily existence can become one of isolation if we start defining community by the collection of strangers' pictures on our computer screen rather than through the real people living around us. Like many, I wrestle with how to strike the balance.
I started using Facebook to engage readers in online discussions. Over time, favorites have emerged.
There are a lot of smart, kind and funny people out there who don't get paid to give their opinions but whose voices alter the trajectory of debate in meaningful ways. Sometimes — many times, really — I sign off buoyed by the reassurance that we all need somebody and that somebody will always need us.
This week has been such a time.
As I write this, at least 122 people are dead and dozens more are missing after a tornado ripped through the heart of Joplin, Mo., early Sunday evening.
Within minutes of the storm's attack, Facebook's news feed erupted with links to tales of devastation. The stories got sadder and more personal as a growing number of reporters descended on what was left of the town. It became increasingly clear that no resident's life would be untouched by the destruction.
Joplin's tornado had burrowed into America's collective conscience. In northeast Ohio, where I live, severe weather alerts sent many families racing to basements — and onto Facebook.
I posted a weather warning for my status update and urged people to stay safe. Within minutes, the discussion thread filled with damage reports from the seven-county area.
After a woman in Berea reported strong winds "and hail the size of marbles," another Facebook friend panicked. Her mother lives there.
"Can't reach my Mom," she posted, "and I am without a car."
That was all it took. Within minutes, the Berea resident exchanged contact information with the worried daughter and was on her way to check on the elderly woman. To the relief of all of us waiting to hear, we soon learned that she was fine.
What I didn't know, until Tuesday morning, was that a large-scale relief effort was unfolding on Facebook for the victims in Missouri.
The Joplin Globe, the city's newspaper, had set up a Facebook page to help survivors locate loved ones and seek word of the missing. It quickly became a forum of panic and pleas:
Looking for information on Marlene Altman who lived on S. Oliver just off 32nd street … along with her daughter DawnLynn Hood & son Stefan. Please let me know if you have any information regarding their safety!
If anyone knows of the whereabouts of Joe Coots, please let me know. He is the only family not accounted for. Thank you.
Posting again for someone online. Infant, approx 15 months old. Male, small in size like a 9 month old child would be. Parents are in the hospital. Please contact me and I will pass any info.
ATTENTION Joplin tornado victims looking for their kids call childrens mercy! A social worker there said the kids are scared! I dont have any names so call! … PLEASE KEEP THIS GOING If it was your child you would want this info … their cells don't work, but some can access facebook.
I keep visiting the Facebook page, looking for signs of hope.
Signs such as this one, posted six minutes ago:
Just got word that they have found more people alive at a walmart.
© 2011 Creators Syndicate