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Guest Column
Why I need Facebook | Column
For all of Facebook’s flaws, it still connects me to those I love.
A Facebook app logo is displayed on a smartphone.
A Facebook app logo is displayed on a smartphone. [ OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP | Getty Images North America ]
Published Nov. 24

One happy place to be on your birthday — especially in a pandemic — is on Facebook. Virtual friends and real ones get to cheer you on and remind you that you mean something to somebody.

That day when your dog dies you may find yourself again on Facebook. There your “friends” will express sorrow for the loss of Rex and share with you an understanding of how a pet can become a beloved member of the family and must be mourned.

Roy Peter Clark
Roy Peter Clark

Then, one day, your wife is diagnosed with breast cancer. She will need surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. How will you best spread the news to all those you know will care? In the old days it may have required countless repetitive and traumatic telephone calls. Today, I would turn to Facebook.

When we hear news about Facebook these days, it is often about the dangers of disinformation, not the power of consolation. That’s an old word we don’t use much these days. To console means to ease the grief or sorrow of another. With so much grief and sorrow from two years of pandemic, we all benefit from knowing that others care about us. Like it or not, Facebook has evolved into one of the most important ways we use to express our solidarity, our common humanity.

When it comes to technology, I consider myself neither a technophile nor a technophobe. Call me a techno-realist. I would love a world in which we welcome the benefits of new technologies while preparing for the unintended collateral damage. With every new technology, something is gained and something is lost. How do we compensate for that loss?

The late technology scholar Neil Postman once asked me what would happen if we could go back in time a century or so with the invention of the internal combustion engine. We might imagine the ways in which greater mobility would change the world for the better. And it has. But could we imagine the infernal damage caused by that machine? Pollution of the air? Wars in the Middle East over oil? Climate catastrophes?

Would I have given up my 1966 Ford Mustang to mitigate all of that? I doubt it.

What became Facebook was created at Harvard by Mark Zuckerberg and his friends as a way to rank hot girls and guys. I doubt that either the destruction of democracy or billion-dollar profits were much on his mind.

I have been on Facebook for about 11 years now, using the platform to share personal news, to try out some story ideas, and to grow an audience for my writing. I scrupulously avoid the kind of political commentary that tends to attracts trolls, some of them vicious.

While I share the opinion that Facebook should reform itself in countless ways or face government regulation, I cannot deny its importance to me and my family since 2015 when my wife Karen was first diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer recurred in 2018 and metastasized this year. What we both needed was support. One way we received it was through Facebook.

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Here is an excerpt from a recent post by me to several hundred “friends.”

“A routine scan last May revealed tiny suspicious spots on her lungs and the lymph nodes near the lungs. Biopsy revealed that her triple-negative breast cancer — first detected in 2015 — had metastasized to her chest.

“This is scary stuff. But she had certain advantages. The detectable cancer was very small, caught early, created no symptoms. Wider scans showed no evidence of cancer anywhere else in her body.

“What has followed is going on five monthly cycles of chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

A scan two months ago indicated that the cancer cells had not grown. The doctor said that was a good result, a sign that treatment was working.

“The scan last Monday reveals that the cancer cells are shrinking!”

There was more, but that was the gist. The news was now out to people who would care, some who would spread the news. Only five phone calls were necessary: to my two brothers and three daughters.

What followed was an outpouring of love, prayers, and consolation. Over time, messages came from all over the country, all over the globe.

My friend Peter Meinke, Florida’s poet laureate, once wrote a poem imagining what it might be like if all his friends from all the places he had ever been could meet at a party. In his vision, “We’d go down by the river / and the rocks would hum / with this rich collection of men and women / They would look around and see themselves / no longer isolated….”

In a way, that’s what Facebook is like at its best.

If I could put little pins in a map for each of the commentators who offered to us their prayers and best wishes, they would come from all over Florida, from family and friends in Atlanta, from relatives in New Jersey and Rhode Island, from former students and co-workers and collaborators all over America. On Facebook, friends can also reach us from France, England, Spain, Canada, New Zealand and Denmark.

So, by all means, let’s do whatever is necessary to neutralize the poison that seeps out of Facebook and other social networks. A healthy democracy demands it. But please don’t stand in the way for a celebration of my birthday, the mourning of my lost dog or the news I need to share about the heart of the family.

Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at rclark@poynter.org.