Social Networking

In England, the extended family has become less extended than it used to be.  Grandparents often get shoved into old peoples’ homes and children and young people choose to spend more time online than talking to granny.  When I was young my grandparents were too far away to see often, but I had a godmother with whom I had to have tea once a week after school.  I can’t really remember whether I initially wanted to go or not, but I was soon convinced by the wonderful selection of biscuits and cake and sweet drinks which she set out.  She had a cupboard of toys and I could go and choose.  As I got older, we played card games.  She was a very wise lady, reserved, totally calm.  I can’t remember any single piece of wisdom I got from her, but I remember mostly the attention she paid to me: the non-judging, calm interest, and the quiet love behind it.  I think a child really needs a mentor, a person outside their immediate family whom they can trust and can talk to about issues which they can’t resolve with their parents.  This need doesn’t go away when they reach teenager-hood, and maybe it gets more important then.  (I was cast loose by my parents when I was 16, as my mother died, but an exciting new life took over, with great new relationships to support me.)

The middle teenage years and the time up until one goes into full-time employment seem to me the most exciting and turbulent time of life emotionally, and one to be lived fully, drunk deeply.  The ups and downs of teenagerhood can seem extreme.

I would like to understand better how other people were cared for during their growing years.  Does a supportive adult outside the immediate family play a role in most people’s growing-up?  How has that changed over the last few decades?  The Internet might suck our children’s attention into their computer screens, but it doesn’t change their emotional needs.  So where do today’s teenagers get the emotional support they need and the wisdom that they will need?  Can the Internet have a positive role to play here, as well as the negative tendancy to diminish social contact with older people?

I have always wanted to be a godparent, and it’s been one of the disappointments of life that no-one has ever asked me to take that role.  Godparents are of course a mixed bag.  I’ve had three, only one of whom I can really even remember.  My children have 10 between them.  We chose them with as much care as we could, but only two or three of them have been any good.  It’s obviously not an easy thing to get right, nor an easy role to fulfil.

In addition to the normal banter of our social-networking friendships, I have been talking to some of my younger social networking contacts about issues they have in their lives.  I didn’t set out looking for mentoring-type relationships at all, and in fact I generally steer clear of younger contacts so that I can behave badly online without corrupting children.  However a few carefully-chosen such contacts have really added a special element to social networking for me.  It’s a far cry from godparenting with the commitments which that implies, but it’s not unrelated.  It’s almost tempting to think of setting up a service to put wise old folk in touch with needy teenagers; for about a second.  I think such contacts are much more personal (spiritual) than would be best served by an on-line matchmaking service.  Vouching for the wizened wisearses would be impossibly dicey, with reputation scores being impracticable, and all sorts of undesirable results possible.  However, I do think that social network sites can provide places where such contacts can be made, slowly and carefully.

The flip side of all this is that one has to be careful not to end up letting the activity of supporting others drown out the support one needs oneself.  I use social networking for amusement and to let out my own feelings, and gain a supportive buzz from my online friends.  Other people have told me that sometimes this can become a real burden.  Just as in the rest of life, a healthy balance is needed.

It does seem that demand outstrips supply in this market! I wonder if this will change over the next decades.  There are lots of wise old folk out there who are also lonely.  Perhaps as the population ages, older people will become sufficiently computer literate to get connected with younger folk looking for advice and support.  This is an outcome devoutly to be wished.

I have been enjoying Plurk since June 2008 and have found people there of whom I have become very fond.  They are individuals, but they’re also a group.  I have received and given an awful lot of emotional support there which has been helpful in many ways: helpful in avoiding depression and defusing anxiety; helpful in learning more about people (really a lot – I understand a lot more about the emotional life of women now than I ever did before, for example); helpful in terms of feeling valued.

One of the troubles with Plurk, though, is that it sucks up a lot of one’s time and energy.  Fairly early on I became Plurk-obsessed, spending all night typing messages to people (you know who you are!).  After a while I got over it and scaled back to a manageable level.  One of the key features of Plurk is the ability to turn on and off one’s subscription to the posts of one’s “friends”, without dropping them as friends, and without them being informed.  There are lots of ways of managing one’s reading load on Plurk, but mine is to reduce my friend list as much as possible and then to switch on (“follow“) only those friends whose Plurks I genuinely want to read.  In this way I can pay full attention to those people.  If I tire of reading someone’s Plurks, I switch them off for a while and try again in a few weeks.  If they stay off for ages, I eventually drop them as a friend.  Usually, they haven’t been commenting on my Plurks, so the uninterest is mutual!

In these ways, I select and get to know a group of people of whom I eventually become quite fond.  Some of them, I get awfully fond of.  To be fair to me, I haven’t fallen hopelessly  in love with anyone on Plurk (you know who you nearly were!), but that’s only because I’m older and a little more balanced than perhaps I once was.

Then comes the sad part: sometimes people leave Plurk.  As I mentioned before, it can be a terror in stealing one’s free time, or one’s otherwise committed time, or one’s creative time.  (I have worried about this myself a bit, because my creative activities have certainly suffered.  But my social life has certainly benefited.)  So they leave, and leaving is usually a struggle, because those left behind cling on (“We’ll eat you up – we love you so”, said the Wild Things).  The manner of leaving therefore becomes sudden and shocking – a clean break is the only way to do it.  Then comes the grieving.  I’m doing some of that today as you might have guessed.

As a one-horse social networker so to speak, I lack the confidence in cyberspace that some of my friends have – “I’ll see you elsewhere on the Internet”, some of them say.  But I think, “But what if I don’t?”  So I need to grow up and remember that real contacts made will last beyond Plurk.  I still remember the brother of one of my remaining Plurk friends, who left last Summer.  I was so upset that I tracked him down and met up with him in the pub.  Must do that again actually.  I almost managed to meet another plurker at Leeds station a few weeks ago, and have every hope of meeting a Canadian plurkfriend in Vancouver next week.  Physical hugs are more satisfying than virtual ones, but the sad thing is, one gets them so much less frequently.

Of course, one makes contacts and loses them again in person as well as on the Internet.  One big difference though is the turnover rate.  I’ve made more deep contacts online since June last year than I have in person in the last 10 years.  (I’ve likened it to a second teenagerhood.)  With those who have left Plurk, I know that I won’t have the daily contact in the future that I have enjoyed in the last months.  There’s no doubt that I will be grieving.

Will I “learn” from these natural, blameless losses not to get into such deep emotional commitments?  Perhaps getting into deep relationships on Plurk has been part of the recovery from my mid-life crisis, exploring the possibility of making commitments again, having lost the ability to do that completely a few years back.  Part of me really hopes I don’t “learn” not to do that – the part of me that has always been an over-committer; someone who is willing to throw themselves into an activity or commitment without reserve, without keeping something back for a rainy day.  I love that attitude, because it represents the living of life to the full, the plunging deeply into incarnation and getting the most out of one’s experience of life.  If I have re-learnt part of that through Plurk, then it’s been an experience well met, well sent, well planned.