A friend of mine has recently made a move away from social media. This is a decision I understand, and I sympathise with her choice.
The world of social media leaves a person feeling battered at times, and I think it has a tendency to intensify feelings of helplessness and anxiety as we face the rising problems and sense of threat in the modern world.
I spent some months away from social media myself, and noticed on returning to it to reconnect with friends I missed, how quickly I felt swamped by the dismay and, in many quarters, outright fear, at the deepening horrors of climate change and the steady rise of ruthless élites voted into power by gullible traditionalists.
In shaping and developing a life without the social media where she was once very present, my friend sometimes feels lonely. In writing about it, she speaks about remedying the situation by spending time with a "real friend", in contrast to a friend online. She reflects on the transition from online relationships to "real" ones.
I would like, if you will permit it, to encourage you in the direction of contrasting "offline" (rather than "real") with "online".
Many of you who read here have never sat in the same room with me. Even so, our exchanges and the friendship that has grown between us is real. Though you may have only ever communicated with me here, on Facebook, and by email, I do assure you — I am real.
The things I say, I really believe, and I think the connections we make online may be among the most strengthening aspects of our lives in these times of fragmentation, as pockets of despair deepen and fester.
Social media isn't a helpful environment for everyone, and certainly some people interact there more constructively than others. But the re-allocation of something you no longer engage with as not "real" rings an alarm bell for me. It is the tendency of thinking other people are in some way not human, not real, that permits and encourages social cruelty. It begins with thinking they don't matter because they are not fully human. This one mistake is very evident in racism, sexism and homophobia.
It is true that if you don't like what I write you can unfriend me on Facebook, unsubscribe from my blog, shut down the page, turn off the device. But even then, I am still here and I am still real, just as you are; only, disconnected and no longer in conversation.
We are physical as well as imaginative beings, and I think it is healthy for us to be physically in one another's presence — a hug, a handshake, a cup of tea together; these contribute vitally to our wellbeing.
We do also have the opportunity to make the effort to meet up physically with friends we've met online — and doing so can broaden our horizons considerably. Many people whose interactions centre on social media are either poor or disabled, so that travel or participation in clubs and societies and other traditional gatherings is limited for them. It is for me. I live well and contentedly, but that's partly because I accept these limits.
But, thinking of what my friend had to say, let me reassure you, I am real — and if you would like to meet up for a cup of coffee, you might feel brave enough to get in touch and say so.
I am as real as you are. It's just that you are there and I am here. The nice thing about the internet is that it connects us.
I think my own most powerful experience of social media was the night Troy Davis was executed — September 21st, 2011.
From what I have read, this was a terrible miscarriage of justice. As frantic last-minute attempts to save his life, by stay of execution or by clemency, were deliberated, Troy Davis lay strapped to the gurney awaiting the outcome. As the hours drew out into the night, gradually the news channels shut down. Only Amy Goodman of Democracy Now kept her channel open, acknowledging how much this mattered. Around the jail, waiting, a quiet crowd kept a candlelit vigil. All round the world, people like me were praying, were gathered; and our link was, primarily, Twitter.
I was in Hastings, UK. Troy Davis was in the US state of Georgia. But I have always been grateful to Amy Goodman, always remembered her, because she kept her channel open through the night. I never knew the individuals who tweeted as the hours dragged on, informing our prayer, keeping watch together, but I have to say it was one of the most profoundly real experiences of my life, and in truth it was a great deal more real than quite a range of social encounters that have happened to me offline.
It can feel frustrating at times, to make these links and connections that may never be physically fulfilled. I'd love to visit Bean in Indiana, meet up for prayer and conversation with Julie in Minnesota, sit down for a coffee with San in Lancashire, but it may be I never will.
I met my friend Deb Sokell online. She'd read my books and got in touch through this blog. We corresponded by email, and one by one as my books came out she read them and enthusiastically reviewed them on Amazon, God bless her. Deb was a crafter, working textiles. She never had much money, so from time to time we used to send her fabrics and trims and such things, and she loved getting a parcel through the mail.
At the end of Deb's life, we had a few last brief exchanges. When she went into the hospital, desperately ill, she emailed me to say the last thing she'd done was buy all nine of my Hawk & Dove series for her Kindle. She wanted to read them in the hospital, and she wanted me to have some money (from the sale of them) she said. I cannot tell you how deeply that touched me. She needed some crafting things (colouring and card-making), so I rushed out to the shops and got her some bits, packed them up quick and sent them by the fastest postal service available, so she had the joy of making some cards in the hospital.
Her mother let me know, at Deb's wish, by addition to the long thread of email correspondence between Deb and me, that they'd moved her into the hospice for end of life care. And then communication went dead. I enquired by email, and begged that they let me know, but I heard nothing more. I suppose, for Deb's relatives, I was not a real person. I searched and searched online for any news, again and again, but never found any. But I keep her in my email contacts, and still have her address in my Amazon address book — I used to send her my books one by one as they came out, because she couldn't afford to buy them. She said she sat excitedly under the letter box (mail slot) waiting for her parcel to arrive. I still have her as a favourite seller on my Etsy account. These online traces are the echoes of her life, and I treasure them. We never met face to face, and I don't even know what Deb looked like. But was she not a real friend?
Really here, this quiet and chilly December day, in Hastings, England.