I suppose I should be ashamed to admit this, but for me Facebook is also a major source of news. But I do not apologize for that, because I have a few friends who can be counted on to post on Facebook whenever something important is happening in the world. I know from life-long experience that mainlining the news is bad for my mental health.
Is Facebook the best or only tool for this use?
These particular friends can usually be counted on for two very important benefits: (1) each brings a different background and point of view to the table; (2) in addition to the news that makes headlines, they often alert me to news that would be lucky to make two inches on page 32 but which is of interest to me; and (3) they present the news with far less stress-inducing drama than most mainstream media. I know of no other site that does such an excellent job of curating my news.
Many years ago, when I lived in Rochester, a good friend would call me on the phone nearly every day, and we'd chat for ages. (Those were the days when the phone was on the wall in the kitchen, and we invested in a 25-foot phone cord so that I could work and talk at the same time.) At the same time, we were trying to drastically reduce the time we spent watching television. To the concern that we would miss something important by not watching the evening news, I would reply, "If it's really important, I'll learn about it from Pam tomorrow."
If I were to give up my Facebook news sources, what could substitute? Given that all news reporting is biased, as newscaster Peter Jennings famously warned more than 15 years ago, that means—as it does with all history studies—a single source is never sufficient. And consulting multiple sources with the same bias doesn't count.
I'm sorry to say that our local newspaper is out. I want to be able to support local, physical papers, but it was decades ago that ours started giving less for more: the space devoted to text steadily shrank, replaced by pictures that definintely were not worth a thousand words. The stories themselves veered away from meat toward fluff. Editing and proofreading efforts declined drastically, perhaps through costcutting measures and/or the need to beat the Internet with a news story. Worst of all was the blurring of the line between news and editorials. We cancelled our subscription when the Orlando Sentinel started to look like USA Today, and haven't been back since, except for responding a couple of times to "an offer you can't refuse"—which never succeeded in convincing us to keep the subscription when it ran out.
Television news has gone all out in the Adrenalin Wars: presenting the news at fever pitch to maximize excitement, fear, and even panic, for the purpose of keeping customers glued to their shows and money pouring in. "Public" television is very nearly as bad—they, too, have customers and sponsors. And all the while each network strongly promotes its own point of view. For the sake of my mental health I don't want the hype; for the sake of my spiritual health I don't want the bias. Watching news shows on more than one network may somewhat balance the bias, but it doubles the hype.
One site that was suggested to me is allsides.com, which attempts to bring together news stories from the Left, from the Right, and from the Center, using criteria it has set up for determining the bias of a news organization. I've bookmarked the site as potentially quite useful. It is frustrating to come across an interesting story and feel that I can't share it, because if the source is a left-leaning site half my friends won't trust it, and if it's a right-leaning site the other half will reject it unread. Allsides.com might at least help me find the same story in different places.
But Allsides is still too much in-your-face with the news for frequent use. The same is true of Google News, which used to be helpful but is much less so since they stopped letting me specify what kinds of stories interest me and now enforce Google Knows Best. In my case, Google Is Usually Wrong. I need to do more research here.
Porter subscribes to the BBC News feed, which seems to do a pretty good job of covering the world. It takes up a lot of his time, however, so I'm just as happy to take it second-hand.
Some well-known and intelligent person once said that he never paid attention to daily, or even weekly news. Only if something was still newsworthy after a month did he bother about it. I think it was Peter Drucker, or someone he wrote about, in Adventures of a Bystander, but I'm still trying to hunt down the exact story and attribution. For all but a few news items (e.g. an approaching hurricane), that sounds like a sane and sustainable philosophy. Being inundated with news—usually tragic—from every corner of the country and the world is exhausting and debilitating. I don't want to stick my head in the sand, but the value of receiving bad news lies in being moved to good and useful action. Otherwise it just cripples us.
My friend Pam and I once lived across a small hallway from each other. Now we are more than 2000 miles apart. But she is still one of my reliable news sources, and Facebook is now that 25-foot long telephone cord. Hour-long phone conversations no longer work for either of us. Facebook really is a good way to reach many people in a very short time. The question is how to maximize benefits and minimize costs.
I have some ideas to try out. Stay tuned.
It is possible I was born in the wrong place and time. Imagine a society where people go to a health spa for this:
The patients eat and drink cocoa and chocolate all the time while they rest, admire the scenery, gossip, and grow fatter every day.
Here's the story, from Ohio's New Castle News, February 5, 1907.
What else do I use Facebook for, besides communication with friends and family?
Right up there near the top must surely be this: as a writing platform. Writing is to a large extent the way I think, and I like getting my thoughts out of my head and onto some external medium. Moreover, I'm enough of a writer, or perhaps "performer," that I want my words to be seen. My writing is also my brain's equivalent of an external hard drive: a place to store wildly eclectic information for later retrieval—made possible in large measure, I must grudgingly admit, to Google's excellent search capabilities.
Searching is why Facebook is not a good place for writing: retrieving what I have once written is difficult to impossible. Finding what someone else has written is even harder. Facebook's place in my writing habit is primarily threefold:
- What someone else has written will often stimulate thoughts, which I often publish in the form of a comment. The danger of this is that it can all too easily be much too long for the medium, and it's all too easy to hijack someone else's post for my own ideas. (A little of that is good, but I tend to take it too far. One reason I never got hooked on Twitter is that I can't say anything in fewer than 140 words, let alone characters. I tried for a while....) But sometimes the seeds planted develop into posts of my own.
Is Facebook the best or only tool for this use?
Certainly not. Inspiration for writing is everywhere, and there are far more thoughts stimulating my brain than will ever make their way into print.
- Linking to my blog posts from Facebook has opened my work to a greater audience, despite the fact that my blog is public and my Facebook limited to a relatively small circle of friends. Years ago, Facebook had a facility for cross-posting that didn't work well for me, but for a long time now I have been posting to Facebook links to individual blog posts, with maybe a short comment (because I hate it when people just post links without a few words of introduction to tell me why they think the link is valuable).
Is Facebook the best or only tool for this use?
I already know that it can't replace my own blog: I have Faithful Readers who do not use Facebook. And if that weren't enough, I would be thoroughly convinced that I need my own platform by a recent incident in which Facebook deleted my 9/11 tribute, saying it violated their community standards. Is that a community I should remain part of?
Certainly anyone who clicks to my blog through Facebook could get there directly. But it would remove some of the convenience, and eliminate the readers who might be intrigued by a particular post title here and there, but not enough to visit my blog itself with any frequency. It's still an easy way to make my words available to more people.
It also provides more feedback. Those "Like" buttons make it easy to let someone know you've read what they've written, and there's no way to do that on my blog except by leaving a comment, which many people don't like to do. Plus, even of comments I usually get more on Facebook. But that can be part of the problem, too. I'm human: I like to hear when my words have been well received. Not so much when they haven't—I'm not getting paid so I can't be like the columnist who insisted he didn't mind getting hate mail, because it meant his column was being read, which was all that mattered to his employers. But after I've posted a link on Facebook I do find myself checking the app more frequently, to see who has read and reacted to my post. I like those little dopamine hits as much as anyone. But it's probably not a good thing.
Conclusion? If I were to abandon Facebook altogether, I could manage without this. My blog was never about getting widespread publicity anyway. I like for my words to be a blessing to people—as some have said they are—but flying under the radar is more my ambition than going viral. If my decision is to keep Facebook but greatly reduce its hold on me, howere, I think this is something I would keep. If, that is, I can convince myself that I don't need to know now when someone has reacted to my post—a day or even a week later will do.
- Finally, Facebook provides a place for the small, off-the-cuff comments that are fun but don't seem worthy of a blog post: "Hi, everyone! We're enjoying the Food & Wine Festival at EPCOT!" "Here's an inspiring quote I found." "The president said WHAT?" More chit-chat than conversation. I don't mean to belittle it; there's a place for chit-chat in the glue that holds relationships together.
Is Facebook the best or only tool for this use?
I have to admit that it's a good one, and I would miss it. With family I could (and often do) substitute WhatsApp, since we have a lively group there. But when deprived of personal contact, by distance or pandemic, there's some value here that I don't know how to replace. For many, even most, of my Facebook friends it probably doesn't matter a bit, but there is a subset for which I think it does. Maybe not enough benefit for the cost, however. And of course there's always the possiblity certainty that some such comments (e.g. the political ones) do more harm than good....
Those of us who lived through what I think of as the "Carter Inflation" have a deep-seated fear of that economic disaster, and a greater fear that more recent generations don't take it seriously enough. (To be fair to President Carter, presidents get more blame and take more credit than they deserve for economic conditions. I think Carter, a good man, was a bad president with policies that made inflation worse, but it's far from exclusively his fault.)
Inflation under Carter was not a disaster for us, personally, since it was a time when salaries and investment income appeared to be increasing at a great rate. That felt good, though it only meant that we were barely keeping up with rising prices. It was not so merciful to people without good jobs and investments. We also knew enough history to fear the devastation inflation had caused in other times and places.
You might understand, then, why am frustrated when I hear reports of "inflation indices" that say we are experiencing little or no inflation—when I know darn well that prices in the grocery store have been rising steadily for a long time, most "half-gallon" ice cream packages now hold only three pints, and the price of automobiles has exploded through the roof.
I read with interest the article by John Mauldin called "Nose Blind to Inflation." It's long and gets complicated and I did start skimming as I neared the end, but it says a lot about the factors that go into determining a currency's inflation rate—and why it's so hard to come up with numbers that mean anything at all. As my economist husband says, it is important to understand that inflation is not a mathematically provable number, but rather a statistically, approximated number. Moreover, the numbers that are published are not immune to political pressure.
I'm not even going to try to guess what is going to happen to our currency now that the pandemic has encouraged us to hemorrhage money that we don't have and drive our national debt well beyond the stratosphere. Far more knowledgeable people than I haven't a clue.
But I can't resist one quote from the article, which begins the section on an inflation calculation factor called hedonic adjustment.
That’s where they modify the price change because the product you buy today is of higher quality than the one they measured in the past.
This is most evident in technology. The kind of computer I used back in the 1980s cost about $4,000. The one I have now, on which I do similar work (writing) was about $1,600. So, my computer costs dropped 40%. But no, today’s computer isn’t remotely comparable to my first one. It is easily a thousand times more powerful. So the price for that much computing power has dropped much more than 60%. It’s probably 99.9%.
The economists pull the same slight of hand with automobiles, and television sets, and any product in which it is claimed that you are getting more value for your money, and therefore it shouldn't count as a price increase. Which is utter nonsense. (I put the point a little more strongly when I first read about the concept.)
Sure, I often like the "improvements" that have supposedly added value to the item I am purchasing, but the real value of a car is that it gets me from A to B, and why must I pay for all the extra bells and whistles if that's all I want? It reminds me of a housing developer I know, who was chided for not providing more "affordable housing." "I could make housing affordable for everyone," he replied, "If people were willing to live in the kind of homes their grandparents did. But now that won't even begin to pass code."
So sure, go ahead and make things "new and improved." But if I can no longer buy the original version, don't try to sell me the bill of goods that when the price goes up it's really a price decrease.
This is for our children, and others of later generations who may find it difficult to fathom how great was the pressure on my generation to have no more than two (and preferably fewer) children. It was real. I'm ashamed to have given in, but it was the sea in which we all swam; it was the unquestioned Science of the day; it was the Way Things Were Done. It's a true story that some people would pray for multiples the second time around, so they could have more than two children and still be held blameless. ("Selective reduction" was not a thing back then.) Moreover, I was less inclined to fight against the tide of my peers back then—we who came of age in the late 60's and early 70's were too busy concentrating on pushing back against those who had come before us.
The following is extracted from a George Friedman Geopolitical Futures essay, "Variations on Apocalypse," published February 13 of this year. He nails the sentiment of the times—which lasted long beyond the supposed apocalypse year of 1970—exactly.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s there was an intense belief held by the best minds that humanity was on the eve of destruction. Rock music was written with this title. The cause of this catastrophe was overpopulation. By 1970, the Club of Rome, a highly respected gathering of the best and brightest, said the world would no longer be able to feed itself and would be running out of natural resources. Unless humanity repented of the sin of reproduction, it would annihilate itself. This was a belief that could not be challenged, and those who said not only that it was untrue but that the birthrate would soon plummet were dismissed. The coming apocalypse was written in stone, and those who would challenge it either were mad or would profit from the apocalypse.
What always struck me about this, and virtually every class I took included at least one lecture on this, was that those who argued the apocalyptic view were not actually frightened by it. They loved the role of Jeremiah. They awaited it with the faith of the righteous and, I suspect, were looking forward to the last moment, when they could scream, "I told you so."
It's easy to see one's past mistakes, but much, much more difficult to discern which of today's "certainties" we will be regretting in the future. I haven't a clue, but I suspect that the first place to look should be among (1) ideas and practices that are so much a part of our own culture—meaning primarily the culture of our peers—that we never think to question them; (2) ideas and practices for which dissent is discouraged, mocked, or even forbidden; and especially (3) ideas and practices that make us feel morally superior to others.
Yes, I am thankful for the rain. I love the thunderstorms with their deluges, normal for this time of year. And I'm grateful for the long, soaking rains of the kind we usually only get when there's a tropical storm off the coast but which have been nearly continuous all summer. The Floridan aquifer really needs the boost.
Nonetheless, I've decided I don't want to live in the Pacific Northwest.
My father's grandfather moved his family from Baraboo, Wisconsin to Sumner, Washington in the early 1890's. Sumner is just outside of Seattle, where it rains on average 152 days a year. So you'd think rain was in our blood. However, my father himself grew up in Pullman, Washington, where his father taught mechanical engineering at what was then Washington State College. Pullman is in the desert side of the state.
We have had so many days of rain this summer that I'm expecting to break out in mushrooms any day now. At the very least a severe case of mildew. After I've been outside for a while, I want someone to pick me up and wring me out like a piece of laundry. With six active tropical storms on our horizon, I don't expect things to dry out anytime soon.
I'm indeed grateful for the rain—and for the roof over our heads and the air conditioner that together provide a refuge that is both cool and dry.
Facebook banned my 9/11 tribute post on the grounds that it violates their Community Standards. Fortunately, I'm the censor here.
It was our younger daughter who started it, asking me why I spend time on Facebook. Really, the nerve of our children! Doesn't she remember that she was the one who induced me to join, and who made the first comment on what was then called my "wall"? Back in 2007 that was, and I was entranced by the ease with which I could keep in touch with famiy and friends, and by the ability to find and be found by people who would otherwise have faded out of our lives, or at best become once-a-year-at-Christmas contacts.
But nearly thirteen years have passed since I took those first steps into the world of social media, and I've accepted her challenge to re-evaluate. It came in response to my admiration of our eldest grandson, who had recently made a clean break with a couple of time-consuming activities. They were fun, but the pandemic shutdown revealed to him that he was no longer growing through them. Facebook provided many new opportunities when I first joined, but perhaps there are better uses of my time. "Good" can hardly be considered good enough if it keeps "better" at bay.
Back when we gave up television, there wasn't a lot said about the dangerous nature of the medium; if people complained it was generally about poor content: the "vast wasteland." Marie Winn was one of only a handful who saw the problem as systemic. One day, I wandered with my bibliophile father into a small bookstore in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and in my browsing happened upon her book, The Plug-In Drug, which changed our lives forever. There's no need for such a chance encounter now: googling "Facebook addiction" or "why you should quit social media" will flood you with more information than you can handle.
But I'll leave all that serious stuff about how the intrusiveness of social media, and even something as old-school as e-mail, literally changes our brains, making it very difficult for us to focus on tasks that require sustained attention and hard work. And I'll skip the disturbing part about how all media, from Facebook to news shows to plain ol' TV have been consciously altered to make them as addictive as casino gambling. As I said, you can find out more than you want to know about that with some simple online queries. To my embarrassment, I can see those frightening effects clearly in my own life, but it's enough at the moment to ask, Why do I use Facebook? What do I get out of it? How do I give to others through it? Am I accomplishing anything worthwhile, or just being entertained? What activities in my life are being displaced by social media? Are there other, more helpful and/or less harmful, activities that could be used to accomplish whatever good I see in Facebook?
Not everyone uses Facebook for the same reasons, or in the same way. As they say, your mileage may vary—by a lot.
Facebook began for me as a means of communication with family and friends. Many years ago, when we first moved to Florida, I started sending a more frequent version of a Christmas letter to keep in touch with those we had left behind. First the typewriter, then later the word processor, made it possible to write more content, more frequently, and to more people than I ever did when all my notes were hand-written. Facebook was simply a logical extension of that move.
And for a while it worked well. I could see photos of family and friends, and hear about what our grandchildren were up to. (For the latter, our children's blogs were actually more useful, but eventually those updates stopped and Facebook became more important.) But guess what? Our children have all dropped out of Facebook. None of our grandchildren have social media accounts of any sort, nor do I expect them to. Our nephews still have Facebook accounts, but rarely use them. A few other family members use Facebook occasionally, and there are a couple for whom Facebook is our primary means of communication. But nearly all of the sharing of photos and activities is now done via WhatsApp. Yes, I'm aware that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, but that's a separate issue. For most, though not 100%, of our family, I think I could disregard Facebook and do as well or better. The same is true for closer friends, those with whom we would keep in touch, even if just once a year, no matter what.
But I have developed a whole new level of friendship on Facebook: something greater than mere acquaintance, though far from what we introverts call real friends. In fact, it's quite an odd form of friendship, in which we learn details about each others' lives that real friends might take years to reveal in person—yet these are people we haven't seen in decades, or maybe have never met at all. One of my first Facebook friends was a (now very much grown up) little girl I haven't seen since the 1980's. To this day she will, every once in a while, "like" one of my Facebook posts.
There are others who became Facebook friends long before we ever met, usually because they were a friend of a friend and we found something in common through our comments on that friend's posts. I suppose it's like going to a party at a friend's house and meeting a new friend there—but for me, much more fun than a party.
When I met a first cousin once removed for the first time at a memorial service, it was especially helpful to have already become acquainted with her and her family via Facebook. When our church called a new priest, I felt almost instantly comfortable with him after he arrived, because I had already gotten to know him some on Facebook. It's still the case that Facebook provides more interaction than I've ever had before with a pastor. It's casual, can be accomplished at times convenient to all, and is done in writing, which is always my preferred form of expression.
That's more than enough ruminating for now, though there are many more aspects of my relationship with Facebook to consider. One thing has become clear: When it comes to some relationships and communication, I would do no worse, and maybe better, if I drop Facebook and put my energy into other areas. And certainly these are the people who deserve the greater share of my time and attention. Yet I'm not willing at this point to drop the new friends and the casual friends, who expand my horizons and provide much-needed encouragement, as I hope I do for them.
The question then, becomes this: Can I radically reduce my Facebook time and attention and not lose those connections? It there something less than total abandonment of social media that will enable me to concentrate on my highest priorities? Is this an "if your right hand causes you to sin..." issue?
Still thinking about that one. There is still much more to consider.
We gave up television in the early 1980's, when we began noticing its negative effects on our toddler. That was a struggle, but to this day I hold it as one of our best parenting decisions ever.
Television had sneaked into our lives in a frog-and-kettle way. My family didn't even own a TV set until I was seven years old, and it received a grand total of four stations: three VHF and one UHF. All was black and white, of course. The influence of the medium in our lives grew only gradually, but by the time my much younger sister was in middle school, she had her own TV in her bedroom.
My television addiction—that's not too strong a word—was effectively broken in college, when the only way to see a show was halfway across campus in the student lounge; it simply was not worth the effort. My husband was deprived of this cold-turkey blessing, since one of his roommates owned a set. Thus after we were married it took the kick-in-the-pants of parenting to get us to make the break.
Television has since become quite a different beast, both for better and for worse, and I acknowledge that the medium has its usefulness. Still, I'm 100% certain that our grandchildren are far better off for growing up in television-free homes.
However, "television" as I once knew it has evolved into audio-visual media of incredible variety, now far more useful and far more dangerous. Our grandchildren may not have television sets, and their "media time" may be restricted, but computers, Kindles, and tablets are still important in their lives.
The use of computers and other "screens" has sneaked up on subsequent generations the way television did on mine. Many parents are as concerned about it all as I was with television, but the option of giving it up completely just isn't there, unless you can live self-sufficiently somewhere in the back of beyond. The new media are even more addictive, and much more time-consuming, than good ol' broadcast TV ever was. But they are too useful to give up completely.
Which leaves us with control as the only practical option, and control is always harder than abstention.
Despite the lengthy introduction, the issue for this post is not how to control media for children, for whom I no longer have any direct responsibility, but for myself.
I'm certain I spend too much time sitting at the computer, but that is where my work is. Not that I'm being paid to work in an office, staring at a screen. But my writing, my genealogical research, my archivists' work, and much of the nitty-gritty of everyday life takes place using the computer/phone. I'm not ready to give up so much of what I consider to be valuable work. And when your children and grandchildren live far away, electronic media is an incalculable blessing.
But something has to give. I'm at the time of life when I need to make sure I'm using my allotted span wisely. Really, that should be all the times of our lives; it just hits home harder when you must face the certainty that you are not going to live another 50 years.
What's the best use of my time? Too big a question. What's the best use of my time on the computer? Better, but still too big to start with. What's the best use for me of social media? Now that's something I might be able to sink my teeth into.
Stay tuned for Facebook: The Challenge.
Recently I stumbled upon The Conservative Student's Survival Guide. It's a five-minute video offering advice to—you guessed it—conservative students who find themselves a despised minority on liberal college campuses. That's no joke: for all the talk you'll hear from academia about tolerance, liberal values, and minority rights, it's a jungle out there if your particular minority isn't currently in favor, and it seems the only status more dangerous than "conservative student" on most American campuses is "conservative faculty." It was true when we were in college, it was true when our children were in college—and everything I see leads me to believe the situation is far, far worse now.
What's surprising about this video is that, unlike much that comes from both Left and Right these days, it is calm, well-reasoned, and respectful. What's more, even though it's aimed at conservative students, any thoughtful person who wants to make the most of his college experience would do well to consider this advice.
The speaker is Matthew Woessner, a Penn State political science professor. All of his seven suggestions make sense, but my top three are these:
- Avoid pointless ideological battles. It's not your job to convert your professors or your fellow students. Discuss and debate, but don't push too hard.
- Choose [your classes and your major] wisely. I was a liberal atheist in college, but much on campus was too far Left even for me. Being a student of the hard sciences saved me from a great deal of the insanity that was going on in the humanities and social sciences departments. A quarter-century later, one of our daughters found some of the same relief as an engineering major. Our other daughter, however, discovered that life at a music conservatory was quite difficult—despite the name, conservative values were not welcome.
- Work hard—college faculty value hard-working, enthusiastic students. I'd say this is the most valuable of all his points. Excellence and enthusiasm are attractive. A student who participates respectfully in class, does the work, and learns the material will gain the respect and appreciation of most of his professors. Teachers are like that.