It’s easy to criticize social media, so people do. Yes, Facebook and the like make it easy to present our and our families’ most attractive traits to the world in a steady stream of captivating photos punctuated by heartfelt expressions of gratitude. We can become afraid to reveal the less savory sides of our lives, or wonder why our homes and yards and children and families aren’t as perfect as everyone else’s. Twitter has elevated the self-absorbed “humble brag” into a smarmy art form. It is indeed funny and a little troubling to witness groups of people who are all looking down at the screens in their hands instead of talking to one another.
But the world of Facebook and Twitter and smartphones is, literally, my workplace. Social media allows me to do my job. And every time someone comments that they don’t understand Facebook’s and Twitter’s appeal, because they don’t care what other people are eating for breakfast, every time someone writes a blog post about how a generation of parents (well, really, mothers) is missing out on the wonder of our kids’ childhoods because we are checking email instead of watching our kids’ every move on the soccer field or playscape, it feels as if my life’s work is being dismissed. I feel like people are saying that the work I pour my mind and heart into, and which I share almost exclusively on blogs and Facebook and Twitter instead of on the printed page, is a frivolous, self-absorbed waste of time because THE CHILDREN! and THE PHOTOS OF DINNER PLATES! and also THE CONVERSATION! WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE CONVERSATION?!
Because of social media, such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter:
I can work from home.
I can work a 30ish-hour week and still be available to my kids from after school until bedtime. While I do 80 percent of my work while they are at school, sometimes a work issue (an editor’s question about an article being published tomorrow, a trollish blog comment that needs moderating before it does too much damage, a colleague who needs a quick read-through of a piece she is preparing to submit, etc.) requires my attention while I’m with the kids. Thanks to online connectivity, I can take care of these things relatively quickly. When I’m the mom engaged with her smartphone instead of watching my child’s every move, especially during the summer or school vacations, when the kids are home all day? I’m probably working. My occasionally divided attention is a reasonable price to pay for my being able to accommodate my kids’ schedule.
I can publish far more than I could if I were limited to the pre-Internet world of mailing paper submissions with an SASE for the likely rejection letter. Because the world expects Internet content to be free, many online publishing opportunities are unpaid. However, I now have enough of a track record that, more and more, I am getting paid work. Social media provided an environment in which I could publish lots and lots of stuff before I had the attention of any editor offering paid work. Over time, I both became a better writer and proved to myself and others that my writing is worth reading—and paying for.
I have near-daily contact with a collegial writers’ group that includes people living all over the country. Cynics might doubt that real, significant friendships can develop online, but after getting together with many of my colleagues in person at the recent Festival of Faith and Writing, I can say with confidence: Yup. These relationships are the real thing. This group is a continual source of practical advice, professional contacts, and friendship. Thanks to Facebook, I work by myself but rarely feel alone.
Sometimes I fail to keep reasonable boundaries on my social media use. I get so caught up on an online conversation that I fail to listen to one of the beloved ones with whom I share a home and a life. I allow a negative comment or provocative online article to get me riled up, so that I feel off balance and anxious. But these indiscretions aren’t much different from the way that other working people can fail to leave stressful work dynamics at the office when they come home. As a workplace, the online world is host to many potential distractions and temptations, including self-absorption and meanness in the guise of clever humor. Matters of consequence fight for attention alongside celebrity gossip, BuzzFeed quizzes, and cat videos. But the online world is still my workplace—one for which I am deeply grateful.
To dismiss the online world as a repository for irrelevant banter by narcissistic blowhards who are ignoring their families is both inaccurate and unfair to those for whom social media enables valuable, life-giving work. (Besides writers, social media benefits other professionals, such as artists who sell their work online and activists who harness Twitter’s power to rally people around a cause). Such stereotyping is akin to considering teaching a cushy job because teachers get the whole summer off, telling a priest that it must be nice to only have to work one day a week and spend the rest of the time reading spiritual books, or asking a stay-at-home parent what she does all day. Such comments bely a deep misunderstanding of the nature of other people’s work, effectively rendering that work invisible. Instead of dismissing social media and the ridiculousness it can enable, the next time you’re online and read something thoughtful or see something beautiful, share it on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or on whatever platform you like best. The only way that the good stuff will wrest people’s attention away from the silliness is if thoughtful people pay attention—and then click “share.”