In the world of the Internet, everyone’s a critic. Social media is definitely not immune to criticism and there are folks lining up around the block looking for the opportunity to find fault in our admittedly imperfect e-cosystem. But, for many families like mine, the advent of social media has meant so much more than accumulating “likes”, “followers” or “reblogs”.
My mother is a Filipino American. Born and raised outside the city of Roxas on the island of Mindoro, she was the youngest of six children. She lived with her mother, father, and sister in a small house made up of four concrete walls and a tin roof that flapped in the winds during monsoon season. The four of them slept together on bamboo mats on their living room floor until her sister turned 15 and married. Then just the three of them slept on bamboo mats on the living room floor. My mother distinctly remembers sleeping between her mother and father, but waking up in the middle of the night to find her parents snuggling together while she was moved off to the side. We both had a good laugh after realizing that the same thing happened to me as a child.
From the stories she tells, my mother had the most magical childhood. She recalls swimming naked in clear streams with her classmates, jumping off the tops of waterfalls, and eating beautifully sweet Indian mangoes from right off the tree. She remembered the smallest experiences so vividly, like when she would walk through the rice fields by her family’s home and hear the crunch of tiny snail shells beneath her feet (not my favorite story). The way she tells it, I can’t imagine ever leaving such a beautiful place.
On my trip back to the Philippines with her years ago, I got to relive some of her memories. But, I also got to see a lot of what she left out. She left out just how poor her family was. She left out the tiny corner stands in the neighborhoods where people could buy little sample-sized packets of soap or shampoo because where she lived, buying an entire bottle would cost a half day’s wage. She left out the rocky, muddy dirt roads and the children walking to school who only owned a single pair of sandals. She left out the fact that you have to pour water into the toilet in the house because the only indoor plumbing goes from the water pump in the yard to the kitchen sink. She left out the fact that only one house in the entire village had hot running water (and a pool!). Her life was so happy, she never noticed that she didn’t have it all. As far as she was concerned, she did. I think there’s a life lesson in there somewhere.
So, how does social media come into play in this story? Well, my mother lives in the US now. The rest of her siblings, however, still live in the Philippines. If you know anything about Filipino culture, you’ll know that the family unit is very highly valued. The Philippines is much less individualistic than the States, and your happiness and success are pretty heavily based on the good you bring to your family. When my mother moved to the States, their family unit became a bit disjointed. For the longest time, the only way my mother could communicate with her family was through poor-quality international phone calls and balikbayan boxes* of clothes, food, and toys for the kids. She desperately missed seeing her sisters’ faces and laughing with them. Since moving to the States, our family has only been able to afford sending my mom on two trips back to the Philippines. I can’t imagine not seeing my sister for years on end, so I can’t begin to understand the kind of heartache it must cause my mother.
Well, along came Facebook. Mom was pretty slow to join, but after a few years of watching me connect with all of my Filipino cousins, she thought it was about time she get her own profile. We showed her how to use Facebook. We installed Skype on her computer. We made sure we found all of her nieces and nephews and “friended” them. It wasn’t long before checking her Facebook for updates became a regular part of her routine. Just like that, my mother and her family entered into the online world that my sister and I had already been a part of for years.
The amazing thing about all of this is that while I use Facebook to share pictures of my food, my mom uses Facebook to maintain strong, intimate relationships with her family members from all the way across the globe. I guess I take Facebook and other social media networks for granted. It’s easy for someone like me to forget just how incredibly powerful the Internet and social media are.
When we look back at technologies that defined generations, we tend to think of lifesaving medical breakthroughs or mechanical marvels. But the more that I observe and understand the way that humans beings work, the more I realize that the truly defining technologies are those that allow us to communicate better, longer, and smarter.
Now, some may say that social media and text messaging have kind of ruined traditional forms of communication for younger generations. It’s certainly true that kids growing up today will probably never write heartfelt letters to friends in other countries or even use email as anything more than a way to identify yourself on websites. Technologies like these do seem to shape us almost as much as we shape them. But is this new form of social literacy really as bad as all the naysayers seem to think? Look at how far we’ve come from just talking to people within walking distance:
Our desire to learn from others has driven us outward. Outside of our backyards and hometowns. We, as a species, have this natural urge to be close, even to those who are geographically very far away. It only makes sense that we would develop something to facilitate this desire for closeness. And though it’s easy to say that “back in my day” people asked each other out on dates in-person rather than swiping right on Tinder, these jabs don’t negate the fact that entire cultures are being molded online, and many times, for the better. Meaningful relationships are being formed. Love is being shared.
For someone who’s only been alive for less than three decades, I can’t fully appreciate the lengths that we’ve gone to as a species to stay in touch. My mom and her sisters have gone from writing letters and sending packages (some of which were lost in transport and never actually reached their destinations) to talking to each other face-to-face as if they were in the same room. What a wild ride this must be for them. I’m sure as more technologies are developed, I’ll be in for a similar ride.
So, I’ll end with a few questions for you to ponder:
How has the advent of social media affected your life or the lives of those around you? Has it been for the better? If not, why? Will the benefits of social media outweigh the novelty? And what new ways of communicating do you think we and future generations will see?
*A balikbayan – meaning repatriate – box sent by Filipinos back to family in the Islands. It’s really economically friendly, as the cost to send HUGE boxes are only around $100-150. Mostly, balikbayan boxes are sent via cargo ships, so it does take several weeks. But our family always sends one around important holidays like Christmas and Good Friday. I know we always have two or three boxes being packed at all times in our basement. It’s the same for many Filipino American families, since sending gifts when you’re away from home is pretty standard tradition in the Philippines (wikipedia link).