May 2011 Features

Facebook: A Grown-up Backsmoker Diary, Using Our Real Names

By Susan A. Messina ’86, M.S.S. ’91, M.L.S.P. ’92

I am a very heavy Facebook user—mainly for pleasure but also for work. It is up on my computer screen all day and I carry it on my iPhone.

Am I in the digital mainstream? I posted these questions on my Facebook “wall”: What good has come to your life through FB? Why do you stay? Are there any skeptics?

Soon my wall and inbox were swamped. For many of us, it seems, Facebook functions as a powerful medium for connection. “There’s an ongoing smart, funny, engaging commentary on our lives,” wrote Barbara Hall ’91, “and about the world around us as we get older, raise our kids, navigate our professional lives, and meet life’s challenges.” Hall teaches in Philadelphia where she lives with her partner, Susan King ’86, and their two boys.

Facebook reminds Hall of the anonymous, communal journals called backsmoker diaries that have been popular in some dorms since at least the early 1980s. As Hall explained: “Facebook is kind of like a more grown-up backsmoker diary, using our real names.”

For others, Facebook is a virtual coffee hour, a break from daily stress with people who understand you. Leann Ayers ’83 lives north of Dallas with her family and works for the Texas Health Institute. She wrote, “Facebook helps keep me connected to many dear Mawrter friends and other like-minded women in a way that is particularly tough to find in my suburbs. Not that they aren’t here—just that with parenting and work it is hard to find them. With Facebook, it’s sort of like I can step into ‘coffee hour’ whenever I truly need it.”

Geography is no barrier

“I have been living outside the United States for over a decade now,” wrote Manjula Dias-Hargarter ’92, who lives in Hamburg with her husband and children and works translating materials on art history and architecture from German into English. “So I am especially grateful for the opportunity to keep in touch with so many friends and family members who are scattered across several countries/continents.”

Facebook is also a boon for those who are shy. As Lisa Gordon ’86 put it, “Facebook is a great place for people with introvert tendencies, like me.” Gordon is an event planner and theater manager in Chicago. “It’s hard for me to make phone calls and I can’t keep up with my friends by email. But Facebook makes it easy.”

Although the social networking site LinkedIn is the one preferred by many people for professional networking, Facebook can play a crucial role. Jen Roberts Smith ’05 wrote about how she landed her current job as vice president of a private foundation in New Orleans through a tip from Facebook connections. “The job I was offered was never posted on any public sites,” Smith noted.

Sometimes, Facebook can even play Cupid. Denise Tuggle ’89, who currently lives in Chicago and works as a social worker, grew up in a small town in Maine. She recently reconnected with her first love through Facebook. As she said simply, “And we’ve been building from there.”

The Exchange

Chet Martin
November 11, 2009 at 11:20am:
“Hi Denise, did you grow up in Maine? You look so much like a Denise Tuggle that I was friends with many years ago in Orrington, Maine.”

Denise Tuggle ’89
November 11, 2009 at 1:22pm:
“Honey! It’s me!”

But not all Mawrters on Facebook are believers. They raised concerns that it can be distracting, time-consuming and shallow. Kristin Odmark ’86 of Groton, Massachusetts, mused, “I am sometimes troubled by the fact that, with a few very intimate exceptions and work colleagues, my circle of friends has become circumscribed by who’s on Facebook and by what they choose to post.” Melissa Orner ’87 of Philadelphia noted, “Sometimes Facebook makes me feel out of touch and alienated, as though there’s an ongoing conversation, and I just don’t have the time to stay on top of it.” Mary Kopczynski Winkler ’90 of Alexandria, Virginia, wrote, “Although I enjoy Facebook, it is a big distraction and I can’t help but feel that I should be making better use of my time.”

Many wondered how substantive Facebook connections actually are. “Friendship is not the transmittal of personal information from one party to another,” pointed out Karen Sullivan ’86, “but something that occurs during that transmittal of information.” A professor of literature at Bard College, Sullivan continued, “I still can’t see much value in any connection or reconnection that takes the form of one- or two-sentence updates. For my money, any genuinely satisfying interaction with someone is one that delves into that person’s thoughts or experiences in depth, through a sustained dialogue.”

I don’t disagree. Sullivan and I are close friends and I cherish our long, rambling telephone conversations. There is no substitute for time spent together, years of shared memories, and the profound “knowing” that results.

At the same time, I believe Facebook can enhance meaningful connections.

Els Kushner ’88, a librarian living with her daughter and partner in Vancouver, B.C., put it this way: “Facebook isn’t a substitute for long hours spent talking in dorm rooms or coffee shops, but it’s been better than anything else in my life at helping me feel like my friends and I understand each other’s lives as we are now, not frozen in amber as our 20-or-30-years-ago selves.”

For many, using Facebook to reconnect with someone in the past is a way to move forward with a larger social circle. “I have really enjoyed reconnecting with people with whom I’ve lost touch and probably would have felt shy about reaching out to otherwise,” wrote Jen Jobrack ’89 of Chicago. Julia Fasick ’85 of San Francisco observed, “I have found myself appreciating the thoughts and insights of people that I knew on campus but didn’t always know that well. Facebook has allowed me to forge new connections with people.” Elise Gruber ’88 from Seattle stated, “I’ve repaired relationships through Facebook. It’s a noninvasive, noncommittal, yet compelling way to communicate.”

Lifeline in crisis

Sometimes, Facebook is more than connection; in a crisis, it can become a lifeline. Kathy Roth-Douquet ’86, who lives in South Carolina, where her husband, a Marine, is stationed, is an activist on behalf of military families. With just one week’s notice her husband was deployed to Afghanistan and was gone for more than a year. “He was deployed as an individual, not part of a unit, so I didn’t have a cohort of war-single spouses to commiserate with,” wrote Roth-Douquet. “So I raised my two kids, who turned 8 and 12 while their dad was gone. Facebook was a major and important source of support for me.”

For Theresa Timlin ’80, a lawyer in Philadelphia, Facebook was a mainstay during her husband’s terminal illness. Last year, he became ill with an extremely rare and aggressive cancer. She wrote, “I was juggling full-time work, parenting a second-grade boy, and caring for my husband. As you can imagine, I was stretched beyond my meager limits. This is where Facebook came in. Everyone wanted to know what was going on. They also wanted to help. Facebook became a powerful tool to keep folks in the loop and to marshal the available resources.”

Timlin’s Facebook friends formed a circle around her. As she explained: “For me, posting a comment like ‘Joe wiggled his toes!’ and coming back the next morning to 50 encouraging comments made me feel supported and not so alone in my struggle.”

During the Egyptian revolution, Salima Ikram ’86, professor of archaeology at the American University of Cairo, gave her Facebook friends an eyewitness view. Ikram is founder and co-director of the Animal Mummy project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In the photo, right, Salima Ikram ’86 is at the Western entrance to the Bent Pyramid, in Egypt.


February 2 at 11:08am: Mubarak’s people throwing Molotov cocktails toward the museum. Fires around, but not at the museum yet. However, this could change suddenly. Chaps, please share.

February 2 at 11:26am: Preventive measures being taken and soldiers hosing down museum. Small fires in surrounding areas.

February 2 at 5:27pm:…Pro-government people have lit fires on the back side of the museum…

February 2 at 6:12pm: Fires under control for the time being…Please keep hoping and praying.

February 4 at 4:23am: So far so good. A colleague is going to Tahrir in her wheelchair. News of antiquities in the south of Egypt continues to be encouraging… The army continues to maintain a presence in the Saqqara area.

February 4 at 12:00pm: Egyptian museum continues to be secure. Curators and directors working inside. Southern sites secure and being defended by inspectors and guards and villagers… Tremendous sense of national pride. Army remains at the Memphite necropolis…No new reports of looting there since initial reports. The Egyptian people are standing proud.

February 6 at 9:02am: Christians and Muslims making a point of being united in Tahrir. Really a good atmosphere. Islamic museum not open but the cleaning staff and curators there and all in good spirits.

February 11 at 8:27pm: Inshallah we will be able to move forward to freedom. It will be a hard slog. Martial law is no joke…But tonight, we can be proud of the changes that a large-scale peaceful protest have wrought!