How often do we hear that Twitter, Facebook et al are a scourge of today’s society, a cesspit of spite and vitriol? I’d need a hundred hands even to be able to start counting the times.
And sure, you don’t have to peel back any layers to find poison-filled, aggressive, trollshit swirling around. You only have to take a brief glance at the comments on online newspaper articles, or follow anyone with a public platform on Twitter or Facebook. You’ll need to bleach your eyeballs clean after seeing some of the hideous tweets sent to them. Whatever people think of somebody else’s personal or political opinions, wishing death, rape and terminal diseases upon them or their families, or making direct death threats, is a shitty thing to do.
But neither do you have to look far to find an enormously valuable sense of community, strong friendship, support, help and laughter. I wrote about this a few years ago, and want to revisit the topic now:
Someone sent me sunflowers yesterday.
We don’t really know each other, and may never actually meet. We live on different continents, in different hemispheres. But she knows sunflowers are one of my favourite flowers, and cares enough to send me a whole field full of them.
We’d never heard of each other a few months ago, until we both joined a Facebook support group for trigeminal neuralgia, and now she’s sending me photos of my favourite things.
The world used to seem so vast. When I was a kid in the UK, falling in awe of the volcanoes and hot mud guesers of New Zealand, the other side of the world seemed a million miles away.
Now I live on the other side of the world, and on clear days, within view of two volcanoes. When I was a kid, overseas phone calls were expensive enough to feed a family of four for a week. Now I am overseas, and I can make hour-long calls to England for the price of a bottle of Coke. I can photograph the volcanoes, and Instagram them to all my friends everywhere.
Twenty-five years ago, my daughter would rush home from school with pictures she’d painted for me, models she’d made. I’d pin them to the kitchen wall and place them on a shelf, and visiting family and friends would ooh and aah. Now my young grandchildren are creating art for me, and when I post them on my Facebook wall, the audience of oohs and aahs is exponentially multiplied.
If I get homesick for places I haven’t visited in over a decade, GoogleEarth takes me on a walk around old haunts, or google images cough up every angle of my old hometown.
And when I comment in a Facebook support group that I love sunflowers, a semi-stranger from halfway round the world sends me a bunch of sunflower photos. It’s a potent reminder of a favourite adage of my Nanna’s, the one about how it’s thoughts that count.
Maybe I can’t smell these sunflowers, or touch the velvet of their petals, or watch how they dance in the summer breeze. I can’t hear the refrigerator hum of the bee nosing in amongst the seeds. I can see the jewel-bright colours – dark greens, vivid yellows, the polished blue of the sky, but I can’t feel the heat of the sun.
What I can feel is the strength of community, of solidarity these photos show. It’s like an emblem of hope, a reminder that no matter how bad the pain of trigeminal neuralgia can get, in this group on Facebook, there are people who want to help, any way they know how.
Sometimes it’s with knowledge. Sometimes with experience. Sometimes an ‘I hear you’, and sometimes a pretty picture of flowers you said you love. But always, always, with help.
For many people, despite the sense sometimes that the internet and social media is like wading through a sewer, it is also a lifeline. I know my life would have been immeasurably narrower without social media. Since my health took a nose dive into the morass of chronic auto-immune and connective-tissue diseases, my ability to engage with the world outside my front door has been severely curtailed. Maintaining contact even with friends who live within a few kilometres of me is difficult enough in real life, never mind those who are twelve thousand miles away.
Because of Facebook, I have been able to ‘meet’ other people dealing with the same rare conditions I have. It’s more likely I would have won the lotto jackpot than meet these people in real life – when you have a ‘1 in 15,000 people’ condition, you don’t tend to run into too many other 1s in the neighbourhood. You have to find them. Online is the easiest way.
I’ve been able to research vital information about my conditions from medical organisations like the British Medical Journal, Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkin Hospital, and other reputable places, which has helped me to get correct diagnoses and more effective treatment from medical personnel
Because of support groups, I’ve learned so much about the whackier symptoms that you could easily think were something only you experienced, when doctors don’t know about them.
I’ve found a collection of exercises, of relaxation videos and meditations that are now a vital part of my pain management toolkit. I’ve found videos that help me learn to paint with oils (still trying!), draw with pastels, and design with Inkscape.
Because of Pinterest, I’ve a huge, visual cornucopia of ideas for interior decor, things to sew, places to visit, garden layouts… I could go on for ever!
I can still explore the world even when funds and physical capacity are in short supply.
I can make purchases from the warmth and comfort of my armchair during weeks of flare-ups that make leaving the house a painful chore.
Because of Twitter, and Facebook private messaging, I can chat daily with family and friends no matter how far away. I can socialise with other writers, other bloggers.
Because of the internet, my life is still full, rich, and varied – and full of sunflowers.
Like any tool, social media is what we make of it. We can use it to troll and stalk and bully and deride. Or we can use it to learn, to laugh, to live, to love. Which do you choose?