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The Facebook Generation

By Joel M. Hoffman

I recently asked a middle-school student how many friends she has.

“Eight hundred and sixty,” she told me.

“That’s funny,” I replied. “I have about a dozen.” And then I added, “I guess we’re using the word `friends’ differently.”

She was talking about Facebook friends, and, for lack of a better way of describing it, I was talking about “real” friends.

Facebook is a “social networking” site, which I guess means that it’s a way of being social on-line. According to Facebook itself, its 140 million members spend an average of almost 20 minutes each day “on Facebook.” Taking into account the members who don’t use the site daily, that works out to well over half an hour for most Facebook users. Each day.

Facebook’s basic relationship is “friend,” which, it turns out, is both a noun and a verb. A “friend” is what you become when someone invites you, and when you want someone to be your friend, what you do is “friend” them. Facebook conveniently keeps a list of the people you have friended.

Once you’ve become friends with someone on Facebook, you can interact electronically. You can send your friends messages, which is just like the e-mail that now seems like last century’s technology. In addition, your can share pictures with your friends. You upload a photo to Facebook, and then all of your friends — and only your friends — see that it’s there. You can also share one-line updates about your life. “I’m going to mall,” you can post, and then all of your friends will know your plans. If you’re having a bad day, you can tell people. They know about your life, and you know about theirs.

But that’s not all. You can also send them, for example, plants.

That’s right. You click on the right buttons and you send your friends a living, growing, plant. Except that it’s not alive. And it doesn’t grow. And it’s a not a plant.

So what’s going on? And why are 140 million people doing this? Why are so many people, and, in particular, so many young people, practically addicted to “social networking”? What is the point of pushing a button on your computer so a message on someone else’s mentions a gift in the form of a virtual plant? Couldn’t this time be spent on something more productive?

In much the same way that teenagers usually think that they alone are going through the awkward changes of puberty, and that no one understands them, each generation thinks that the older ones wrongly judged them, but that they are justified in judging the younger ones. Our parents misunderstood our generation, we all think, but we understand the failings of our children’s. They text message instead of talking. Their music is terrible. They don’t even send real plants. And don’t even get us started on how they dress.

But if we really want to learn for our experience, let us remember that sometimes the older generation (us!) really doesn’t appreciate the younger one. Styles change. Different doesn’t have to mean worse.

My grandfather was convinced that the only appropriate attire outside the house was a jacket and tie. If he had known that I show show up at Temple wearing neither, he would quite honestly have been ashamed. Never mind the fact that I don’t even own a hat. But he would have been wrong in his assessment. Not everyone wears a jacket and tie, or a hat, these days, and we all know that there’s nothing wrong with that.

We should offer the same consideration to children. Let us be careful when we judge their behavior by our standards. Let us be careful not to repeat our parents’ mistakes.

After all, sending a virtual plant is one really good way of taking seriously the old adage that, “it’s the thought that counts.” And for a generation usually labeled as materialistic, this on-line Facebook experience is a remarkable way to interact.

When we open our minds and suspend judgment, it’s amazing what our children can teach us.

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Categories: education
  1. January 20, 2009 at 11:23 am

    I signed up for Facebook a few months ago, after avoiding it for all of the typical, crotchety reasons – it’s too big a waste of time, it de-values the word “friend,” it trivializes interactions, etc. I signed up mainly because it became apparent to me that this is how our teens communicate, and if I wanted to be in touch with them, I had to get plugged in. E-mail, as you say, just doesn’t cut it anymore. So, I thought I would suffer Facebook to enter my life.

    But, to my great surprise, I’m finding some really high points to Facebook. Is hearing that a friend of mine is “heading home after a long day” in any way equal to sitting down and chatting with that friend? Of course not. But, it’s still a connection. Better than nothing, at least. I mean – I’ve got “real” friends in many places, and I talk to them rarely and see them almost never. This is a great way to keep at least some connection with them, which I really appreciate.

    It’s FAR too easy for anyone over 30 to just criticize this new technology. It’s far more important, and interesting, to actually try to embrace it, and learn from it!

  2. February 20, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    I spoke with a mom and a dad today who won’t allow their child onto Facebook. The child is also not permitted to “text” (although a cellphone is okay). Their reason is that they love her very much, they see how cruel other kids are being, and they wish to protect her from this. I suggested that the day will come when she starts doing this herself, and it will probably be AFTER she’s left their home for college and beyond. The difference will be that her mom and dad may not be close by to help her manage the associate emotions that come with ANY kind of relationship. Of course, she could always “text” them or leave a note on their Facebook wall.

  3. September 1, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    UPDATE:

    Facebook seems to be in the news a lot these days, both in general and regarding religion. For example: here, and in the sources it references.

  4. April 11, 2010 at 1:45 am

    hi joel. i am a major fan of facebook. it is my generation and it is really fun. i doubt kids only go on it 20 minutes. i have friends that ditch their homework just to go on facebook ALL DAY LONG. it is just the way of things now!!!
    your students

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