27 March 2011

It's The Stoop, And I Like It

I was having coffee with a friend the other day. I'll call her "Anne" We were talking about using on-line fora to create virtual communities with students and colleagues, and I said that one of my reasons for joining was to try to foster community among students in my department's MA program.

Anne asked what Facebook is about, and here's the explanation I came up with: it's the stoop. Anne and I met years ago when we were both graduate students and lived in adjacent buildings in the East Village. Whenever the weather allowed for it, after a day of teaching a learning, reading and writing, we'd emerge to hang out on Anne's building's front steps.

We'd greet people, dogs, children who walked by. Sometimes just a nod, sometimes a wave to someone on the other side of the street. Some people would stop for a brief chat, others would sit and join us for a while. We got to know the people in the neighborhood.

And it struck me, talking to Anne the other day, that Facebook is a virtual neighborhood. For me, it brings together old friends, more recent friends, and family members. In a much earlier time, all of these people would have lived in the same neighborhood, and we'd see each other regularly, mostly for a wave or brief greeting, sometimes for a longer conversation.

Lawrence Buell writes in The Future of Environmental Criticism that the spaces we inhabit have become like an archipelago, with spaces where we live and work, where we went or our children go to school like islands in a sea, no longer connected, and the people associated with each activity also now distinct.

Facebook brings them back together into a single virtual space. On my way to work, or on my lunch break, I can nod to an old friend or chat quickly with a cousin in a different state or on a different continent. I can send a message to a colleague who lives thousands of miles away.

Sometimes it turns out that friends from vastly different parts of my life know each other. On Facebook, I've become acquainted with a friend of a friend who knows my aunt in a different state.

Anne wondered about Facebook and privacy, about what it means to be "friends" on Facebook with colleagues or students. I pointed out that we don't sit on the stoop or walk through the neighborhood in our underwear. We choose the personae we show the world, whether in "real" life or in a virtual one. People have more freedom in a virtual universe to re-invent themselves, but most of the people I know who are also on Facebook don't do so.

(Yes, there are villains on Facebook, and like the "real" neighborhood, it has various dangers and pitfalls. But that's a whole other post.)

We need neighbors. We need community. In an increasingly fragmented world, in which we carry around a variety of different identities, Facebook does something to bring all of those selves together.