Are we afraid of connecting?

As my year 12s finished school this year, they gradually found me on Facebook. I’m loving this different way to connect, and the confidence that we will keep in touch. These people have a special place in my heart, as all my students do. Once you’re one of “my kids” it lasts a lifetime.

It’s been interesting connecting with them and flicking back through their timelines, because I have learnt a lot about them that I didn’t know before. I suspect some of them have learnt a lot about me the same way.

For example I now know that one of them plays the piano alarmingly well – and although I had a great relationship with this student, somehow I’d never found that out.

I also know that another is a lot more politically aware than I ever realized – and that our politics are very closely aligned. Think of the conversations we could have had!

I know that still another came from a school just around the corner from my house, and that we have friends in common. Also that he is a loyal and loving friend (which, to be honest, did not come as a surprise).

I know that another is an amazing athlete, has a part time job, and stayed up all night to finish one of my assignments (sorry!).

And one has the most incredible artistic talent – how did I miss that??

I know which ones are in long term relationships, which ones have strong ties with friends from their previous schools, and which ones have pets. I know what music they like, what issues they are passionate about, and what they believe in.

Of course, not everybody posts much on facebook, but for the most part being connected this way has enhanced my understanding of them – and no doubt their understanding of me.

Yet there is an unofficial, unwritten rule that teachers don’t friend students on Facebook. And I can understand why – kids don’t need to see pictures of their teachers getting blind drunk on Saturday night (although really, if that’s what’s going on your Facebook feed then you’ve got some serious questions to ask yourself, teacher or not). But in this increasingly public and online world, not much is private anymore. The chances are that students can find those pics of you if the pics are online, especially if someone else put them there and they’re not careful with their privacy settings.

I also understand that there is concern about blurring the boundaries between teachers and students. That some people feel the more formal, distant relationship maintained by using teacher’s surnames and never seeing them outside the school grounds is an important ingredient in maintaining discipline and avoiding “inappropriate” relationships forming, especially between young teachers and students who may be only a handful of years younger. Yet going on camps inevitably blurs these boundaries anyway – sometimes first names are allowed on camp, casual clothes are worn, and interaction is inevitably more casual and less constrained.

The truth is that we are all going to have to be professional and draw the line at times, whether we are connected on facebook or not. And it’s true that sometimes knowing where the line should be is tricky.

But I do wonder if we are losing opportunities to reach our students, to build meaningful connections and understand them better. Of course I know that sometimes teachers and students cross the boundaries, but I am becoming more and more convinced that in trying to avoid that we have swung far too far in the other direction. We have all but banned touch between teachers and students, and if you are never allowed to pat them on the shoulder, hug them in times of stress, or hold their hands when they are scared, surely touch becomes far more highly charged and problematic when it does happen?

And, as teachers, our duty is to support and nurture our students as much as to educate them, and as social mammals, touch is a crucial part of that.

One of my students was once so overwhelmed by having passed an assignment that she cried out “oh! Can I have a hug???” and I gave her one. Telling this story in the staffroom later got a whole lot of horrified looks. “oh, you took such a risk! I’d never do that!” they said. How tragic it is, and how impoverished our interactions, that this is where we have arrived. In a place where we can’t touch, mustn’t acknowledge each other as human beings with lives outside the classroom, and draw careful boxes around our private lives. We are more concerned with not putting ourselves “at risk” of an accusation than with the emotional needs of our students.

Similarly never interacting outside school, never recognising that we are multi-dimensional human beings, not simply students and teachers, might actually create an unrealistic portrait-style image of each other that intensifies the risk of unrealistic and inappropriate relationships.

I think these nice safe lines that we are drawing are far outside the range of what’s reasonable. I think that in protecting ourselves we might just be leaving our teaching impoverished.  As one of my former students said to me last night (on facebook, as it happens): “But to be honest, I reckon I’d be way more likely to pay more attention in class and have a better attitude to learning if I had a better relationship with my teachers.”

I’m really not sure. Social media is a whole new minefield that we, as a society, have yet to really understand, for all we have dived into it headfirst. We don’t actually know which way these connections might lead us, so maybe it’s sensible to plump for the most conservative option.

So what do you think? Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater here? Are we protecting our kids, or are we actually depriving them of meaningful connections with their teachers?

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Early adopters

My girls are early adopters. At 5 and 9 years of age, they bond fast, they bond hard, and they bond for life. Repeatedly. Over the last few weeks they have adopted my friends Heather and Sylvia. They have re-adopted my friends Michael, Chelsea and Rachael, and they have vigorously adopted my husband’s friend and colleague, Sorrell, together with his partner, Lynn.

Their hearts are wide open and all-encompassing. There is room in there for the whole world.

Sometimes it’s a tough road for them, when the bond is not reciprocated. Z yearned for her best friend from kinder years after said friend had moved on. JB is still planning to marry her kinder sweetheart, even after 12 months at a different school, and she still worships her kinder teacher, even while she adores her prep teacher with every fibre of her being. She is fully prepared to offer her next teacher her undying devotion, despite not having met her yet.

A year ago they met my friend Rachael, who threw herself wholeheartedly into water fights and games on their level, so that when she visited  a week ago, after meeting her just the once and 12 whole months ago, they could not wait to see her again. Now they are badgering us to visit her in Brisbane. Right after we visit their beloved adopted grandparents in Tasmania, their cousin and his girlfriend in Perth, and everyone else they have ever known and loved in the meantime. They have to visit them all NOW!

It’s hard when you’re always afraid
You just recover when another belief is betrayed
So break my heart if you must
It’s a matter of trust

You can’t go the distance
With too much resistance
I know you have doubts
But for God’s sake don’t shut me out

Billy Joel, A Matter of Trust

You could be forgiven, reading newspapers, watching TV or just reading status updates on Facebook and Twitter, for thinking that the world is a dark and dangerous place where you must guard your heart, your family and your wallet.  There are hoaxes flying around the world warning about hypodermic syringes on petrol pumps, deadly rat-borne viruses on cans of drink, and tracking devices on your car. We are building to a fever pitch of paranoia that threatens to break down the very fabric of our communities. That old saying “there are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met” takes on a very hollow ring. The overwhelming message is: Trust no-one. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t make eye contact.

Years ago I used to walk to kinder with my eldest daughter on her bike.  There were few people out and about on the footpaths, but those few that did walk tended to walk often, and we got to know the locals – especially those with dogs. One day one of them knocked on my door and said “Do you have a wood fire?”

I hesitated to answer, afraid that he was going to complain about smoke, but it turned out he had just cut a tree down and wanted to know if we wanted the wood. Later we took him some cookies as a thank you. In the years since then we have built a firm friendship with him and his family. A friendship which never would have existed had I stuck to the “don’t talk to strangers” rule.

Now that I am running regularly, I see many of the same faces out and about. We are beginning to recognise each other and share a brief moment of humanity in passing. Who knows which of these faces will become friends given time. Many would tell me I should guard against them. I have often been told I am too open. Too trusting. Too gullible.

And, of course, I have been burnt just like my girls by friendships that weren’t reciprocated, or that ended badly. But I share with them the faith that there are strangers here, and many of them are indeed friends we haven’t met yet. I will no doubt get burnt again, as will my girls, but in the meantime we will love and be loved with everything we have. We are early adopters, and it’s worth the risk.

Incommunicado

We are so connected these days. So switched on. So linked in, if you’ll pardon the pun. Watching my girls during their swimming lessons, I can be texting someone, facebook chatting with someone else, and checking my email all at the same time.

For keeping track of friends it’s wonderful. For knowing what loved ones overseas are up to, it’s amazing. Sharing photos – brilliant (although I must admit I am a trifle paranoid and refuse to post photos of my kids on facebook – it’s facebook’s policy that they can do whatever the hell they like with my photos that I find disturbing).

For keeping in touch, for really communicating? It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, I think it’s widening the disconnect, and replacing real community with a digital facsimile that just doesn’t stack up.

It’s wonderful for getting to know people on a surface level – I have connected with parents from my daughters’ school on there, and we know each other’s politics much better than we would have otherwise.  We share opinions on world events, and connect over things that perhaps we wouldn’t have found out otherwise.

When I’m lost in a strange place
Scared and alone
When I’m wishing for home
That’s when I think of you

But time and again I find that I think I know what’s going on in all my facebook friends’ lives. As though they must surely post everything significant that they do or feel online. As though clicking “like” or making a passing comment on their status is actually communicating. Really connecting.

It’s not.

We are social animals. Seeing each other’s faces is important. Touching each other, even if it’s just a hand shake, is crucial to us both physiologically and psychologically.

There are things even I won’t post on facebook, or on my blog (astounding, I know). There are feelings and traumas in my life that I can’t share online. There are connections I can’t make digitally that flow effortlessly over coffee.

This is not to say that it’s not possible to connect electronically. I have friends overseas with whom I have built intense and enduring friendships largely via email. But that’s personal, one to one email. It’s not public status swapping on facebook. It’s a direct and personal communication. Sometimes it’s even possible to share things via email that would be much harder to share face to face.

The danger, I think, lies in believing we know what’s going on in each other’s lives on the basis of our public personae. We run the risk of facebook usurping our real community. Filling a space in our busy lives that would otherwise be filled by calling each other, or catching up for coffee. “No need to do that,” I think. “She’s fine, just busy.” When in reality I have no idea how she actually is.

I saw a great post (on facebook!) the other day suggesting that the reason we feel insecure is that we are comparing our “behind the scenes” with everyone else’s “highlights reel”. And I think it goes deeper. I think we are replacing our in-depth, behind-the-scenes tours with glimpses of the highlights reels. We’re never even looking into each other’s eyes anymore.

I’m always thinking of you
It’s all that I can do
I’d go mad not being with you
If not for the thought of you
The promise of dreams come true
I’d go mad not being with you

That’s when I think of you – 1927.

I think it’s time I made a conscious effort to get off the computer (my goodness, how many times have I said that?) and call people. Organise more coffees. Have more dinner parties. Arrange more reunions. Tonight I’m blogging about it. Tomorrow I’m going to start doing it. I wake early. Why not join me? You can call anytime.

Digital Natives

Lately I’m starting to feel that I’m languishing on the wrong side of the digital divide. I’m starting to wonder if I’m really cut out for technology. I realise that this is a rather strange reflection for a teacher of Information Technology with a PhD in Computer Science. Perhaps it’s time to start calling me Dr Strange. It wouldn’t be the first time.

A few weeks ago I tried very hard to leave facebook. I was increasingly unhappy with the way facebook kept arbitrarily changing its sharing protocols so that information I had locked down under tight privacy settings kept getting made public in various surreptitious ways, which I only found out about when friends started posting warnings. (Fortunately these types of warnings tend to go viral fairly fast.)

I was also getting frustrated that facebook kept dictating what information I wanted to see, and who I wanted to interact with. Despite me repeatedly changing my settings to say “I want to see everything from everyone with equal priority”, it kept resetting the interface so that it could choose what I saw, the order in which I saw it, and who I was really friends with.

The internet is increasingly filtered, shaped and redirected by companies like facebook and google. They show you what they think you want to see, but also what they think they can make money out of you seeing. Google search results, on which we rely so heavily these days, are heavily biased in favour of paying customers and strange ranking rules. We see what Google wants us to see – after all, how often do you page through to the 3rd page of results, let alone the 10th? The information on the first page is likely to be all that ever makes it into your brain.

Sadly my attempt to ditch facebook hasn’t worked. I have too many friends on facebook who I am, I have to confess, better connected with because of facebook. I love the interaction, and seeing who responds when I share something I found particularly funny, poignant, or outrageous. I love the political conversations and the funny ones. I love that I can poke fun at English or Maths teachers and start small riots among my friends.

It’s a vital, interactive community. I am more connected with friends who live overseas. I have reconnected with old friends, and I find commonalities with them via facebook that I never would have guessed. It’s also a way to share news – although it’s highly suspect for that, because of its aforesaid tendency to hide or reveal posts according to its own bizarre agenda.

When the outside temperature rises
And the meaning is oh so clear
One thousand and one yellow daffodils
Begin to dance in front of you – oh dear
Are they trying to tell you something
You’re missing that one final screw
You’re simply not in the pink my dear
To be honest you haven’t got a clue

I never closed my account, and I will probably start posting there again soon, because I miss it. I hoped that friends would travel over to google+, but it hasn’t taken off among my circles yet. Posting on google+ at the moment feels a little like flinging bread pellets into an echoing abyss.

Most of my students are active on social media all day every day. I have to work hard to keep them engaged and off chat during class. They carry phones everywhere they go, and are highly responsive to them. And I admit that, under stress, I love to be able to text or chat with close friends and get sympathetic or encouraging responses. It helps me feel connected and supported.

At the same time, though, all this connectivity seems to take a toll. I wind up feeling frayed around the edges. It’s only when I step away from it, and stand outside sniffing the breeze and listening to the birds, that the frayed edges of my soul start to knit together. It’s stillness, meditation and peace that allow me to calm down. All my electronic gadgets conspire to deny me these things. They wind me up. It’s too tempting to sit hunched over my laptop browsing facebook, rather than going outside to breathe and reravel myself. The internet seems determined to keep me unravelled and buzzing.

I’m knitting with only one needle
Unravelling fast it’s true
I’m driving only three wheels these days
But my dear how about you

I’m going slightly mad
I’m going slightly mad
It finally happened

I am sure that my year 11s, reading this, would label me old fashioned, perhaps even curmudgeonly. I know that my kids rail against our restrictions on “screen time”, and are constantly seeking ways around those limits. They want nothing more than to be permanently logged in. Yet rather than relaxing their limits, I think I need to beef up my own. I need to prioritise the ravelling of my soul over the answering of my email. Just let me check who’s on facebook…

Silence isn’t as golden as it used to be

So don’t call me the tune – 

I will walk away

At my yoga class on Saturday, someone’s phone began to buzz part way through. It was on silent.  Silently buzzing.  It was a slightly startling pointer to the ways that technology is redefining our lives. Silence is not what it used to be.

It’s not just silence that is being redefined. Being uncontactable for any length of time tends to be received with shock, if not downright displeasure. People call mobiles just to chat, rather than for urgent conversations. I try to discourage people from using my mobile for anything that’s not desperately urgent, but I find myself fighting a desperate rearguard action – it’s quite likely that this battle is already lost.

And yet, despite this high degree of electronic availability, actual communication has plummeted. People text, rather than call. Worse still, they assume that chatting on facebook replaces telephone or even face to face contact. Birthday messages get written on electronic walls, and the answer to “what’s up?” is taken at face value, when no-one can actually  see your face. I could have tears streaming down my face, or be doubled over in pain, yet I can type “ok”, and be believed.

Electronic contact can be fantastic. Sometimes it allows you to have conversations that would be painfully difficult face to face. It makes contact with distant friends trivially easy. It is an incredible gift to be able to skype with a friend half way around the world. It has been my salvation when I have been ill and housebound. But when it replaces face to face contact, it is no longer a gift. Then it becomes a curse.

Just got to touch someone,

yeah, I want to be the one

So don’t call me the tune, I will walk away

One Country – Midnight Oil

We insist on people being readily contactable. We leap into action the moment the phone rings. And yet we have so little to say. It keeps coming back, for me, to community. When we interacted regularly with our neighbours, in a bygone era, people would notice if there was something up. When we interact via facebook, seven kinds of hell can be going on in our lives, and no-one need ever know. I could be hobbling around on a broken leg, and most of the people I call friends would never know if I didn’t post about it on facebook.

In my darker moments I fret that everyone else has a social life that doesn’t include me. There have been a few of those darker moments lately, as I battle chronic pain and the resulting exhaustion. But what if the truth is actually much more depressing than that? What if not having a community is the new normal?

A recent news story tells of a woman in Sydney who died up to 8 years ago, and nobody noticed. To be fair, she was 87 and probably died before facebook became popular. And these kinds of stories have popped up from time to time for years. But…I can’t help wondering. Are we replacing real life with virtual? Do our communities actually exist? What does it mean if your friends stop appearing in your facebook newsfeed?  And how long would it take for you to notice?

Sometimes I crave silence and a book – but the silence I crave definitely doesn’t buzz. More often I crave people, and the contact I crave is not with dots on a screen.

The good, the bad and the ugly of Facebook

My post about traumatic defriending prompted some very strong responses on the subject of facebook. Many people who were once staunch fans loathe facebook now – and that’s even without considering the privacy concerns (which most of us seem content to sweep under the carpet). Facebook was a leech on their lives, was the overall message. They were much happier without it. Or they had never signed up, because of various inherent flaws in the whole idea.

It has prompted me to examine my own attitudes to facebook. I was highly resistant to it at first – adamant that I would not be a part of it. I am a bit paranoid about privacy, and I’m still not comfortable with facebook’s attitude to that – but then, I have my entire electronic life on gmail, and I’m not convinced I can trust them either, so blackballing facebook on privacy grounds would be a little arbitrary for me.

I eventually created myself a facebook account in order to look at a friend’s photos. In no time a long-lost friend had found me there, and the rest is history. I don’t play games or enable any facebook apps, mostly for privacy reasons – using any facebook applications gives the application writer access to all of your facebook data. You can’t set any restrictions. And even if I trusted facebook itself (hah!), how do I even know who wrote these apps, and what they are going to do with the data?

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

It is certainly true that facebook is a time leech. A friend of mine used to have a fascinating screen saver (back when screen savers, and indeed computers, were relatively rare and primitive) that he called “soul sucker”, because anyone in the room when it came on would find themselves staring at it blankly. Facebook is definitely a candidate for soul sucker status, even if you don’t play games. I have to exercise considerable self control to keep myself from being sucked into the psychological equivalent of a black hole, updating my status, looking at the status of others, looking at photos, and trawling people’s friend lists for someone I might know.

But, like most technology, the good, the bad and the ugly are all in the way you use it. For instance, when I first signed up I had a tendency to leave birthday messages on it for people I would once have called. Now I generally choose to make the call instead. Facebook is no substitute for face to face or at least voice to voice contact. The ugly, I think, is when you use facebook as a substitute for real life interaction.

Out there things can happen, and frequently do
To people as brainy and footsy as you.

The good is in the renewed contact with people I had otherwise lost touch with. Some of that contact drops off again, as it turns out there was a reason we had drifted apart, but sometimes it actually brings us closer together. I can post a query to facebook (like “where do I find a purple fairy broach for my 3 year old???”) and get a host of useful answers within minutes. I learn things about the lives of work colleagues that I didn’t already know, and when I am in a slump for some reason, I can often find entertainment and sympathy through facebook, when I might otherwise be too deeply slumped to lift the phone.

And when you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun
Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

With facebook, unslumping yourself can sometimes be a little easier – like yesterday, when I posted just two words (“Bloody reflux”), and quickly got a host of sympathetic responses that made me feel much happier, despite having had no sleep due to my 3 year old’s reflux the night before.

Sometimes I find common ground through status updates, where friends share hobbies or concerns that I didn’t expect. Facebook is also a most effective way to advertise my blog – I suspect that over 50% of my readers find out about new posts via facebook (Hi there! :-).

Sadly, the bad of facebook is legion. Privacy concerns, people posting way too much information, surreptitious defriending, cyber-stalking – these are all serious issues. Or, at least, they can be. By and large the positives for me still outweigh the negatives. I have fairly paranoid security settings (only friends can see my stuff, not friends of friends, who could be anyone!), and there are new ways of creating groups so that not all of your “friends” can see everything you post. I don’t usually bother with those, though – these days I understand that facebook is not private at all, so I don’t post anything I wouldn’t want publicly visible.

Overall I think that the problem is that we have not developed sensible, compassionate etiquette around the relatively new technology of social networking. When you get right down to it, whatever the technology, we always need to remember to treat each other with respect, compassion and kindness. New technologies offer us new ways to be inconsiderate and cruel – but we can see, and hence avoid them if we try.

You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
And remember that life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

Facebook can be a positive force, but only if we consciously and deliberately use it positively. In that respect we are somewhat at the mercy of our facebook friends. One person using it unpleasantly can sour the experience for everyone. But that’s life itself, isn’t it?

*All quotes in this piece come from Dr Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”

Traumatic defriending

I have just experienced my first traumatic facebook defriending. I have, of course, been defriended before, but it was neither unexpected nor traumatic in those cases – at least, the ones I have noticed. And that’s the strange thing about defriending. You don’t get notified. There is nothing to alert you to it, particularly if that friend was never a prolific poster. There is no gap left in your friend list. No placeholder where that friend should be. Nothing can be a little hard to spot.

In this case I noticed when I happened to be browsing the profile of a mutual friend, and noticed that my ex-friend – let’s call him DF, for De Friender – DF’s name was missing under “mutual friends”. Disbelieving at first, I searched for him, hoping that perhaps it was facebook itself that he had defriended, as some of my friends have in the past. But no. He was still there. With lots of friends. But I was no longer one of them.

It came as a shock. After the first few moments of denial, I had to face the fact that it was no accident. Someone I cared about had declared himself, albeit silently and surreptitiously, no longer my friend. It was like a surreal, slow motion punch to the solar plexus. It may have been weeks before I noticed. He was never online a lot, and I am not sufficiently paranoid to spend hours searching my friends list for any sign of someone who is not there.

I don’t know what the etiquette is now. In some ways I would like to simply click on the “add as a friend” button next to his name, but that feels rather feeble and pathetic. If I were brave I would call him and ask why he did it – my preference is always for open and direct communication – but defriending is surely a way of saying that communication with me is no longer welcome, so perhaps I should respect that.

heart crossed out

The difficulty I have is with the silence of it all. Some might see it as a relatively painless way of being disconnected. There is no direct assault. No barbed words. Not even a nasty letter, or a stinging text. But in an odd sort of way I think I would handle those better. At least they might give me some clue as to why.

As it is, I can’t help puzzling over it. Was I too this? Not enough that? Horrifyingly something else? Silence tends to bring out my worst paranoia, and this is no exception. There is no closure. No explanation. Just a gap where a relationship used to be.

Of course it’s important to remember that facebook is not the real world. There is no telling how DF would react if we were to meet in the street. But having been defriended I am reluctant to try any direct contact. I imagine he would be polite and distantly friendly, as he was whenever we chatted online. But what would he be thinking? Perhaps it’s better not to know.

Facebook, twitter, and even sms, are changing the way we interact in fairly radical ways. Sometimes they make it possible to get back in touch with old friends, but they have also created new ways to hurt us. Ways that we really haven’t understood yet, let alone developed any real etiquette for. They provide apparently remote, impersonal and painless ways to detach ourselves from people, but without regard for the consequences. In the world of social networking, consequences happen to other people – and we never see their faces.