Say what you want about Facebook, its tendency to produce emotional over-sharing, and somewhat conceited selfies, but Facebook has done something great for us, it has given us empathy for life situations we might never experience ourselves.
Before Facebook, if someone you went to highschool with died, you might have read about it in the local newspaper, but chances are, you would find out when you attended your next high school reunion. Their death might have about as much impact on you as any other gossip around the punch bowl. Now, if someone dies, you can visit their page, see how much they were loved and read the thoughts they were willing to share publicly. You can let their life matter to you, and choose to care about the people who are missing them. Write a comment. Say a prayer.
Thanks to Facebook, I know people who have struggled with anorexia, who have had a miscarriage, who live with a terminal disease. I have new compassion for people who struggle with depression or anxiety. I know people with completely different ideologies than mine and I understand that they are coming from a sincere place, even if I still don’t agree with them. I understand that the world is so much bigger than my personal experiences and I strive harder to walk alongside people who are struggling instead of dismissing them.
Facebook has given me the chance to ask for prayer when I’m in pain, and watch friends share my request with their friends, until suddenly strangers have become invested in my life, supporting me when I need support the most.
Facebook gives us a chance to be generous. We used to watch sad stories on the news and feel helpless, now we see tragedy unfold and set up giving campaigns. The campaigns shared through social medial illustrate the power of community, as we all watch small donations from individuals add up to life-changing amounts in a matter of days.
Facebook has spread the joy of giving a really big tip, the thrill of paying off a stranger’s Christmas layaway, and it continues to inspire all of us to think of inventive ways to surprise people with unexpected love.
Yes, I will still cringe when a teenager overshares, but then I will think of how glad I am to live in a world where we feel connected enough to be vulnerable with each other. The compassion I’ve learned from Facebook transforms how I live my life out in the real world too. I see souls walking past me, craving likes and comments, and so I give out a few more compliments and a lot more smiles. I remember that it is possible to truly invest in situations I may never experience myself, and that a few kind words can make someone’s day, or at least their hour.
Virtual interaction is not killing our natural sense of community; it is giving us a thoughtful question to ask when we run into an old friend; it is showing us how to offer tangible help when someone is hurting. Facebook is an online incubator of empathy and compassion. The long-term impact for good is impossible to know, because we are only just now beginning to hatch.