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Facebook Won't Feed You in a Blackout

The social network has this right: Friend is a verb.

In a commercial for the Toyota Venza, a young woman sitting at a computer says, “I read an article, well I read the majority of an article online, about how older people are becoming more and more anti-social. So I was really aggressive with my parents about joining Facebook.” She adds sarcastically: “My parents are up to 19 friends now."

The commercial cuts to her smiling parents driving with their bikes mounted on the top of the car and then shows scenes of them mountain biking with friends. The camera flashes back to the daughter sitting alone with her computer. She says: “I have 687 friends. This is living.” 

When the snowstorm and the resulting power outage hit Saturday and the hours without electricity turned to days, I’m betting most of us didn’t turn to people who are only Facebook friends to find shelter, food and light. We turned to people with whom we had broken bread, those whose kids we drove to soccer practice or babysat for, the people we helped through a breakup or an illness. 

I’m not anti-technology; this column is completely Internet-dependent. And Facebook is great for finding old friends and fomenting revolution, (a la Arab Spring.) But when a crisis hits, even a small one like an extended outage, it’s really flesh and blood friends we need. That’s where social capital comes in. 

People build up social capital one act at a time – pet sitting for one friend and driving another to a doctor’s appointment. The best neighbors and friends don’t keep score but most of us try to give as much as we get.

I write this from the warmth of a friend’s home; my family has been without power since Saturday. Friends and relatives have taken us in for meals, showers, to recharge our phones and laptops, let us use their WiFi, do laundry and given us warm places to work and play.  One of our friends’ homes became a makeshift shelter, doing everything from feeding blackout refugees (which would be a great name for a band) to taking in pet fish. 

At one point the friends we stayed with Saturday in Salisbury Township had 14 kids and 6 adults under their roof. They stretched a pot of spaghetti and a couple of frozen pizzas a long way. While the kids played board games, the adults watched the 1968 horror film “Night of the Living Dead” and had a terrific time making fun of the dialog and very slow moving zombies. 

Facebook is good for getting the word out and organizing networks of people to help each other. But if you’re spending a lot of time online with your Facebook friends, when do you have time to cultivate flesh and blood friendships and to earn the social capital that comes in handy in emergencies? 

Here’s something Facebook has right: Friend IS a verb. Being a friend is a collection of actions, small and large, including even relatively passive ones, like listening. Or as the old Clint Black song goes: “Love isn’t something that we have, it’s something that we do.” 

To those people with power who took us in, we blackout refugees thank you. The next crisis is on us.

Tracy Antonioli November 03, 2011 at 05:30 PM
Actually, Facebook did provide heat for my grandparents earlier this week. True story. When my dad called me on Sunday, desperate, unable to find anywhere open selling kerosene for his 90 year old parents' space heater, I put a request out on Facebook (using my smart phone, which was the only thing working at the time.) Within 30 minutes I got a reply from a friend--whom I've only run into once or twice in real life since 1998. Within an hour, my grandparents and father had kerosene to keep them warm through the night. This is not to say that I disagree with anything you've written--in fact, I agree completely. But I think that 'social capital'--and true friendships--can also exist in a very real way in a very virtual world. Or maybe I just have really awesome Facebook friends!
Margie Peterson November 03, 2011 at 07:29 PM
Thanks Mark, Zulma, Bruce and Beth. Jennifer and Tracy, your examples of how Facebook helped in an emergency are good ones. It serves me right for generalizing.
MS November 04, 2011 at 12:31 PM
Kept in touch and up to date with my whole family through fb on my iphone....learned alot about how the progress was going as well and kept up with my weather patrol people at lehigh valley weather patrol on fb.....would have been pretty dull without it
Mary Anne Looby November 04, 2011 at 01:17 PM
Lovely!
Gardenerrobin November 04, 2011 at 02:19 PM
Great article!! I am sure that FB was a valuable resource to some during this storm. I really hope that it was a learning experience on how unprepared most of us are to deal with a crisis and take care of our basic needs. There is a lot of great information here http://www.ready.gov/index.html

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