The pitfalls of social media are plentiful. On Facebook you may be friends with a person only to discover the two of you have nothing in common. It’s akin to sharing a table at a banquet with someone you know through a friend of a friend of a friend’s co-worker.
Initially the conversation is polite and non-committal. Topics include references to occupation, weather, kids and mutual business interests.
But by the time you’ve reached the main course you realize the diminutive and soft-spoken grants writer for a respected non-profit not only preaches the Word according to Rush, but also considers Andrew Breitbart and Sarah Palin the epitome of American values and, albeit after a glass or two of wine, sheepishly admits she wishes they were her parents.
The revelations, needless to say, are unexpected and unsettling and leave you wondering if your nipple rings are visible through your dress shirt. You also decide then and there that it would be a bad idea to roll up your sleeves for fear of revealing even the slightest hint of your Bill Maher smoking a joint tattoo.
But the potential for uncomfortable moments via this new world of sharing extends beyond the political realm. It can also leave you grappling with the essence of what it means to be social.
When, for example, a “friend” on Facebook reveals that the night before they and their spouse enjoyed a 20th anniversary celebratory meal and without warning the wife died in her sleep, what do you say?
Or when parents post that their child was killed just hours before and they list all the wonderfully common and touching characteristics of this person you never knew, are you supposed to click like?
What’s the protocol for comforting a “friend” you’ve made by virtue of allowing them into your circle only because they know someone who knows someone who sort of knows you?
Even in the non-virtual world of flesh and blood and tears, “I’m sorry for your loss” feels light and inconsequential. But to type these words and click send seems to add an even heavier hollowness to a sentiment that is supposed to comfort a friend. Or even a stranger.
Do we share the tragic news with our followers in hopes of prompting more words of comfort for the strangers among us?
Or do we pretend that we didn’t see the post and carry on with our lives, reading about our friends’ vacations, their idiot bosses and exceptional children?
In real life, at that banquet table, it’s easy enough to reach out to that grant writer and offer them a consoling pat on the arm. But in the world of social media, the answers aren’t always user-friendly.