by: danah boyd

Yesterday, I received an email about one person's Facebook usage that I felt the urge to share:

A little over 6 months ago, my stepmom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She is doing alright now, but during her chemotherapy she was isolated from friends and family due to a compromised immune system. She could still see people, but had to keep human interactions to a minimum.

During that time, Facebook became this way for her to communicate and interact with the world. Being able to see pictures of friends and family and receiving comments would brighten her day. It was really amazing how she was able to adopt this technology temporarily and how valuable it became to her. As her life has returned to normal, she has had less time for Facebook. Originally, one of her friends had helped her create the profile, but it wasn't part of her normal life. So now that things are more "normal", she has talked about how it is hard to maintain her Facebook relationships.

In following up with the son, he shared an additional element with me that is also important: "Even though she is older, she has friends that are college age that she knew through her religious activities. So most of the people she was talking to were of college age. But as the technology becomes more pervasive among older generations, I could totally see being able to communicate with a broader range of friends."

What I find so compelling about this account is that it is a reminder that in-person encounters are not always possible or ideal. Geography isn't the only limiting factor. I'm always intrigued to hear stories of people with disabilities using the Internet to build connections that were otherwise impossible for them. Likewise, it's astonishing the role that the Internet plays in helping people who are ill.

I'm also reminded of all of the awkwardness that occurs when illness gets in the way of friendship and the role that technology can play. In this case, the woman is unable to see her friends frequently. But there's another layer here. When someone's sick, the topic is always hanging in the air. In some cases, it's always the topic of conversation. In others, it's a difficult subject to broach. Back when I was studying blogging, I spoke with an HIV+ man who told me that he started blogging so he could let his friends know about his health. He had found that there was no comfortable way for them to ask in social settings. "Can you pass the ketchup? Oh, and how are your T cells?" didn't quite work. Likewise, there was no good way for him to bring it up without creating awkward moments. So he decided to anonymously blog about his illness. His friends could get a sense of how he was doing and he could share it and everyone could look when it was most appropriate for them and their in-person interactions could have a more sane cadence. One huge challenge in being sick is figuring out how to participate "normally" in social settings. Mediated interactions can often be quite valuable in this regard.

There are many other important nuggets in this account. Technology's value is often dependent on where one's at in their life. Inter-generational relationships can be enhanced through these tools. Social awareness can be tremendously fulfilling (and should not be seen as purely vacuous). I don't want to go into a proper analysis here, but hopefully this story makes you think.

Anyhow, I like being reminded of how these tools fit into people's lives in different ways and I thought maybe you would too. Oh, and if you have a story of your own to share, I'm all ears.

Original Post: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/01/23/using_facebook.html

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