social networking: sucking time, saving lives, and the gray in-between

I think it’s fair to say that many of us who write our own blogs also read a lot of blogs. We might also spend a fair amount of time on twitter. We might also waste a bit of time on facebook. And before we know it, we might find ourselves wondering how it got to be 1am and we still haven’t put the dinner dishes away.

And by we, I mean me.

I spend entirely too much time online. It's what a call a neutral addiction. It's not hurting anyone - I'm not flying into a drunk rage or throwing my life away or getting arrested. I'm just quietly wasting lots and lots of time.

I have a love-hate relationship with social media. It has certainly expanded my worldview and made me feel a part of a broader community of moms. I have never had that sense of isolation as a mom that I heard my mother’s generation talk about. Despite the fact that some days I don’t ever make it out of my pj’s, I still feel like I get to do a little socializing every night on facebook. When my kids go down for a nap, I can catch up on my reader to see what my friends are doing, or relate to an anecdote from someone else in a similar lifestage. I can blog about my struggles with choosing a minivan, or dealing with the school bully, or my inability to remember my assigned snack day in the classroom, and the comments often feel like my very own community of women, propping me up and guiding me along the journey.  It's also provided me with an amazing community of adoptive moms, with families that look like mine.  I may not see them every day, but I know they are out there, and I get to keep up with them on facebook and twitter.

And really, without twitter, how else can I let John Mayer know what a douchebag he is, or pretend like I'm friends with Michael Ian Black?

At the same time, I often think about how social media affects my priorities (and if I’m honest, my parenting). My tether to the online world is short and demanding. For something that was created for fun, I often feel an overwhelming compulsion throughout my day to get a post up, to think of something clever to say on twitter, and to make sure I’ve caught up on everyone’s updates on facebook as if it’s a pressing to-do list. I wonder how my life would be different if I didn’t have the distraction of social media. Would I be more present with my kids? (Yes). Would I be a better cook? (Probably). Would I be competing in a triathalon? (Well, let’s not get carried away). I have frequent checks with myself about my time spent online, and I’m aware that there is a fine line between recreation and addiction. I’m also aware that I am frequently on the wrong side of that line.

I confess that there are many times that I feel tempted to go “unplugged”. I fantasize about a kinder, simpler existence where I’m not worried about whether or not my sarcasm is coming across in my tweet about wearing a MILF shirt, or whether or not my father might be reading a post about my disdain for g-string underwear. I often wonder what level of self-actualization I could be at if I went to bed at a normal time, instead of furiously scribbling off a self-mocking account of my day each evening. At least a couple times a year, I become so disgusted with my social networking habit that I regret ever having discovered the world of social media.

And yet, I can recall times when we’ve been going to Haiti, and I posted a list of supplies we needed to take down, and within a few days I had a pile of donations from friends. I am cognizant of how my blog helped me in explaining the many stages of our journey through the fostercare system as we adopted our oldest, and how many painful conversations were spared by my ability to keep our circle of friends informed online. I am aware of how easy it is to update family on our big life events (contrasting giving birth pre- and post-twitter: the hours I spend making exhausted phone calls after having India, vs. the quick text that updated twitter and thus updated Facebook and thus updated my circle of friends that Karis had arrived).

I was feeling this dichotomy fiercely at the beginning of this year. I was excited about the fact that I had helped raise $30,000 for a birthing center in Haiti with a team of amazing women – a feat that was accomplished primarily through social networking. I also completed my first half-marathon with a group of other adoptive moms I’ve known for years, but had never met in person (our bonds being formed through the blogging world). But I was also feeling burnt out on blogging, and tired of the way I felt like my writing habit was a job from which there was no vacation (and very little pay). I was again in a stage of wanting to throw my computer into a body of water and free myself from the self-imposed obligations of my online world.

And then, I took a quick trip to Haiti to visit the little boy we’d been trying to adopt for two years. And then, an earthquake.

The days following the earthquake in Haiti were every bit as terrifying as the event itself. It was a different kind of terror . . . a dull, overwhelming sense of dread and fear that had a cloudy, disassociative feeling to it, in contrast to the sharp focus of the earthquake itself. The terror was diluted with a heady sense of relief and gratitude to have survived.

I would like to say that I found some sort of supernatural strength in the days following the earthquake, but in reality, I felt scared, weak, and alone. I was without my husband, and without two of my children, and I missed them terribly. I was also very worried about getting out of the country. My infant daughter who traveled with me was sick, and we were beginning to hear about issues with food and water. The phone lines were down, and we had a day where we really had no contact with the outside world.

But worse than all of that, I was convinced that this earthquake would halt the adoption process from Haiti, and that this little boy who I had visited and bonded with for two years would never be my son. We had been through so many hurdles in his adoption process, and I was certain that the mountains of paperwork now covered in concrete at the Haitian social services office marked the tragic end of our efforts.

And this is when something unexpected came from all of this seemingly frivolous social media I’ve engaged with for so long.

In the moments just after the earthquake, we had a brief interlude of internet access via satellite. My new friend Erin and I had been staying in a guest house that was now structurally compromised, so we walked with our children over to the house of Troy and Tara Livesay. Troy was able to update his twitter account that evening. He posted that there had been an earthquake, and that he and his family were okay. He posted that Erin and I were okay - which is how most of my friends learned that I was alright. As information came available, he posted about the people he knew who had survived, and about the stories he was hearing of the devastation reported by the friends who were stopping by. At this point, we really had no idea of the scope of this earthquake, though each visitor brought more and more troubling information. Troy continued to update via twitter, as we sat in their driveway weathering the terrifying aftershocks.

I can't remember how long, but shortly after that we lost internet signal, and it was off for what seemed like a long time. Erin and I were trying to get flights home. My baby was fevered and vomiting.  The mosquitoes were fierce but we were also scared to be indoors. I desperately wanted to get Karis out of Haiti, and be back at home with my family. I couldn't reach my husband, and we had no way of contacting anyone.

When the internet finally came back on, we all quickly grabbed our laptops, hoping to send a few emails, find out when flights were resuming, and log into CNN to see if we could get a broader view of what was happening in Port-Au-Prince. I'll never forget Tara finding a picture of the crushed presidential palace, and the dread that came over the room when she showed us. And then hearing Troy realize that his tweets were being broadcast from every major news network. There were no reporters in Haiti yet, and no flights coming in or out. Troy was the news. He was not just updating our friends and family. He was updating the world.

Haiti was a trending topic on Twitter - and continued to be for weeks. Many people were talking about ways to give. People with friends in Haiti were asking for information. People in Haiti were tweeting their addresses and updates, but also pictures of people they were searching for. We also saw people tweeting their  coordinates - "I hear a voice coming from a building at 31 Delmas - need help digging".  Bresma orphanage tweeted their GPS coordinates for days, asking for someone to bring food and water to their dehydrated children. Twitter was becoming the coordination center for aid in Haiti.

And then I logged into facebook.

I thought I would quickly update my status. What I saw brought me to tears. All of my friends were posting messages for me - my wall was full of people asking about me, offering to help, and posting their prayer support. In those days of disconnect from my family and friends, facebook became a way to instantly feel connected again. It also became a communication tool. I couldn't call Mark, and we were separated by time zones. But when I had a rare moment online, I could ask a friend to call and wake him so he could get online to chat. The first day I posted about my canceled flights - and then I was offline for a day. When I got back online, I saw people moving into action on my behalf. Someone had an uncle in the military in the Domincan Republic - they were working on a helicopter. Someone knew a Haitian with a private plane - they were working on a seat. Someone knew a missionary outfitter who had a standby seat with my name on it. Friends continued to keep me updated on my commercial flight cancellations via facebook.

In the end, none of these options panned out, as the only way out of Haiti in that first month was via military jet from the embassy. But it was such a relief to know that my friends were pulling for me, and trying their best to get me home.

My husband had also updated my blog for me, which received hundreds of comments in those first few days. Even though internet was spotty, I could click on my blog comments and then read them after we lost connection - a way of feeling support in the glow of my laptop after our contact was cut off. I sat reading my facebook and blog comments long into the night - bawling and yet feeling bolstered by the prayers and support of friends and strangers. Those days after the earthquake were some of the lowest points in my life - but I also felt some of the most intense love from others. And beyond my own comfort, facebook was also a place where people were exchanging information on how to support Haiti.

Once I was home and reunited with my family, my blog and social networking sites became instrumental in the attempt to get our son Kembe out of Haiti and into our home. I left Haiti assuming that his adoption was stalled at best - but with very little hope. When I got home, someone I didn't even know had send me a message through facebook.  She asked me to get involved in petitioning the government to allow already approved families who were matched with orphans to bring them into the states and finalize the adoption from here. I immediately started campaigning to get our government to grant humanitarian parole for orphans who had approved families.  I penned a frantic blog post my first morning home - asking people to call our state reps.  I asked my facebook friends to do the same.  They posted my blog as their own status update.  I watched the word get out quickly. That was a Sunday.

On Monday morning, I woke up to messages on my cell phone from Barbara Boxer and Dana Rhorbacher's office.  Before I had even had a chance to call them, people had called on my behalf.  I had my government leaders aware of our story and working behind the scenes - all from a blog post pleading for help.  I think you know how this story ends . . . but just in case, five days later the US Secretary of State and the Haitian government agreed to give humanitarian parole to already in-process orphans.  Our son came home January 23rd.

Now, I don't presume that my little blog and my facebook page is responsible for this decision.  But I do believe that it was a tiny little ripple in that movement, and I'm extremely humbled by the way my friends and readers (yes, you) moved into action.  And if I haven't said it clearly yet, THANK YOU.  From the bottom of my heart.

So, I continue with my ambivalence towards this social networking thing . . . aware of the way I'm choosing to waste my time, but with a fondness for the friends it has brought me, and for that little moment in time when I was in a pit of despair, and a virtual mob of people put their hands together and collectively pulled me out.

Thank you for that.

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