Facebook and being a Rabbi

I think I get it.  I was finally convinced to join Facebook this week, and since I was sick I had a couple days to just play.  The feeling is very much like college — you lived with a large group of people, and bumped into them all across campus all day in various spots.  So you automatically kept up with their lives, made plans, etc.  Socializing has been more difficult ever since leaving college — I recognized that almost immediately — because you didn’t have any interaction unless you made an effort.   Some people get it in their neighborhood; but if you’re shy to begin with, it takes a long time to make those connections.  I’ve never managed to live in a Jewish neighborhood, where it might have come more as a matter of course, or for that matter anywhere very long, and now we’re out in the country.  I’m an introvert, believe it or not, and constantly reaching out is not my natural mode.  (Or, now that I have kids, I can say it this way: it takes me forever to make a playdate — whether for them or for me.)

So Facebook restores that “central market square” (to use another metaphor, equally valid in human history) where we’re just out there, available to mingle.  Even if I haven’t been there for a while, others are there, and whoever I run into, I can start an interesting conversation, or catch up from a long time ago.

I think it’s going to be especially valuable in keeping up with family.  I’m in a funny position where there is an entire congregation whose lives I am responsible for keeping up with, and I *must* make those phone calls/return those emails/go visit.  It is required and expected and there are bad consequences — ranging from as internal as my own guilt to as solid and concrete as folks quitting the congregation — if I fail to do these things on a regular basis.

And that takes a lot of the psychic energy that this introvert has.  I stay connected with my immediate family because I live with them.  But my extended family — and it is large and wonderful! — not to mention the few friends that I have managed to keep up with all these years (who either are patient with my sporadicity [ <= good word, no? ] or who are as sporadic themselves) …  ok, I think that sentence really should have been restructured into two.  Ah well — having described my family and friends a little, I will now go on: My extended family and my distant friends often don’t get much of my energy, because it takes SO MUCH energy sometimes just contemplating lifting up the phone, and I so often arrive home with little left. Sad but true.

And starting an email conversation sometimes feels like reaching out into the night — whereas with Facebook, I can see what they’ve been up to lately, and join right in where they are.  Email also brings with it the obligation not to miss the return message, and with my in-box and intermittent email use, that’s a problem too.

Which is another area where Facebook excels: “Stacking” email messages into conversations (threads), as my cell phone does by calling them “chats.”  So the most recent message in that thread is the only one in my Inbox, and when I open it, all the previous messages are laid out above it.  So I can see exactly what we’ve been talking about as I’m writing back.  I predict that email software is going to have to morph into this presentation — in the not-to-distant future, I hope!

For all of people’s concerns about “connecting” electronically and not face-to-face, there is something about this that feels more intimate and communal than I had expected.  Perhaps another part of it is having the person’s picture present at your interactions.

I wonder what the proportion of women to men actively posting on Facebook is — or perhaps more accurately, if there are general trends of difference between how women and men use Facebook.  I would expect some generational differences too.  I also seem to see that, at least among my acquaintances, the people posting the most tend not to be employed by a regular 9-to-5 employer.  All of which is to be expected.  Personally, I love being able to read and post from my phone; though Facebook automatically posted my cell phone number to my information page and I had to go immediately and delete it, since I don’t give that out.  If you join Facebook, the first thing to do is review and change your privacy settings to a level you feel comfortable with, and then you have to review periodically.

As rabbi of a congregation, I still think about what I post more carefully than others might feel they need to.  That, of course, is true for me everywhere: there, here, in my bulletin articles, in my personal interactions.  I tend to be pretty informal, but there is still a lot of personal information that I keep personal, just because I am a central figure.  Or, as Rabbi Jack Bloom put it in his essay, a “Symbolic Exemplar.”  Somebody who takes on large significance in other peoples’ lives, out of proportion, in a way, to who I am as a person.  (Apparently he’s turned it into a book — which is appropriate, because there’s a book that could be written on the subject.  I’ve been thinking about that this week, too.)  So for instance, I didn’t mention on Facebook that I was sick while I was sick.

But because of that careful distance, there is an isolation that is perhaps inevitable, at least for an introvert.  Coming to Founder’s Day on Friday night at Temple Gates of Heaven, after having been shmoozing with congregants for 3 days on Facebook, I felt a more immediate sense of being connected, relaxed and sure in the relationships that we have.  It was a very interesting experience.