by Rod D. Martin
December 31, 2015

Today is New Year’s Eve, yesterday was my younger daughter’s birthday, and three months ago I turned 46. And it occurred to me this morning that life is a great deal like a Facebook wall or a Twitter feed.

We spend a lot of time on both these days. They move the world. Polls find that large numbers use them as a major source of news, many as their primary news source. A lot of us older folks keep track of our kids through Facebook in particular (though FaceTime has augmented that in lovely ways). I’m sure the kids keep track of us too, if only to aid in evasion.

There was one month several years ago in which my entire high school class found one another through Facebook. Many of us had not been in touch with more than a handful of our classmates for many years. Suddenly nearly all of us were “together” again, despite having scattered across continents. We’ve stayed together, regularly interacting as a group and forming adult friendships that previously were not so much unimaginable or impossible as simply not the sort of thing anyone would think of in the first place.

So much for the idea that technology separates us.

Despite our sometimes passionate debates over this meme or that news story, walls and feeds are impermanent. You can spend hours crafting the perfect argument. A few days later, it is never to be seen again (well, unless you’re an idiot like Anthony Weiner). No one sees it, no one cares, and everyone’s not only on to the next thing but the next hundred things. This is even worse now that Facebook allows comments on comments: the chances of any of that lasting into the future, presidential legacy-like, are slim to none. Half the people in the main conversation won’t see what you wrote, even when you’re writing it. Participation is entertaining, it’s frequently intense, and then it’s gone.

Much like our lives. For our days pass away like smoke. We are but a shadow, a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

This gets depressing if you dwell on the seeming futility. But “seeming” is the correct word.

All that news? It matters, and is greatly enhanced by the debates we engage in, iron sharpening iron and people being persuaded by thoughts they’d never otherwise have encountered. The world of 1800 was immeasurably better than the world of 1774. A million unrecorded conversations, lost in the mists of history, before, during and after the American Revolution are the reason why. They didn’t make it into volumes of Federalist Papers, but they moved the world and continue to do so. Social media makes the conversation global.

Of course, there’s no need for a comment or a status update to stay in a feed. Those Federalist Papers were once in newspapers I don’t read and wasn’t alive to see. Someone saved them, edited them, put them in books, passed them down. Why couldn’t you do the same for your best work, if only for your grandkids? How many people cherish troves of letters written by a grandparent? How is this any different?

I frequently provoke debates on Facebook for precisely these purposes. Debate makes me better, makes me sharper, hones my arguments. The interaction raises questions I might not have thought of, forces me to write on topics I wouldn’t have considered, demands I substantiate half-formed thoughts with data. Sometimes I’m persuaded by my opponents, sometimes my opponents serve as foils, allowing me to persuade others. But the intended audience is usually the reader of an essay or book then not-yet-written.

Still, it’s the relationships that count the most. Social media has immeasurably enriched all our lives, with friendships we would not have had, opportunities to comfort the hurting, celebrate with the victorious, laugh with the happy, mourn with the sad, teach the simple and be taught by the wise, on a scale never known in all the time of man.

Is its transitory nature, its functional impermanence, its constant change a metaphor, or perhaps a microcosm of, our own ephemeral existence?

Yes. But that is not a bad thing. Rather, the realization of that truth is an opportunity, to better focus on what matters in the moment, and to set aside those moments which might be of lasting value, to create a worthy legacy for those who come after.

When the Emperor Hadrian was asked how he intended to build a wall across Britannia, he answered, “Brick by brick, my citizens. Brick by brick.” Civilization is a whole far greater than the sum of human knowledge or achievement. We all build it, together, every day.