The Virtual Water Cooler

by Michelle Gagnon

The other night I found myself debating the merits and pitfalls of social networking with a group of friends. As always, people seem to fall into one of two camps: there’s the group that thinks Facebook and its ilk are slowly destroying the social fabric, ensnaring people into shadow lives that are only experienced virtually. On the other side are people who think that social networking sites have made it much easier to connect and stay in touch with people, improving their daily existence.

The subject initially came up because of an event I attended recently. “Pop up Magazine” is a one-night only live magazine produced in San Francisco. Like a print mag, it’s divided into “Shorts,” “Features,” etc. For me the most fascinating “feature” of the night was an interview with a former Guantanamo Bay prison guard. Apparently after he was discharged, his stance on things that had happened during his stationing there shifted. The soldier made it a mission to seek out former prisoners and apologize to them- and to find them, he used Facebook. The woman interviewing him asked, “Why Facebook?” And he looked at her as thought she’d asked why he considered using the telephone to call home. Apparently there are numerous FB groups subscribed to by both former guards and prisoners where they interact, swap stories, and try to find common ground.

I found that absolutely fascinating.

Now, I understand the argument against these networking sites. There’s something terribly depressing about seeing a couple tapping away at their various electronic devices in complete silence during dinner- as I witnessed the other night at a restaurant. But for some of us, the social networking tools have filled a void. Could we live without them? Absolutely. But I would miss my virtual water cooler.

Of course, I’m a bit of a rare case. I spend most of my day alone, in total silence. I work best under those circumstances-and I’m not someone who minds being alone. But aside from the UPS guy, without Facebook, my day would be devoid of most social contact.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing (although it does lend itself to bouncing a ball against a wall for hours on end, or typing the same sentence over and over…)

I love the little breaks spent chatting with people online. I get a kick out of what people post up there (within limits- I have no interest in knowing about your pet’s digestive problems, for example, or what you just scratched). The day after the final episode of LOST aired, I spent a almost embarrassingly significant chunk of my day discussing it with people. Maybe if I worked in an office, I wouldn’t need that. But having contact with the outside world, even if it’s only virtual, is a good thing for me.

I’ve always been terrible about staying in touch. But through these sites, I’ve been able to reconnect with friends from elementary school, high school, college, and my time in New York. (And one of those people volunteered to be a beta reader, providing some of the best insights into my latest manuscript).
My mother just set up a reunion with her college roommates, people she hadn’t seen in decades, via Facebook.

And of course, what would I do without my daily Kill Zone fix? I’ve made acquaintances across the world. Engaged in debate with people I probably would never have met otherwise. I’ve spent my entire adult life living in cities where chatting with strangers is a rare occurrence. But the online networking sites remove that wall, and suddenly I find myself discussing Nora Ephron’s send-up of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO with people in Tulsa, Akron, and Tokyo.

So…virtual water coolers: yea or nay?

13 thoughts on “The Virtual Water Cooler

  1. FB I do not use but I can see the benefits. I have also seen what happens when it does become almost exclusively someone’s virtual social interaction. As with anything in life, moderation is best.

    If FB and Twitter disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn’t phase me a bit. Now if all the writing industry people took down their blogs…well I’m pretty sure the world would end. 😎

  2. My experience has been that FB enhances the social connections I already have and adds new ones. Many of my friends on FB are people I see at church, but church is like a firehose more than it is a water cooler. You can talk to a hundred people and still not know what more than a few of them did last week. But you can see something they put on FB and ask them about it when you see them. I also have family scattered throughout the country, some of whom I get to see a funerals and that’s about it, but because of FB I know what’s going on in their lives.

  3. Like the physical water cooler at work, if you don’t lollygag there too much and get your work done, no harm. The occasional break is good.

    The problem for writers is we have no boss walking the aisle like Lumbergh in “Office Space” going, “Um, yeah, if you could just go ahead and get back to your keyboard…”

    We have to self regulate.

  4. Like any tool, it can help or harm you 😉

    On the plus side, it’s great to be able to send out a single message like “sudden severe illness, I’m okay but in hospital,” and have so many folks receive it. On the minus side, when a best friend’s only response to that message is a “get well” reply, you wonder if something’s gone wrong somewhere…

    It took me a while to develop the discipline not to spend my writing time noodling around on FB. Much less time than it took me to get unhooked from Tetris though!

  5. Good topic. As a writer,the verdict is still out.

    At times, I find this networking very interesting, and it does allow to stay in touch with others. However, I must fight for time to write each day. Life has a way of sneaking into that writing time and snatching it away. Still trying to balance the virtual, the writing and the rest of life.

    Like Jim mentioned, it is important to learn to self regulate. Now, back to … oh wait, another message just popped on the screen.

  6. How the hell do you find and “FRIEND” GITMO ex-prisoners on Facebook? A college teacher was telling me that kids who are deprived of their cell phones of computer connection go into withdrawl not unlike addicts getting away from cigarettes, drugs, etc. I guess I’m just old, but I can live without my outside computer hook up or my cell phone just fine.

  7. Yea. I’ve reconnected with people I haven’t seen in 30 years. I’ve made new friends and deepened other friendships. To me, the world is made up of all kinds of interesting people, and life is about interacting with them.

    You have to be smart about privacy settings and such, but I wonder if we’re really fooling ourselves there anyway. In this day and age, just how private do we imagine any of these tools to be?

  8. Obviously I skimmed the article while I was Twittering about reading it. So much for multi-tasking. Actually I have heard from scores of old friends since I got a Facebook page, a few I actually was happy to hear from and reconnect. Some it will take me years to forget all about knowing again.

  9. Being online too much feels like wandering around a Las Vegas casino–after too long I get overwhelmed by flashing, beeping, glittery things demanding my attention. Then I have to escape to the solitude of Joshua Tree National Park, and enjoy contemplating the immense serenity of the night sky.

  10. Fairly new to the site. To this point perfecting last tag in line of previous comments (if you blog and no one reads it did you really comment?)

    I enjoy the site. Good info for me as a wannabe published author(CCS). I appreciate the instructional content.

    Electronic networking seems potentially useful but prone to contributing to the cultural tsunami of self-absorption and self-celebrity seeking(esp twittering).

    Ooops – appears this electronic comment string has run out. Damn I so need some attention. ME. It’s all about ME!

  11. As usual, I’m a day late, but I’ve been busy networking.

    I just landed a freelance gig on a fun humor blog titled “An Army of Ermas.” Light-hearted, non-controversial, family oriented humor.

    They ran and contest and garnered 13 entries. Then opened it to a public vote.

    I shamelessly and relentlessly networked for the next two days, squeezing the juice out of every contact I could think of.

    And I won one of the open slots (and picked up 9 followers for my blog).

    I’m a social network noob, but I can attest that it works. My life is in a weird place right now and being able to stroll out to the virtual water cooler and talk with people who don’t know what’s going on back home (an impossibility in my small town) is refreshing and rewarding.


  12. I love social networking on many levels. As a writer who spends most of her day alone as well, those social interactions keep me sane. I’ve met some terrific people who have become dear friends that call me more than my friends here in town. In all honesty, the promotional aspect is terrific too. It’s a great way to meet new readers.

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