My Twitter feed brought unwelcome news the other day: Someone I’d met there reported she had just returned home after robotic surgery for a rare form of cancer, diagnosed a short time after she first experienced what she called mild symptoms. I’d missed her earlier blog post on the subject, and only belatedly could offer my wishes for a speedy and full recovery. For a couple of years my friend and I have exchanged thoughts about books and other subjects, both on Twitter and in occasional emails, and she’s offered generous comments on some of my writing. We’ve never met IRL, to use the character-saving Twitter locution, and there’s no certainty we ever will, but the news of her sudden illness illuminated for me a truth about the social media world, a place that’s sometimes portrayed as little more than a bad neighborhood whose seductive lure menaces our flesh and blood relationships.
One of the large subjects in Rebecca Solnit’s variegated new essay collection, The Faraway Nearby, is empathy, a quality that operates, she says, to expand the boundaries of the self. “To feel for someone enlarges the self and then that self shares risks and pains,” she writes. Four years of encounters on Facebook and Twitter have helped me understand how empathy manifests itself on those sites to expand the world while simultaneously making it feel more intimate. When a Twitter-based follower in Bangkok reports his home is far from the threat of rising floodwaters or a Facebook friend in San Diego anxiously watches the path of a wildfire, hoping it won’t turn in the wrong direction, what otherwise would be the abstraction of a natural disaster becomes concrete. A fleeting interaction might be the seed that blossoms into a fruitful conversation with a bookish London cab driver or a poetry-loving Web consultant in Toronto. If we appreciate their potential depth, these connections can burnish our ability to share the passions, joys and sorrows of others and reflect that sensibility back to us. I’ve met half a dozen or so of the people, mainly writers, whom I consider close friends on social media, and in each instance I’ve had the same insight: These are the same people who would be my friends if our first encounter had been over a cup of coffee instead of a 140 character exchange. Their triumphs and losses can affect me the same way, whether they are shared at a table or flicker across a computer screen. // Harvey Freedenberg