Facebook has been a lifeline abroad, but is it time to quit?

For emigrants, it has been vital for creating new friendships and keeping old ones alive

Emma Prunty with her daughter in Sandycove in 2007, in one of the first photographs she posted on Facebook.

Emma Prunty with her daughter in Sandycove in 2007, in one of the first photographs she posted on Facebook.

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I have been tempted to join the hordes who are abandoning Facebook this week in fierce protest at the revelations of data leaking in the Cambridge Analytica story. For many people this is the final push to get off the platform they love and hate, and I’ve been considering quitting it for years.

But do I want to totally sever myself from Facebook? I have to pause and really think about that. I try to be a savvy user; I keep tabs on my privacy, never log in anywhere else through Facebook, avoid all quizzes and games, and only become friends with people I have met (and liked) in real life.

I looked at my profile today and after scrolling through many precious photo memories, I discovered I joined in 2007. My husband and I had just moved from Toronto with our brand new baby to eastern Canada. We didn’t know anyone so it’s no wonder I joined up. The very first message I got (according to the archive right there on my account) was from an old London friend saying “Hey! Welcome to the world of Facebook! So glad to be back in touch! How are things??!”

And that’s really the reason I’m still there. To be in touch. Like many people away from home it can be a lifeline for staying in contact with family and friends, watch the lives of those you don’t live near, and meet new people in the place you’re in now.

Facebook has been fundamental for this generation of Irish people abroad and the complicated webs of family and friends in Ireland and elsewhere. An Irish friend who has lived only a few years in Norway says: “As someone who lives abroad, I wouldn’t dream of leaving Facebook. It connects me to home, allows me to keep in touch, and watch the children I knew as babies and toddlers grow up through the photos their parents post.. it’s a diary, a way of seeing where and who I was over the years.”

In many places, Facebook has taken the role of the pub or Irish club for groups of Irish in any one place. The Irish Government has recognised this by providing financial assistance to some diaspora Facebook groups (though not anywhere near where I lived).

Rabbit holes

There are a hundred things I dislike about Facebook - the lack of useful support, the negativity and bullying, sense of isolation felt by many, addictiveness, the never-ending ads and the sense we all recognise of immense time wasted as we scroll deeper into an infinite rabbit hole. And now this latest news makes us feel rightly used and ticked off.

In fact I think the cons of Facebook in my life might outweigh the pros. But when I have felt the good effects, they are really powerful and they might be enough to keep me on it.

Having lived abroad the site has been my only way to keep in touch with many people in my life, giving me a sense of continued friendship and sense of belonging, a record of the online tribe I have built around myself.

As a young mum raising my kids in foreign countries I was lucky to have my sanity and practical needs met by connecting with other international mums through a local Facebook group - first in Oslo, then in Florence. All of us shared a common bond of being far from family and we all had different issues - I watch from the sidelines the threads on dealing with Italian mothers-in-law but I could join in with opinions on local school issues.

These were two supportive communities where you’d feel free to ask, or share, help, about urgent-but-minor things only we were concerned with, like finding a doctor for a Sunday house call, the local name for a medication, or family-friendly places to visit. I’ve made face-to-face friends who have been a real and positive force in my life. Not everyone needs that kind of online connection, but it has worked for me.

Thanks to Facebook I have gotten to know cousins I hadn’t seen since childhood Christmas parties, somehow my being abroad made these and other Irish connections more special. One old Italian friend tracked me down after a 20-year gap and within a few months we had visited her in Sicily and our kids became real friends.

Through a Facebook friend who has thousands of connections, I recently discovered a Rome-based enterprise that hires refugees to harvest and make juice from unused oranges from the city streets, and within a few minutes I had connected them with an Oslo-based group that does the same for uncollected apples.

Back home

Now I’m here in Dublin I was really happy to discover a Facebook group for Italian mums in my area; it may or may not produce some Italian-speaking playmates for my kids but it is a connection to women I have more in common with than some of the mums at the school gate. I’ve also been spending time in some very active groups of returning-Irish emigrants, and I feel some of that general culture shock I’ve had, being among Irish people again, with all those fiery opinions and colourful language.

Maybe all this connecting is not enough to justify sticking with this disgraced and all-powerful platform. Maybe I should pull myself out of the echo chamber I have surely built for myself, download all my data and keep a nice finite record of the last nine years of my life. Maybe I should contact each person I consider a friend and get their email address and go back to group emails. Maybe by even staying friends with them I’m unknowingly compromising their privacy by not being fully on top of my own privacy controls.

But is there an alternative platform out there, one that can continue to give us this sense of connection we’ve had from Facebook, especially for those of us who will always feel abroad?

Emma Prunty is writing a series on her experiences of settling back into Dublin after many years abroad and seeing it with fresh eyes, along with her family of foreigners: a Canadian husband and Canadian/Norwegian kids. After living in the UK, US, Canada, Norway and Italy she knows there are pros and cons to every place you move to. She blogs at washyourlanguage.com

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