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Remembering the Potential of Social Media

Have we lost track of the potential of social media? That’s the bold question that many are wrestling with as they balance their desire to post, like, and share with a newfound understanding of how their personal information is used to not only sell them stuff, but also potentially sway elections.

As a professional digital strategist and more importantly, a concerned citizen, I’ve closely followed the deepening story of Facebook’s role in the 2016 US elections. When Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was paraded into a Congressional hearing to answer questions about his company’s commitment to user privacy, I watched with raised eyebrows (and yes, I snickered a few times at some Senators’ more uninformed questions).

But this blog isn’t about #DeleteFacebook or user privacy. It’s about a very personal experience that reminded me of the potential of social media to connect people in deep and meaningful ways, not just divide people with fake news.

Here’s my story. It starts 13 years ago and 10,000 miles away.

Looking toward the hills of Ngerenge from the maize field in front of my Peace Corps home.

 

Chuk… chuk…. chuk… I was awakened by that strange, repetitive sound on the first morning of my life in Ngerenge, a rural village of several hundred people in Malawi, a landlocked country in Southern Africa where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2005 to 2007. I pushed aside the chitenje covering my window to peer out, but any movement was masked by the opaque night sky. Squinting my eyes, I illuminated the pocket watch by my bed — it was 3 AM. I pulled on shorts and plodded out to my front stoop, sweat dripping off my forehead. The humidity felt like it was penetrating every pore in my body. It was damn hot.

A sliver of moonlight through the trees unearthed an almost imperceptible reddish hue in the ½ acre of dirt that wrapped around my small brick cottage. Out of the corner of my eye, a metal blade flashed through the air and I gasped. The blade thudded as it hit the dirt, paused, then repeated the same violent half-arc through the damp air. My heart was racing.

Mughonile! Mwaghona iwe? I called into the darkness. The giggle of a child broke the silence.

Confused, I stumbled a few steps into the clumpy dirt. A young boy stepped towards me with a hoe slung over his shoulder that was longer than he was tall. His smile could not have been any bigger.

I began to ask in the local language what he was doing, then suddenly realized. He had woken up in the early morning to help prepare my field for planting before the sweltering heat set in and made the labor completely miserable — especially for a muzungu, a foreigner. The rainy season was expected to begin any day, and the first thing the locals had told me was that I needed to hoe my land into ridges and plant as soon as possible if I wanted a strong maize harvest. I had never planted anything in my life! I went back inside to get my headlamp and the hoe that had been given to me, then joined Jacob in my field. My first lesson in farming had begun.

This is my first memory of Jacob, the youngest son of my school’s headmaster. He was 11-years-old at the time, and I was 22. He became a little brother to me — the closest thing I had to family for 10,000 miles.

Jacob wearing my straw hat and work gloves on my porch. 

 

Two years later, I was eating breakfast on my porch and Jacob popped out from behind the wall to scare me, like he often did. We laughed, but not with the same light-heartedness. It was my last day in Ngerenge, and Jacob had come to say goodbye.

My eyes filled with tears and I mumbled something about keeping up with his studies. He became so emotional that he could hardly look at me. How could I explain that we would likely never see each other again? In the end, I couldn’t.

Later that morning, I walked down the dusty road out of Ngerenge for the last time. I’ve never been back.

So what does this memory have to do with Facebook? Fast forward 13 years…

I was at my desk at the Media Cause office in San Francisco. I logged into Facebook, but before I opened Business Manager to check on some accounts, I noticed that I had a new friend request. My mouth dropped open. It was Jacob.

Let me take a step back to explain how shocking this was for me. Ngerenge was 15 miles from electricity and running water. Almost all of the families lived in mud huts with thatch roofs. They were subsistence farmers, and my students tended their fields for months to grow enough rice or maize to pay for their $10 school fees. Many people didn’t even know what a computer was. Some of the teachers had seen one on a rare trip to the capital city, but the internet was a completely foreign concept. I wouldn’t have even known how to explain “Facebook” in our local language.

Now, 13 years later and 10,000 miles from Malawi, I was being “friended” by the boy who I used to climb mango trees with, shaking down the fruit for village children. Seeing Jacob’s smile on my computer screen — the same smile that had lit up my maize field at 3 AM — brought back a flood of memories from my life in Ngerenge.

That night we began chatting on Facebook Messenger.

Jacob is now 24 years old and works as a security guard in South Africa. I sent him photos of my wife and daughter, and he sent pictures of himself holding the well-worn photos that I had given him before I left Malawi — he still had them all these years later.

Hanging out with Jacob and some of kids in my village.

 

We laughed about the time I taught him and the other kids how to play UNO, and how I used to walk around the village pointing at everything to learn new vocabulary words — cloud, river, old man, you name it! Jacob and I reminisced about the time I bought him new clothes at the market and I had to carry him across the river to get home because it was nearly up to his chest. He told me how he’d ended up in South Africa, and that he’d just passed his certification to operate heavy construction equipment. We grieved together when he told me that both his father and sister had tragically died since I’d left Malawi.

Jacob on my Peace Corps-issued Trek. The locals called it “ma-gearsi” meaning “many gears.” 

 

Amid this incredible interaction with a long-lost friend from the other side of the planet, I couldn’t ignore the greater context. For all the perils and challenges that Facebook (and social media at large) has brought into our world, this opportunity to reunite with Jacob humanized the potential of social media — to build community and bring people closer together.

Jacob and I said goodbye to each other 13 years ago. Thanks to Facebook, it wasn’t goodbye forever.

 


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