This afternoon I was eavesdropping on a conversation between a woman of a certain age and a man of her generation. They were discussing social media, in particular: Facebook. The woman was explaining her reasoning for refusing her friends’ and children’s requests to get a FB account. She ridiculed a particular status she had read and which seemed, to her, to epitomize what happens on facebook. The status had something to do with the amount of money paid for a lunch.

“Who CARES?” she questioned, gesticulating wildly.

If she had asked me, I would have had to say, “Well, I guess I do.”

I’m the one who keeps up on all of my friends’ new statuses (though I must admit I’ve hidden requests for farmtown, farmville, mafia wars, sorority thingies and poking, prodding and martini-bearing.) I comment if you’re having a bad day, I “like” your amusing links, I send Happy Birthday messages with accompanying youtube vids. When you put up pictures, I scroll through ALL of them. In short, I am a facebook stalker.

I admit that I am a lonely person, and social media has been my panacea. Through online interactions I am now able to satisfy my compulsion to question Mormon doctrine. I can talk about esoterica long after the last polite person at a party would have slipped away. I can get up at 3 in the morning and wail, and have someone immediately give me a ((hug)). There are so many advantages to the online forum that I can’t even list them all. Online, it’s possible to vehemently argue politics, blow off steam, then walk away if the exchange gets too heated. It’s possible to find people who share the same interests, one of a city, two of a country; and make them lifelong friends. Online I’ve found literary critics who will read my poetry or short stories and lovingly critique and help me revise them. Suggestions for books, recipes, parenting ideas, are all available at the flick of a finger. And I even draw great comfort from a friend who almost always says “goodnight tweeps,” before going to bed. It feels like my phone is tucking me in.

My electronic friends have become my ward. They are who I go to when I need something. I have been lucky to meet many of them in person. Others I will probably never know “irl,” but I share a connection with them that I just don’t have with some of the brothers and sisters here in town.

One of my fellow Mormons in my home ward becomes quite incensed at my social practices. She says that it is a detriment to my local ward and to myself that all of my social needs are being met online. It is true that I used to be much more involved in Church activities. I am still quite active; I hold a Primary calling, attend all of my Sunday meetings and quarterly RS functions. But I no longer feel that I have to attend every weenie roast. My friend insists that I should make more of an effort to socialize in the ward, with “real” people. But the people I meet online are real, also. And I’m finding more and more of a chasm between the two. At church, there is less and less of a conversation happening. Church services are conducted in a lecture format. There used to be a lot of discussion in Sunday School and RS, but now I find that these classes are almost completely without participation. When comments are solicited, they are to be short and to the point. Even many of our RS meetings consist of a “speaker.” My Visiting Teachers come, give a “message,” and are out of here in 15 minutes.

In contrast, social media has caused a fundamental shift in our culture. It has created an ecosystem facilitating new conversations that can start locally, but have a global impact. I’m excited to be part of this web. I feel like my voice is heard, one of my main frustrations in the local congregation.

We’re constantly being warned about the dangers of the internet by our Church leaders. There is a real concern on the part of many good people. Pornography is out there; time-wasting games; hiding of identities, inappropriate activity. David Bednar stated:

“I raise an apostolic voice of warning about the potentially stifling, suffocating, suppressing, and constraining impact of some kinds of cyberspace interactions and experiences upon our souls.” (“Things as They Really Are“, from a Church Educational System fireside address delivered at Brigham Young University–Idaho on May 3, 2009.)

He went on to describe how internet use is a misuse and a minimization of the importance of our physical bodies. I struggled with this talk, comparing the mind-numbingly boring interactions I have with physically present ward members to the often stimulating, interesting and amusing conversations I have with my online companions. I also enjoy the freedom from bodily encumbrance: people I meet online get to know my soul first, before judging me by my age, sex, or physical appearance. In my ward I’m no longer young enough for any of the newly married couples to invite me for lunch or conversation, but online it doesn’t seem to matter.

This post isn’t meant to approve of any online misbehavior. You know what it is. But I just want to put a voice out there for all the lonely people. It’s OK to reach out on social media. The friend you’ve never met in Wisconsin is a real friend. Social networks are important and valuable, and nothing to be ashamed of. Your online ward is here for you.