I teach high school English at a campus that targets at-risk kids Southeast of Houston. This is my third year of teaching, and it’s been a particularly tough one, in no small part due to how much our area was affected by Hurricane Harvey. Over half a year later, students and teachers are still feeling the residual sting of the storm. Until very recently, my wife and I counted ourselves among the many displaced.
During the storm, as the water rose and my wife and I lugged our belongings to the top floor, I desperately took to Facebook after being told by an overwhelmed 9–1–1 operator that they could not help us. We were terrified. The flood wasn’t just deep, it was surging violently. I knew that if we eventually were forced to get in, there was a chance we might not survive.
My hope was that one of my friends on Facebook, or maybe a friend of a friend, would have the means to help us. Someone with connections to the city, perhaps, or someone with a boat willing to do something nuts and come rescue us themselves. I posted pictures of the climbing, dark water, and a plea. I was scared for my wife and our cats. I was scared for myself.
Family, friends, and acquaintances kicked into action and made calls and sent texts. In all the chaos I’m not sure who pulled the right strings, but the response lead to a boat commandeered by local police to eventually, cautiously, make its way into our neighborhood. After days of seeing the rising water haunting us, we shoved our cats in pillow cases and slid down the roof of the second level of our home onto the boat. We were, along with our neighbors and their pets, finally safe.
It is possible that, if it weren’t for social media, we would have continued to be stuck in our home. I felt grateful and humbled that I not only had a way to connect to so many people at once, but that those people were willing to do what they could to help us.
It might seem strange, then, that not five months later, I deleted my Facebook account and made a promise to myself to reduce the amount of time I spent staring at screens and engaging in social media. Like the flood waters of Harvey, the social media issue had crept to my doorstep. I knew I had to do something, or risk losing out on some of the most genuine connections and moments my life had left to offer.
A combination of reading Jon Ronson’s book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Adam Alter’s “Irresistible,” and statements from former Facebook bigwigs that included phrases like “destroying how society works” and “God knows what it’s doing to our children’s’ brains” kicked me in the head. How much of my life had I spent disengaged from the moment I was in, ignoring those around me, so I could hunt for some mildly amusing animal pictures or play some silly game? My parents’ generation worried that TV was going to rot our brains and turn us into zombies, but no one expected smartphones.
When my wife and I were on that rescue boat, I thought about how social media might have just saved our lives. But now, I worry that we all ignore our actual lives with so much regularity, choosing instead to immerse ourselves in memes and likes and reviews and posts and hearts and snaps and bitmojis, that we might be drowning already.
And I don’t see a rescue boat coming to save us.