For a wildly popular worldwide phenomenon, social media certainly gets a lot of bad press — and often for good reason. The latest “conscientious objector” to humanity’s insatiable craze for digital oversharing is none other than Sean Parker, the creator of Napster and founding president of Facebook.
“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” Parker declared in an interview with Axios earlier this month, adding that Facebook specializes in “exploiting” human psychology, purposefully addicting users to an endless “social-validation feedback loop.”
This appears to be both obvious and true, and deep down, pretty much everyone knows it — even if many of us continue to regularly wander into the wilds of various social-media networks anyway. But here’s the good news: Deep in the mixed bag of proverbial squalling cats that cross our path each day — the petty and the petulant and the weird and the occasionally hilarious — bright spots can still rise to the top.
In the weeks leading up to this year’s Thanksgiving, one such bright spot came paired with a heartbreaking story. Jacob Thompson, a nine-year old in Maine, had been fighting for four years against neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that tends to afflict young children. On October 11, he was checked into Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, as his mother put it, “for the last time.”
Doctors predicted that Jacob, who loved penguins — and whose personal motto, “live like a penguin,” according to the boy, meant “be friendly, stand by each other, go the extra mile, jump into life and be cool” — had about one month to live. He had one simple request: An early Christmas, along with Christmas cards from anyone “inspired to reach out.” Thanks to social media, the request went viral.
Greetings poured in from strangers around the country. According to the local CBS affiliate, Jacob received almost 10,000 Christmas cards in just one day. Hundreds of police officers from around New England — he also loved police officers — traveled in a procession from Boston to his hospital. Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium, upon hearing of the boy’s love for penguins, provided one of the arctic birds for him to hold.
“Jacob loves the holiday season,” his mother, Michelle Thompson Simard, told the press. “And we want him to know that Christmas wishes come true and that there are good people who care all around the world.” Jacob’s Christmas celebration came on November 12. He died just a week later.
So there it is: An overwhelming display of empathy and kindness amid tragedy, delivered by the same digital networks that drive many people bonkers each and every day. “It’s amazing that just one little boy has touched lives from all around the world,” Jacob’s mother told New England Cable News. As we approach Thanksgiving, his story is also a reminder of the miracle of an ordinary day — something that many of us take for granted.
If you’ve ever had a serious health scare or a potentially life-altering close call, followed by a reprieve, you know the feeling: A slow, shaky exhalation, paired with the sudden glory of an ordinary day. Boring isn’t boring if you know the alternative; once you’ve faced certain terrifying possibilities, uneventful becomes beautiful. It’s human nature, of course, to slowly lose this sense of clarity. The sad irony of social media, for all of its potential to do tremendous good, is that it often robs us of our ordinary days.
A few weeks ago, I accompanied a class on a field trip to some local caverns, and had a delightful ordinary day. (Well, semi-ordinary, I guess, given that the day involved some light spelunking.) Texas is chock full of caves and limestone layers, and these particular caverns went 180 feet below the ground. You know what’s not 180 feet below the ground, unless you’re in some top-secret NASA tunnel? The Internet, that loveable yet persistent friend, constantly beeping for attention, churning with news and trivia and angst.
I’m not going to lie to you: It was lovely in that cave.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” a futuristic society mentally handicaps certain citizens by piping regular bouts of disruptive noise — bleeps, crashes, and general clanging cacophony — into their ears. Today, in a sense, there’s no need for a sinister outside force to get involved: We often do this to ourselves.
So how can we sift through the noise? The story of Jacob Thompson and his family, after all, reminds us that social media can be used for good. This Thanksgiving, perhaps we should all start by celebrating our ordinary days — and, when we can, reaching out to help those whose days are anything but.