I still had more than an hour to go on a drive to my Fort Lauderdale home one night last week when I got a text from my daughter, who lives in New York City.
I won’t send a text while driving, but I will sneak a peek when it is late at night on an empty highway. It was after 11 p.m., and a daughter who usually texts only on urgent matters was seeking my attention.
“Are any of your Utah friends in the Orem area?” she wrote. “My friend’s cousin is missing. Would it help for anyone you know to see the Facebook post if I tag it so you can share it?”
I actually did not bother to read past the sentence about the missing cousin. I voice-dialed my daughter and told her that, in fact, nearly all of my Utah friends are in the Orem area. She explained that a young woman, who is in her 20s and has developmental disabilities, had been missing since leaving her home more than 10 hours earlier. While local family members searched the area, my daughter’s friend – who also lives in New York – was organizing a social media effort to cast a much broader net in hopes of finding someone who knew something about the missing woman’s whereabouts, and to enlist volunteers to aid the search.
I pulled off at the next exit, got a cup of coffee at an open-all-night McDonald’s and fired up my Facebook app. I saw the appeal for help, including a comment in which my daughter had tagged my name. In a few minutes I had selected a list of 20 Utah contacts who would see the post when I tagged them in turn.
I have never lived in Utah. In fact, I have never spent more than a few days there at a time. Five years ago I would have known nobody who could possibly help in this situation. But a blog post I wrote caught the eye of a local musician, who introduced me to another musician who became a good friend and a client, who introduced me to other people who also became good friends as well as clients. Before long my firm had an Entertainment and Sports Team, and I found myself with an expanding network of friends, business associates and acquaintances – as well as a newfound familiarity with the cities and towns along the urban corridor known as the Wasatch Front. Orem is near the southern end of that corridor, just north of Provo and less than an hour from Salt Lake City. Most of the Utah folks I know live in Provo or Orem, and nearly all are somewhere between there and the state capital.
I addressed my note at the top of the shared appeal for help to “Utah County/SLC friends” and told them my daughter had asked me to forward the post in case anyone in their circles might know something. Although I am close friends with some of the people I tagged, others are much more casual acquaintances. A couple are people I have never even met in person; we just have mutual friends, and at some point one of us reached out to make a connection. This seemed like just the time to use that network.
I was only one of nearly 650 people who shared that plea for help. Several recipients got into their own cars and started searching places where others in the network knew that the missing woman had visited, or worked, or might have been seen. Others tagged several local police departments to make sure jurisdictional lines did not impede the search. One of my close friends shared the information not only with her personal circle, but also with Facebook groups that deal with missing persons or local Orem matters.
Within a couple of hours of the first posted appeal for help, the missing woman had been found. I don’t know the details of why she was missing. I don’t need to know and I don’t care to know. All that matters is that she is back where she is safe.
All of this happened on the same day my news feed was clogged with items suggesting I #DeleteFacebook, or at least delete the Facebook apps that tap into impersonal personal data such as who my friends are, and what comments or pages I may have publicly liked. Many of these calls to action were inspired by furor over the alleged misuse of such information by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by the Trump presidential campaign.
In the hours before I received my daughter’s urgent text, I was wondering what terrible consequences people foresaw in the political and nonpolitical commercial exploitation of this information. Of course it is used to direct advertising and other communications toward the audiences most likely to be interested and receptive. One of the old jokes about pre-internet advertising was that 80 percent of the money spent on it was wasted, but the buyer could never tell which 80 percent it was. Search engines and social media have grabbed huge swaths of the advertising market via the promise of cutting down that wasted 80 percent. I am mystified over who is supposed to be harmed by this (other than the legacy publishers, who used to receive that wasted advertising money) and exactly what harm is supposedly being done.
But even assuming there is a price being paid for sharing such information, what about the benefits? Facebook does not charge me to read its content. Facebook does not charge for the service of connecting me with people I lost touch with long ago or with whom I share a set of interests and values, as evidenced by our mutual friendships and common “likes.” Somebody has to pay to keep this service running nonstop on practically every data platform in practically every corner of the globe.
When a distraught cousin in New York needs to reach out to a network of friends and strangers in Utah to find a missing and possibly endangered loved one, who besides Facebook stands ready and able to help?
It is all about costs and benefits, folks. Costs AND benefits. Even if Facebook subjects me to political propaganda I find annoying (and I am frequently annoyed, thanks to the fact that I have different views than many of my friends and family), I can deal with it. If it exposes me to advertising I find offensive, I can block those advertisements. Facebook explicitly asks me which advertisements I want to see and which I don’t, so it can do an even better job targeting my eyeballs to its paying customers. That is the trade-off for me being allowed to use Facebook as much or as little as I like, without ever seeing a single bill from Mark Zuckerberg and friends.
It’s a trade-off I will gladly make, especially if it means I can do something useful to help my daughter’s friend (whom I have never met) find a missing young woman (whom I have never met) in Utah by being part of a large group of concerned and supportive friends, most of whom I will almost certainly never meet in person. That is the powerful “social” part of the social network. And it is why I will never #DeleteFacebook.