I think that it would be safe to say that I am a reluctant user of social media. I find it far too invasive and risky, but being a pragmatist I have adopted the philosophy that social media
is a lot like reading a Penguin Classic book or eating kale, something you do because in the long run it is probably good for you. There is one major exception to my grin and bear it approach and that is is that I am very pleased with the ability of social media and Facebook in particular, to bring people together if only through the magic of computers.
I come from a relatively large family, I have in excess of forty first cousins but we are not especially close due primarily to the realities of geography. I am amongst the youngest of the grandchildren and it became patently obvious to me as my father’s generation began to pass away that our shared history was at risk of becoming lost to future generations and I did not want to dishonour them by having them forgotten.
Growing up I was the kid who liked to sit with the adults and listen to the stories but coming from a family of Newfoundlanders, determining what was truth and what was tall tale was not always easy. I had heard about the schisms caused by religion, the great uncle who was given “concrete shoes” in Boston and of the tragic drowning of Clarence and the death of Jack in Italy in the waning days of WWII or how staying up late playing cards and drinking kept my father from being torpedoed on the SS Caribou by a German U-Boat on the North Sydney to Port-aux-Basques crossing in 1942. I had thought these tales of trouble, triumph and loss were known to all, but to my shock these histories were already mostly lost.
When I started this project, I had already opened an Ancestry account and had successfully traced my peeps back through the centuries but without any context there was no sense of ownership just a bunch of funny names names and dates. I had no more connection to my ancestors than I did to the anyone else, but through the use of Facebook these people have been given backstories and personalities. The family page started small but the group grew quickly and in no time my hypothesis that I was not the only one with a box of unidentified photographs gathering dust somewhere was proven correct and together we slowly began to colour in the spaces.
Earlier this year the last of my father’s siblings passed away at 103 and with her death we ran the very real risk of losing our connection to our past. Through our family page we have been able to anchor ourselves and by using Facebook to connect, she and eight siblings are still with us online at least. By using social media to bring our family together we have been able to get to know our ancestors and to feel their losses and share in their joys because their stories are our stories and without social media, their legacies would have been lost to the current and future generations.
Our page provides not only a platform for the ephemera of a family, it has also forged connections that did not previously exist. My collection of cousins, first, second and once removed has grown exponentially and we have been able to give each other the gift of memory. For instance, I uploaded a previously unknown photograph of an aunt and uncle with their twins that nobody else could ever recall seeing and this photo and the memories it jogged was a much better remembrance than flowers for my aunt when she died. Without a platform like Facebook none of this would have ever happened.
We have been lucky that our page has not become a forum for old wounds and I can see how some stories should be left in the shadows but overall using social media as a meeting place is one of its primary redeeming qualities.
How many of you have boxes of photos in your basements and attics that you have been saying that one day you will sort? Have you ever wondered why that moment in time was captured? What stories about your family could you learn?