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December 21, 2012

The Relational Metamorphosis of “Family” to “Facebook Friend” to “Family” Again

The Relational Metamorphosis of “Family” to “Facebook Friend” to “Family” Again

Written By: Dan Cohen, Veterans’ Technology Program at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies

As the holidays approach, I, like many others, have been spending what little time I have setting up a tree and hanging lights on my house (which almost killed me, twice). In the midst of all the seasonal preparation, I’ve spent some time reflecting on how the meaning of the holidays to me has evolved over the years. There have been two primary influences over the last decade or so: my time as a soldier and the mainstream introduction of social media.

Prior to the war, the holidays were about food, friends, getting and giving gifts, general merriment. As with so many of us, my journey has given me the opportunity to spend the holidays in combat zones. These holidays, not spent with my wife, parents or siblings, but rather with my compatriot Soldiers, increased the already high value I placed on my relationships with my team. Through our shared triumph and tragedy (and crumby A-Rat meals or slightly better meals at the Bob-Hope Dining Facility), we became family.

Around the same time, Social media was becoming popular. People were transitioning away from the instant-messaging platforms of the 90’s towards online communities like MySpace (yes, I’m that old). It was becoming easier and easier to stay in-touch with friends and family separated by vast geography. During my first tour in Iraq, when there were no accessible cell-phones, few (and expensive!) call centers, and unreliable US Mail service, online communications were nothing short of a blessing.

Since leaving the military, many of the relationships I built while in the service have undergone a metamorphosis. “Family” has changed into “Facebook Friend”. Recently I saw a Facebook post from a sergeant I served with as a young lieutenant, who is struggling with various memories of his experience at war.  As a young single father, his challenge is amplified. I immediately felt a sense of shame. I had done well for a couple years – making the phone calls and sending real holiday cards with personal notes. Recently I have not – it’s so easy to just send the automatic “Happy Birthday!” when the computer tells me to, or to blast all my contacts with a generic holiday message. I’ve allowed this once-meaningful relationship to degrade to “online acquaintance” and as a result, I’ve missed the boat on being there for someone who I once called family.

My time in the service gave me a lot of great opportunities, but the single greatest take-away I’ve had is perspective. Leveraging that perspective this holiday, I’m making the phone calls and sending the cards; I won’t allow over-use of social media to make me lazy in maintaining important relationships. I hope everyone will think about the folks in their lives who would really benefit from a call or card, and make the effort to reconnect.

Dan Cohen is responsible for all advising activities within the Veterans’ Technology Program at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. He joined the iSchool team in July 2011.

Dan received his B.S. from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2001, where he was commissioned an officer in the US Army. Following college he entered the Army, serving two tours in Iraq as a platoon leader and then as a foreign military advisor. Upon leaving the military, Dan entered operations management in the supply chain for Kohl’s Department Stores. Dan’s professional experience includes advising and coaching, training, operational and strategic planning, and partnering with recruiting.

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