Netflix, Facebook and the loss of perspective

Sorry I haven’t been around, folks.  I’m not sure what it was — a mild bug that my body was fighting off, mental preparation for the local school district’s two-week fall break (which meant my whole family would be home all day, getting in each other’s hair), one of my periodic bouts with depression, or some combination of the above with or without other factors.  But I found it very hard to write last week — and when you try to force yourself to write, I’ve found, the results are less than ideal.  So I did my best to relax and not worry about it (not my natural bent) and got back on the horse yesterday and today.

So what was I spending time on when not writing?  Reading.  I cleared out two novels; started a third (almost done); kept up on articles at Grantland, AVClub, Splitsider, Slate and Internet Monk; and watched what everyone was doing on Facebook.  It’s the latter that prompts today’s post, because I got to watch the Internet’s second major freakout in as many months.

A few weeks back, I talked about the first one — namely, the general uproar at Netflix’s mostly necessary price increase.  (As far as their plan to split into two separate and non-integrated companies, one for DVD-by-mail and one for online streaming … well, I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude.  Though it does seem pretty bizarre on the face of it.)  But just as that kerfuffle was starting to calm down — or at least all the gripers resigned themselves to it — along came Facebook to stir up the pot.

What did they do?  Change everybody’s News Feed page.

The changes, in fact, are pretty small.  There are now “Top Stories,” one or two recent posts that FB bumps to the top of the queue based on previous expressed interest (I think).  The status update box looks a little different.  There’s a little line separating the stuff that’s come up since you last logged in from what was up before.  And most prominently, there’s an activity scroll at the top right, showing what all (or at least some of) the people you’ve friended have done lately.  All in all, though, everything works pretty much the way it worked before.

But to hear some people, you’d think Facebook just started sacrificing puppies on Mark Zuckerberg’s desk.

All last week, there were complaints about the system.  Folks were angry about the new look.  They were angry about the Top Stories setup.  They were angry about the scroll, and they were angry that they showed up on other people’s scrolls.  And by angry, I really mean ANGRY — very vehement posts using the words “hate” and “unfair” and “unsubscribe,” folks threatening to shut down their FB account (and a few actually doing so), nasty comments about Facebook in general.  It wasn’t quite as bad as some of the ones about Netflix — there, many of the haters were actively rooting for the company’s stock price to collapse — but it was of the same type.

Now, I had only one problem with the changes — that they occurred with no warning to most of us members; it would’ve been nice to be told “hey, we’re planning some things to enhance your experience …” a few days before it happened.  Otherwise, I thought they were fine.  In fact, this is what I posted on Facebook a few days after the changes were implemented:

Okay, I’m just gonna say it. I like the new FB setup for the most part. I don’t mind the “top story” thing, as I can just click “remove from top story” if I don’t want it there. And I really, REALLY like seeing all my friends’ posts, because I have really neat friends and they say and do lots of cool stuff. I may be in the minority on this, but there it is.

The responses I got back were 50/50 — half agreed with me, and half didn’t.  But the half that didn’t were really harsh and whining: they wanted their old page back, and nothing was going to placate them.

And in the midst of all this, in the wake of l’affaire Netfliques, I was left wondering … when did we lose our perspective?

Because seriously, what are we talking about?  We’re talking about a great movie-delivery service, that allows me to watch darn near any flick I’d ever want to, changing their price structure from “mind-bogglingly cheap” to just “really, really cheap.”  We’re talking about a FREE online community making small cosmetic improvements to their service — without previous notice, but still, note the words  “small” and “FREE.”  (As an aside, do ignore the urban legend that says FB is about to start charging: it’s been circulating for two years now, and it’s total bullcrap.  The sign-in page says “It’s free and always will be” — and they mean it.  C’mon, you think the world’s youngest billionaires need more cash?)  These are — or should be — very minor things in a person’s life, insignificant in comparison to our relationships with God and our family, work, general physical and mental health, and the usual necessities of food, clothing, transportation and shelter.  So why the overblown reactions?

This is something I’ve had to teach my own kids: some things are just not worth getting worked up about.  My daughter used to get teary-eyed when I’d suggest that maybe her idea of a peanut-butter-and-American-cheese sandwich might not work so well.  Now that she’s hit the big 1-0, such statements don’t faze her.  Why?  Because she understands that only certain issues are really worth that kind of emotional investment.  You can’t treat every event that comes along as if it were a big deal; you’d be exhausted in no time.  And we all have to learn that.  Ten years ago, I was really perturbed that the baseball All-Star Game ended in a tie.  This year, I didn’t even watch the game; if they had tied this time, I would have shrugged and moved on to the next headline.  What seemed so huge to me then has become a non-issue now, because I’d learned better how to distinguish what’s really important from what isn’t.

You know what’s important?  My kid getting sick and almost dying — that’s important.  (By the way — update on Sean coming Thursday, most likely.)  My mom dying a couple of years ago was, and still is, a big deal.  Making ends meet for a family of four on a part-time/seasonal job, a couple of disability checks and some thankfully received gift cards is pretty challenging.  Dealing with my own burgeoning health concerns, plus my wife and son’s ongoing ones, consumes time and energy, and it should.  Those things really matter.  What my Facebook page looks like does not really matter.  And most of the time, I can distinguish one from the other.

Why are other people having a problem?  I hate to say it, but … maybe they don’t understand what a real crisis looks like.

I’m not wishing on anyone else the things that have occurred in my life in the past three years.  In fact, I’m specifically avoiding wishing on anyone else the things that have occurred in my life in the past three years.  But they’ve certainly served to show me what is worth caring deeply about, and what isn’t.  Let’s face it, in America we do have it pretty easy most of the time.  The majority of families don’t have to deal very often with a child dying, or a life-threatening illness, or the possibility of being out on the street if a paycheck is missed — let alone all of them at once.  All of those used to be far more common here than they are now, and they’re still that way in much of the world.  I’m glad things have improved in  our country from the way they were a hundred years ago, that most people’s lives in the U.S. tend to go about the way we want them to.

But what if one of the side effects is that, if we’re not careful, we begin to take everything for granted, to the point that we start losing our minds when anything doesn’t go the way we want?  To the point where we deal with the slightest changes to our ideal with a rage all out of proportion to the event?  And furthermore, if that’s how we deal with tiny inconveniences, how can we possibly handle a REAL crisis when it comes our way?  If we flip out in a mild rainstorm, how can we deal with a hurricane?

And from what I read in the news, the answer seems to be, “we can’t.”

Forgive another baseball reference, but we need the perspective Ralph Houk had.  Houk was the first-year manager of the 1961 pennant-winning New York Yankees (the team best known for Roger Maris’ record-breaking 61 homers).  Before that, he’d been a major-league coach, a minor-league manager, a marginal catcher, and (most importantly) an infantry officer in the U.S. Army Ranger in Europe during World War II — he’d started out as a sergeant, and had been field-promoted all the way up to major by V-E Day.  Anyway, it’s right before the first game of the ’61  World Series, and the reporters are asking Houk some pre-game questions.  One of them, noting that he was the first rookie skipper ever to manage a team to the Series, asked him if he was nervous.

Houk just laughed.  The scribe repeated the question.  And  Houk reportedly replied, “Nervous?  Why, is someone gonna be shooting at me?”

See, Ralph Houk got it.  He’d been in the Battle of the Bulge.  He had a Bronze Star, a Silver Star (with oak clusters) and a Purple Heart.  He’d dealt with life-or-death situations, lots of them; he knew what was really serious, and what wasn’t.  And compared to Bastogne, where the Nazis had been trying to kill him in cold blood, how the Cincinnati Reds were going to pitch to Tony Kubek was just not worth that much stress.

(Oh, and the Yankees swept the World Series, in case you wondered.  Four games to zip.)

So to the people aiming all their vitriol at Netflix, or Facebook, or Internet trolls, or the neighbor’s dog, or the guy on the road who believes using their turn signal makes them less of a man, I say: take it down a few notches.  It’s not that huge a deal.  Save the energy for when someone’s shooting at you.

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