Social media helps far-flung families connect this holiday season

Without platforms like Facebook, Skype, and Google +, it would be much harder for some far-flung extended families to stay connected this holiday season.

Stacey Wescott /Chicago Tribune/MCT
One-year-old Zoey Calhoun watches her mother's face on the computer screen as Ashley Calhoun appears on a Skype call, in 2009, in Rockton, Illinois.

Gathering family for the holidays isn't what it used to be.

And that's a good thing for Carol Meerschaert, of Paoli, Penn. Ms. Meerschaert is one of eight siblings and has 15 nieces and nephews, some with additional spouses and children. Members of the clan live in California, Washington, D.C., Washington state, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Montana.

For Meerschaert this holiday season, social media is the gift that keeps on giving. Without platforms like Facebook, Skype, and Google +, it would be much harder for the extended brood to stay connected.

“Even if we were all in the same room you would not get the first person accounts of everyone talking at once,” Meerschaert says. “I love the photos, links to articles that speak to us, songs, videos, and more that we share online.”  And just in case she was feeling her familiy wasn’t big enough already, she says that Facebook has reconnected her with many of her 48 cousins as well.

And there are so many online options to bring us closer together this year, says Anthony Rotolo, a professor at Syracuse University iSchool in New York. These options range from the more familiar, such as Facebook, to brand new sites such as Path – the exclusively mobile social network designed to be shared only with one’s closest friends – and Kondoot, which debuted in the US on Dec. 12 and is a social media tool that allows free, live online broadcasting.

“This year, my family holidays have relied on Skype and Apple's FaceTime to bring far away loved ones to the table,” Mr. Rotolo says via e-mail. Social media has been a boon for military families too, he points out, allowing families separated by overseas deployments to stay connected. Anyone who is unable to fly home due to cost or distance “will be able to experience gift-giving [and] Christmas morning with the kids, and even the dinner table through social video technologies like these, or the newer Google Hangouts, for example,” he adds. 

Photo sharing apps such as Instagram allow users to show friends what makes home for the holidays special in a creative and beautiful way, says Rotolo. And we shouldn't forget other digital gifts either, he says, from Kindles and iPads to virtual goods like Facebook or Xbox credits, app downloads, and music.“Christmas 2012, he notes, “ is about sharing online.”

Of course, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, points out Laurie Puhn, author of “Fight Less, Love More: 5 Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In.”  Particularly when holiday gatherings are full of many  generations, Ms. Puhn says it is critical to honor those who are actually present at a gathering. “It’s all too easy to become a techno-pest,” she says, with people answering cell phones, texting, or just plain fiddling with smart phones instead of being present with friends and family.

Puhn recommends deciding on which technologies will play a part at a gathering in advance, “and conducting a few dry runs.” This becomes especially important if only a few of those present are tech-savvy and there may be confusion or a need to explain what’s going on. And, if anyone is trying out a new application, that could be particularly disastrous, she says.

“What you really don’t want is someone spending an entire dinner fussing with trying to get the new app to work correctly,” she says. “This kind of distraction is what I call the new rude.”

Careful planning is just what Santa ordered, says Brian Block, from Pierpont Communications in Houston. His first move with any gift giving is to ease the frustration that comes with any learning curve. “If anyone in my  family gets or gives a new device, the first thing I am going to do is program it with everything I think they might need or want to use and then show them exactly how to use it,” he says.

“We will use social media to keep our family in touch,” Mr. block says. But, he adds, he won’t let it take over.

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