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Pets, Social Software, and Unconditional Love

A Kiss for Jake, June 16, 2007

Originally uploaded by mstephens7

(Update: Jake died this morning, God rest his soul.)

There is much harrumphing over social networks in some quarters, and a certain pulling in of horns from people who overdid it in the first place.

But sometimes when the shock of the new has worn off we experience that thing that dazzled us with more appreciative eyes, the way love, after a decade or so, becomes a worn flannel robe, familiar and comforting.

When I look at Flickr, I see babies, and friends in love, and Liz’s new wardrobe, and children eating ice cream; and I see Michael kissing Jake, his dear old friend nearing the end of a long and honorable dog’s life.

I don’t expect Flickr, or any social network, to take the place of genuine face-to-face networking. But part of Flickr is to get to be part of Michael’s life a little more than without it, to feel empathy (I have guided an animal through old age and death) and affection (for Michael, who I know, and Jake, who I know through Michael).

Pets bring out the best in us: in exchange for unconditional love, they tease out our deep capacity to care for others and our abilities to parent. The tragedy of pets is that if we are lucky we outlive them, but the triumph is that pets teach us again and again the sweet brevity of life. Michael has documented all of this on Flickr — the love and the grief and the brevity — and he and I, and all of us, are closer for it.

If I could be there with Michael, I would wash his dishes, and knead his neck, and do whatever I could to create a little more time for Michael to be with his old friend. But I can be present on this network, through Michael’s pictures and my response, and in that way wrap Michael in the worn, soft flannel of my own love; and that is its own small miracle.

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