Saturday, December 12, 2009

Face Time

To the extent there's a type of person most likely to be on Facebook, I'm probably not it. But I'm an alumni agent for one of my schools, and it seemed like a good way to keep in touch with former classmates and organize reunions that the school has every few years. In no way was I curious about former flings. So a couple of months ago I created a Facebook account.

School reunions are fun, but even in moderation -- every five years or so -- they can chip away at fond memories with middle-aged reality. Facebook is a perpetual school reunion. The golden girl at the beach you somehow convinced to sleep with you during the summer between high school and college? Well, she spent a lot of summers in the sun after that one, and twenty years later it shows -- every single time you log into Facebook. The slender, sensitive soccer team captain you dated and were going to live with on a farm in Vermont? He's in Larchmont, trades stocks or bonds or something -- were his head and face always that big? -- and has a "Palin/Beck in 2012" link on his homepage.

Some former classmates have never shown any interest in coming to a reunion. I've always written this off to things like apathy, unpleasant memories (adolescence isn't fun for everyone) or insecurity about middle-age waistlines. Maybe I've got it exactly backwards. Instead of being worried about how others will see them, could they be worried about how they'll see others? I've searched for some of them on Facebook. Maybe it makes perfect sense that they don't show up there either.

Wistful, reality-jolted reminiscence is a natural function of age, not social networking sites. What's new here is the effect this type of technology has on the past and our perception of it. Memories of the golden girl and soccer team captain can withstand the occasional school reunion or random meeting on the street. But the open-book, ever-increasing immediacy of Facebook and similar sites takes a subtle toll on frequent users. After the initial novelty of reconnecting with old friends, these sites debase and supplant memories and experiences and eventually rob people of them. If Facebook is a thief, Twitter is a raging kleptomaniac. Your hot prom date from 1983 updates you every few minutes about the long checkout line at the grocery store or how the dog just pooped on the rug again. After a few days of this, that magical first dance you've always remembered with a quiet smile seems a bit less magical. The cumulative effect is a sort of mass Danielle Chiesification of the past. We're all wearing that baggy white sweater, every day and all the time. If there was ever anything else -- beauty titles or just good times around a keg -- it's been buried in an avalanche of Facebook pages and tweets.

I wonder how this will affect kids as they get older. Until recently, people went from one distinct stage in life to the next, only occasionally revisiting previous stages via reunions and dusty photo albums and old yearbooks at moving time. Now everything is online and updated in real time. Will those who grow up with this technology eventually look back on life as a long continuous blur, and never know the sense of nostalgia that comes from seeing -- or not seeing -- someone after a few decades?

For thirty and forty-somethings, whose formative years were the comparatively prosperous 1980s and 1990s, the debasement of the past is compounded by the contrast between those times and today. The past is not only formative, it's stabilizing, an anchor. You're left with tea parties, two wars, and 10% unemployment. Maybe in twenty years some new technology will make these seem like the good old days.

23 Comments:

Blogger John said...

Interesting observations. And, since I am "of a certain age" and older than you are, they resonate with me.

But I also think you're right about what you say in the last sentence, but with a twist. I'm sure that 20 years from now today's college students will think back on these as the "good old days" -- it is just perfectly normal to do that.

Our observations about the perils of technology and how it negatively impacts the youth of today are also perfectly normal. This kind of stuff has been going on forever. I'm sure that there was lots of angst about TV when I was growing up, before that I suspect there was angst about radio, and electric lighting, and gunpowder, and indoor plumbing, and the wheel for that matter.

The more things change.....

Nevertheless, I do think you make some interesting points. But they are fundamentally attached to your point that the past is "stabilizing, an anchor". It has always been so, and always will be so.....

12/12/2009 10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am one of those types you mentioned who never show up at reunions. In my case, it's because I really want to keep my memories. I am afraid seeing old friends would ruin everything. The past is past.

I obviously have no facebook account and Twitter sounds like an inane nightmare. I have good memories. I'd like to keep them.

Frank

12/13/2009 1:02 AM  
Anonymous wendy said...

I've had a Facebook account for a long time, mostly because of the work I used to do (music publicist), but about 6-7 months ago, everyone from my high school (class of 1980) showed up and I have to say it's pretty jarring (and bad). I came from a small town and was very happy to leave it behind at age 18, but now it's in my face, literally, every day. I find myself getting really annoyed by the fake intimacy that seems to arise from these reconnections...people writing "luv ya" on my page kind of makes me cringe. A number of friends are in a transitional period of their lives (marriage disintegrating, kids leaving for college, unemployed, etc.), so the whole Facebook thing appears to be some insane life-raft for them, revisiting the gauzey past while planning for uncertainty of the future, I guess.

I often think that a certain magical memory of old times will be lost in this whole new paradigm of constant and everlasting connectivity, but then again, I feel the same way about letter writing, another lost art.

12/13/2009 9:43 AM  
Anonymous wendy said...

I might add that I can't even conceive of using Twitter in a meaningful, personal way. However, it has GREAT applications for business (both from the discovery and prospecting standpoint).

12/13/2009 9:48 AM  
Anonymous peter h said...

Life happens in human moments, be it the memories made on campus together or the emotive froth, good, bad or somewhere in between, of reunions. No surprise then that stepping into the Potemkin Village aka Facebook, a place totally devoid of human moments, is both ersatz and unnerving, not to mention a complete and total f-cking waste of time for anything other than the mundane logistics of "we're getting together, here's the where & when..."

12/13/2009 3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not worry about old memories being tarnished -- I like to think I can "handle the truth." In any event, my curiosity in learning what has happened to folks I knew 35 years ago far outweighs concerns about what I might find out. My FB "reunion" encounters have, at worst, been bittersweet, and by and large, most rewarding.

12/14/2009 11:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget the music in the 80s and 90s was pretty good as well.

12/14/2009 1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm on the Dev Board for my HS as well, but I am only out 10yrs, so my take is quite different. For us their is no 'lost time', we've never lost contact. Facebook, and twitter, are just the evolution of Email and IM. I'm sympathetic to the idea that time perfects memories, and that temporal distance can be clarify, but I wouldn't trade that for the ability to retain numerous relationships from various stages of my life, in a way that the generation before had been unable to. Visiting friends in different cities across the country is a hobby of mine, and I love it. It's helped a few people get jobs (yes, this actually happens). And more to the point as i have moved through my life, those people that have known me the longest, are the ones whom offer the most insight when I am seeking advice.
I suppose the take away from me is that with FB and Twitter, I can stay in touch with those that I want to very easily. But, and this is the part 'older people' don't seem to get, I can simply ignore those people I didn't like much to begin with as well. I'm not friends with ex-gf's. I don't want to know what they're doing. But I have very good friends that live across oceans, and I don't have to miss them anymore. There are right there.

12/14/2009 3:24 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I'm a lot younger than most commenters here - most of you it seems graduated high school before I was born! So I have pretty opposing views of Facebook.

But let me assure you, we of the younger generation still are under the sway of the good old days. Nostalgia is HUGE for people of my generation, but it's a nostalgia for the trappings of youth and not the personalities of youth. We're nostalgic for the games we played and the movies we watched and the food we ate, but the people? We don't need to be nostalgic for them, because we never lost them.

The perfect people (who live only in the past) may be beautiful, but they're beautiful fictions. I don't feel the need to lie to myself about the people I knew, and I really don't understand those who do.

12/15/2009 11:30 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I guess what I'm saying is, people who need to keep their memories untarnished are really saying, "I'm afraid I'm incapable of creating new ones, or incapable of cherishing my new memories."

Facebook has actually brought me closer to many people I knew in high school than before, as I watch maturity wipe away negative traits I disliked in them before. If age tarnishes memories, it also ripens personality.

I like my ex-classmates more now than before, and I consider more of them friends than before, and those friendships are stronger now than before. In every way except economically, life is better now than it has ever been for us.

12/15/2009 11:38 AM  
Blogger DiWind said...

I am old enough to be the mother of the younger people posting and I completely agree with them. How incredibly superficial this blog entry is. Did this man NEVER stay in touch with anyone over the years? Growing old and growing up together is something friends do. It is in no way a debasement of memory but rather an opening and growth of relationships. I find this person pitiful.

12/27/2009 4:12 PM  
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Anonymous viagra online said...

I think that checking facebook is funny, but definitively planning school reunions must be even funnier! I usually attend to my school parties because I always have a good time.

12/22/2010 12:01 PM  
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