Last September, I attended my 10-year high school reunion. I’d felt a powerful and unexpected surge of icy dread in the weeks leading up to that inveterate ritual of passage into mid-life. The whole thing seemed so painfully overblown, so likely to disappoint.
I was secretly desperate to skip it entirely, but a handful of best friends propped up my courage with a few strong drinks. Arm in arm, we strolled giddily into a flashy and very grown-up-looking event hall at the designated hour. We donned nametags boasting our senior pictures and we screwed our collective courage and we headed for the bar.
And you know what? It was actually fun. We all stood around a crudités table, drinking whiskey-cokes and giggling into our shirtsleeves as we compared the battle scars of our first decade of adulthood; dog tags from tours of duty in Iraq, ill-advised yin-yang tattoos, tarnished wedding bands. Out in a courtyard attached to the building, the guys shed their jackets and passed around cigarettes, while the girls took off their shoes and danced with each other.
Someone lit a joint. And as I gazed around me, I was suddenly struck by an overpowering sense of semantic disorientiation.
Was it the monumental ordinariness of the event? Sure, we were the lot of us merely only slightly fatter and (sometimes) wealthier versions of our eighteen-year-old selves. And, yeah, it felt like playing at grown-up, somehow. But that wasn’t the thing that so shook me.
It wasn’t the company, either; people were clever and engaging and boisteriously enthusiastic about re-encountering each other.
It was only that I found myself rendered speechless by the dawning of an odd and ignoble truth: I hadn’t spoken to the bulk of these people in 10 years, but I knew them intimately; their jobs, their political inclinations, their relationships statuses. We were Facebook buddies, after all.
Knowing that, and, further, knowing that they knew it, too, made it feel unbearably disingenuous to flash a toothy grin and toss out some overfed line:
“So. What have you been up to?” (Because I already know about your frat-tastic college boyfriend, your honeymoon in Vietnam and your quick-and-dirty divorce.)
“Oh! You have kids?” (Because I have already noted the color of their eyes and how they celebrated their first birthday, which seems completely normal when I’m sitting at home on the Internet, but somehow feels creepy to admit to your face.)
What could I possibly say?
* * *
In the heady early days of Myspace and Facebook, everything was different. Nobody had 800 friends. Potential employers didn’t dress you up or down based on your virtual comportment. Instead, logging in was really just like being transported to a seedy, raucous bar containing 100 of your closest acquaintances. People cursed and spat, freely posting photo evidence of their indecorous weekend exploits. They bitched about their jobs with total impunity. And they needled each other endlessly without care for who might see. Because, way back in the dark ages of 2006, the answer was almost nobody. At least, nobody you cared about caring.
After that, the flood. Parents joined. Teachers joined. Your entire fourth-grade class joined. And they all found you and wanted to know how the heck you’d been.
During grad school, a favorite professor who’d recently set up a Facebook account described the experience this way: “It’s like going to heaven—everybody’s there!”
He’s right, you know. Suddenly, Everybody was there. And this posed some problematic and very interesting implications. It became impolite to tell anyone “No” when they frisbeed a Friend Request your way. Even if you never talked during whatever brief period your non-virtual lives intersected. Even if you found them sort of grating. That virtual bar suddenly began to feel a bit stuffy and overcrowded. The bouncer had been trampled into a heap at the front door. And things were about to get much, much louder.
* * *
As a kid, or even as a departing high school senior, the concept of a direct line to every single person I’d ever met was inconceivable. Goodbye was goodbye. We donned our red gowns, hugged each other hard, and got on with the general business of living. We pursued relationships and college degrees, we had adventures or retired to the leafy suburbs, and we bookshelved that era of our lives. We banked on staying close to our best friends, sure, but we were happy to settle for infrequent and short-lived run-ins with everybody else. The world was as it should be.
Cut to the high school reunion. Ten long years later, all of us gritting teeth beneath a vapor of pot smoke and half-conceded commonality.
And (!) the lot of us practically neighbors. We’d shacked up in a noisy and querulous virtual neighborhood whose fences never seemed quite high enough to contain the secret messiness of our lives, a fact that both fascinated us and filled us with mutual terror.
Cause nowdays, gossip travels at the speed of sound. And the ends and beginnings of our relationships are things of public record.
Dana is engaged.
Erin is now single.
There were simply just… no words.
We are, in short, a generation incapable of surprise. But social decorum hasn’t caught up with the velocity at which we now access information about each other, and so it asks us to feign surprise never the less. We still feel somehow obliged to interact with each other in the old fangled ways, to perpetuate the ruse.
In the absence of precedent, I’ve had only my gut and my guilt to guide me. And so far, those two have proven rather questionable barometers when it comes to navigating the tricky, argumentative terrain of social-networking.
Exhibit A: My Friend Request folder is littered with a mess of potential “friends” that I don’t want, but feel, for various reasons, too guilty to turn down: acquaintances of my parents, elderly relatives, grade school classmates who’d slighted me some way or another. But saying “No” feels too direct, too harsh. So I just never look in the folder.
Exhibit B: I have an ex-boyfriend. His profile is private. His new girlfriend’s profile, however, is not. She appears to be unemployed, and she is what social-media researchers would call a “high-volume user.” And she is, to put it charitably, not exactly an intellectual. I know that cruising her wall in search of inanity and spelling mistakes is inappropriate, and pointless, and slightly pathetic. But I can’t resist! Somehow, I crave the affirmation.
Which begs the question of whether the aforementioned direct line will ever be used for good and not for evil. I know where I’m placing my bets.
I have a (real-life) friend who regularly creates and deletes social-networking profiles. The endeavors always start out well: she uploads a cute, quirky picture, she sends out requests, she updates her status. But always, within a matter of days, she finds herself stalking the pages of old rivals, of new love interests, of anyone, really, that she wouldn’t be granted intimate access to in the Real World. Things dovetail predictably from there. She feels crushed and furious when friend requests are denied. In fits of pique, she compulsively deletes people. And eventually, she trashes her profile altogether.
“I get too freaked out,” she told me after a recent deletion. “I just can’t handle it. I feel like these people aren’t really my friends, even the ones that really are my friends.”
And that word… Anymore, “friend” comes prepackaged with a sizeable cache of contradictory meanings. It’s even a verb, now. So what does it mean when Friendship is no longer a passive, gradual endeavor, a seed you water and watch grow? What does it mean when Friending becomes, instead, something you do to someone else. Like in the same way you would hit someone or hug someone or hang someone, you friend them. It’s active and direct, but the weird part is that it often signifies little more than passive curiosity.
Further, what does it mean when who you aren’t friends with begins to explain more about you than who you are friends with? My whole life, I’ve chosen friends on the basis of shared interests. Now I need a reason not to be someone’s friend. This makes it hard to tell anybody apart, to pick out who my real tribe is among the mess of People-I-Only-Kind-Of-Know-Or-Care-About.
Navigating the shift from late adolescence the grown-up world has never been easy. But the Facebook Era has made early adulthood feel uncomfortably much like some sort of virtual tribunal. Everybody’s judging. Or, at least, everybody’s watching.
And in the semantic bubble of my high school reunion, I finally figured that out.
We’re all of us up for execution every single day of the rest of our lives.
Of course, there is a way out. It involves deleting your profile and resigning yourself to the cold comfort of the analogue world, where little has probably changed, where your friends are the only ones within shouting distance, where your secrets are safe.
But making a break for it also requires that you resign from your station on the firing squad.
Be honest. Do you really want that?
-Erin J. Bernard