Technology

Facebook and the Death of Distance

Facebook is like having a dozen rolling high school reunions simultaneously, plus grade school, and college, and every summer camp you ever attended.

Is it just me, or has Facebook gone totally haywire in the last few months? I haven't checked the numbers, but I'm guessing the user base went supernova in 2008, because I've had more virtual reunions in the last six months than would seem possible. Or, for that matter, would seem healthy.

If you're on Facebook and you've been down this road, then you know what I'm talking about. For those not familiar, Facebook is a social networking site, like Classmates.com or MySpace. Except unlike Classmates.com, it's free, and unlike MySpace, it's well-designed.

The way it works is, you sign up on Facebook -- usually after being hectored into it by a friend -- and set up a profile in which you can disclose as much or as little as you like about your life, location, contact info, job, interests, what have you. Then when you connect with that initial friend, you can see all of his or her friends in a big long list. With a single click, you can request to be connected with those friends, and so on, exponentially, endlessly.

Within a few minutes, you're drilling down through three or four degrees of separation, people are sending you requests, and you're suddenly, alarmingly Back In Touch with several hundred friends and acquaintances from the past. Facebook has clearly hit the sweet spot of social networking technology, because everyone I know, or have ever known, is now on my friends list. Or so it seems.

Frankly, it's messing me up a little. Mostly, it's wonderful, and actually kind of awe-inspiring, to be connected once again with grade school friends, high school buddies, college roommates, old CIA handlers, etc. But emotionally, it can be very taxing.

I mean, you know how high school reunions can be stressful? Well, Facebook is like having a dozen rolling high school reunions simultaneously, plus grade school, and college, and every summer camp you ever attended, plus that scholastic achiever program you attended for a week in sixth grade. Oh, and remember that temp job you had in California, with the really intense bi-curious goth girl? Yeah, she's here, too.

Now with regular class reunions there is a good deal of tradition and protocol that has developed. For instance, you are given plenty of advance notice, and the event is always held at or near a hotel. That is because Nature, in Her infinite wisdom, has evolved these situations so that you can get very drunk before and during the reunion proper and crash safely at the nearby hotel. It's a scheduled, finite event, and you get all your sentimental nostalgia ya-yas out in one blurry evening.

With Facebook, the reunion is … hmm, relentless isn't the right word. Let's say persistent. Every day, you'll be making new connections, posting and reading various messages, and generally minding your Facebook account. You can stay drunk for all this if you choose, but I don't recommend it.

Also this, which is critical: Facebook is decidedly, disturbingly multimedia in concept and execution. You can append all manner of files and photos, even videos, to your Facebook page. Prepare to spend many hours looking at pictures.

Many of these pictures are current family photos, and that's helpful. You can check out how everyone looks now, and remarking on how cute someone's kids look is always a good way to break the ice. But there are some nefarious sorts on Facebook, old friends and sometimes even family, who will scan and post old pictures from, say, 1984.

As such, I've had a few terrible flashbacks of late concerning puberty, and orthodontia, and the feathered-hair-with-mullet look. And the enigma of why an awkward, pubescent, feathered-hair kid in braces would choose to rock the Miami Vice look in junior high Science class.

There are larger issues at play here, though, than sartorial regret. The Internet, and modern communication technologies in general, have been hailed as bringing about "the death of distance". We can connect with others anywhere, globally, instantly.

Now that social networking systems like Facebook are facilitating perpetual personal reunions, we may be experiencing the death of a different kind of distance. When you suddenly get back in touch with important (and not so important) people from every era of your personal history, it can be surprisingly intense.

On balance, it's all to the good, I think. Facebook can provide a variation on what the pop psychologists call "closure". For example, some guys I haven't seen since grade school have started a group dedicated to processing the trauma of our fifth-grade experience. My recollection of that year is that our teacher was an insane sociopath, and it's nice to get some confirmation on that.

Now that I'm on the other side of that initial wave, I’ve learned to keep my head above water, I am enjoying the Facebook experience. But newcomers, beware.

There should really be some kind of consumer advocacy warning on the sign-up page: May Cause Intense Rush of Nostalgia. May Contain Images That Are Upsetting. Beware of Free-Associating, Daydreaming, or Lateral Thinking. Do Not Mix With Other Medications. Do Not Operate Heavy Machinery.

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