Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Facebook Phenomenon and My Generation

Lately, I have had some seemingly quite surreal moments through that social networking site known as Facebook. Yes, I have a Facebook account and access it fairly regularly. I have actually been on Facebook for quite a while now and have seen it evolve somewhat. As it has evolved, I have noticed a phenomenon that is peculiar to my generation and our relationship to this social networking medium.

This is what I've come to discover ...

The young folks of today (and by young I mean the under 30 years old crowd) have grown up with Facebook and the other social networking sites like MySpace and LinkedIn. For this generation, their personal and social history is chronicled at the moment of its birth, archived instantaneously, and immediately accessible at any time. Both to themselves as well as to others. Their social relationships are woven together and preserved over long stretches of time, and all it takes is a click of the mouse to reconnect, to refresh memory, and to stay informed. Because of this, their past never fades into the obscure recesses of memory as it has for all previous generations. For instance, when I transitioned from elementary school to high school, and then from high school to college, the break between my social networks established through these transitions was pretty clean and pretty complete. It was expected to be that way. When we could, we maintained contact through handwritten letters delivered by regular post. But this method of keeping in touch was tedious and sporadic. Consequently old relationships faded quickly and, most of the time, fairly completely. And in most cases, at least in my life, memories of people were stuck in particular moments of time, in particular emotional and psychological environments, such that if and when contact would be reestablished years later (say at planned reunions), it was always a wonderful, and sometimes incredible, moment of readjusting past memories to very changed current realities. The skinny geek turned out to be the stocky gigolo. The homely girl with braces turned out to be the glamorous and beautiful stage peformer. The bully turned out to be a kind and gentle philanthropist. Etc. There was (is) a magical and almost surreal quality to this process of social relations. Now, for the younger generations, that magic is gone. There is much less mystery and wonder about who is doing what, when, and where. All you need to do is keep your Facebook account active and make sure to regularly check in on your Facebook friends. That's not to say that the mystery and wonder of social networking across different contexts and extended periods of time disappears, just that it is diminished overall. I doubt that my children will get the same kind of thrill out of reconnecting with "long lost" old friends and acquiantances. And that is because nothing these days about social networking lends itself to any friendship or acquaintance being "long lost," and thus subject to the thrills and, perhaps, anxieties of rediscovery.

However, my generation is distinct from older generations in that we are close enough to technology and the wonders that it can bring via social networking to not simply write it off as a novelty. For my parents' generation, too much time has passed, too much history has been buried, too little knowledge of and experience with technology exists, and too much effort would be required to resuscitate the "long lost" such that things like the Facebook phenomenon are merely curiosities and mostly meaningless.

So, what all this means, as far as I see it, is that my generation is caught in this unique and surreal space where, through things like Facebook, we can explode the wonder of times past and freshen memories of friendships and social relationships that aren't so far removed from our identities that we wouldn't find meaning in dredging them up and restoring them.

Even though online social networking sites have been around for some time now, my generation is just now catching on to the excitement of it. And we ARE excited by it in ways that the younger generations could never be, precisely because of its ability to restore the "long lost." Folks from my generation are setting up Facebook accounts by the droves. People I grew up with in the old neighborhood, folks I went to grammar school with, guys and girls that I hung out with in the heady days of adolescence and high school and undergraduate college, are all searching each other out and reconnecting. We are like giddy kids in the proverbial candy store.

And whenever one of these "long lost" friends reconnects with me through Facebook, the inevitable first thrill of the contact is almost always prefaced by something like the following: "Isn't this Facebook thing just crazy-cool?!?!?" And it is! It's a wonderful moment. Finding out about jobs, careers, families, interests. Seeing pictures of people 20-30 years after the last moment of contact. There is something sweet and innocent about finding out that your best friend from the 5th grade, whom you haven't seen in 25 years, still thinks of you, too, now, as that best friend from 5th grade -- even after so many years have passed.

Recently, after having discovered through Facebook the web of current, new relationships that have unexpected and surprising connections to relationships of 20-30 years ago, I wrote for my status update the following: "Jimmy Huck seems to have unwittingly taken the red pill and is now discovering how deep the rabbit hole goes!" (For those not in the know, this is a reference to a scene in the movie The Matrix, when Morpheus gives Neo the chance to know the surreal truth of the Matrix and his life as he knew it at that moment.) For folks in my generation, that rabbit hole is deep, indeed. But the surreal fall down into it is pretty thrilling and affirming. I can't speak for any other 40-somethings, but for me it is enlivening my personal history and enriching my present. I love it. And I have to say that I'm pretty darn pleased that the wonder of it is something I think only my generation gets to appreciate.


Eric said...

Agreed, Huck. I have been pretty enamored with the FB phenom myself over the last 3 or 4 months. I would note this, though: in addition to the 'long lost' aspect of friendship maintenance that you speak of, one of my favorite things about FB is that it has allowed me to create a deeper connection with many of my friends and acquaintences I see 'in passing' every day in my local community.
I've noticed, for instance, when standing in line at the grocery store next to one of my kid's friend's parents I am now more likely to ask a question like, "How is your garden project coming along? Did those beefsteak tomatoes turn out like you hoped?" as opposed to something impersonal and nonspecific such as, "Man, how 'bout this heat?"

It's a subtle thing, but very signifiant.

Huck said...

You're absolutely right, Eric. I've noticed the same thing. It's quite powerful for community building. In a sense, it's the new "front porch" of our day - where neighbors converse and commune. I have high hopes for Facebook's potential to build community and tackle that social alienation and isolation that came with the inwardness of social "privatization" of the last 20 years or so. It's that kind of immediate ability to stay connected, as well as the thrill of reconnecting, that demonstrates the power of Facebook. What you speak of, though, is a phenomenon that all Facebook users of each generation share. What's unique to our generation is Facebook's ability not only to build community in the way you note, but also to restore in a vibrant way those buried memories of the past.

LatinTeacher said...

I used facebook to find people after Katrina. Mostly it was students past whose family I knew well. But this is exactly right. I can keep track of people I had forgotten about (although I did a pretty good job not forgetting). I am pleased, too, and I like trying to remember details like Eric says, too. The front porch now extends from France to Easton to New Orleans and elsewhere.

D-BB said...

Face book is sort of like those old magazines you could by and meet people like, Southern Swingers and my personal favorite, Swap Meat.

Just as today, people used fake pics. There ws this one girl in Hammond who said she was 5'4", 115 lbs and had long brown hair.

Well that 115 lbs was just the weight from freakin' her ass from what I could could see when we met and yeah, long brown hair....hanging from her arm pits.

D-BB said...

My last comment stated "Well that 115 lbs was just the weight from freakin' her ass."

There is a terrible typo there.....but unfortunately, it's true...if you understand the adjectivial slang "freakin". Also, I am quite sure "adjectivial" is not a word.

Theology Girl said...

I think that eventually people will rediscover writing actual letters. And then articles will be written about the tactile experience of communication and how the new way of connecting (read words from a friend again and again! Even when no wireless signal is available!) is revolutionizing the internet.

Or maybe Facebook will just start publishing year books. Could happen . . .