"Half the people you see these days are talking on cell phones
Driving off the road and bumping in to doors.
People use to spend quite a bit of time alone
I guess nobody's lonely anymore."
--Greg Brown, "Cept' You and Me, Babe."
"Where have all my friends gone?
They've all disappeared."
--The Jayhawks, "Blue."
I recently passed a curious milestone: I reached the 100th friend marker on Facebook, the internet social networking utility I joined somewhat reluctantly several months ago. The response of said friend, Keith Bridges, artistic director of Charter Theatre, perhaps said it all: "Dude, that's just sad."
There are, in fact, people out there with over 300,400 friends, but why quibble over the math? At what point, exactly, do you become a Facebook whore? But then something happened that got me thinking about this phenomenon, even more than the endless invitations from the site to become a werewolf, a vampire or a zombie, or the quizzes to determine what city, James Bond movie or brand of underwear is most like me -- with answers available only if you have the audacity (or shamelessness) to pass it on to 20 more "friends."
I got a friend request (number 107) from the girl I took to my 9th grade homecoming dance in Milwaukee. Actually, to say I "took" her is a bit misleading, as it suggests that a)I did the asking and b)that I had a vehicle to take her in. Neither was true. I was still at that awkward age where I was much too shy to ask anyone on my own, and even in a recent e-mail, she acknowledged what a good "sport" I was to go along. Adding to the angst was that my sister chaperoned us to the dance and the restaurant beforehand, as I had no car. Photographic evidence of the night (Polaroids show me with a suit my mom dressed me in and an expression similar to those in hostage videos from the Middle East--I had a major stick up my butt) was the source of endless ribbing for years afterward.
The picture that accompanied the request showed her with her baby girl. She located me because we had a "friend" in common, the person who is organizing the 20th reunion at the high school I went to briefly in Milwaukee (which I left after the 9th grade when we moved to Philadelphia, for reasons that had nothing to do with the homecoming dance). I put friend in quotes because my chief memory of this person was a fight we had in the 7th grade during gym. The scene: Outside, playing softball. I was catching, he was pitching. I may have said something like, "Can't you get one over the plate?" He then beamed me in the head with the ball. I rushed toward the mound. Mayhem ensued. Though I think I was operating largely in self-defense, we both got detentions. My "friend" had a reputation for being what we would have then uncharitably called a "spaz," and I will never forget the subtle smile that appeared on the face of my otherwise mild-mannered English teacher when he accosted me in the hall, and asked, "Is it true that you beat up...."
And there was my friend's photo on my computer screen, 20 years older (with tattoos, holding baby boy.)
There are further odd connections in my burgeoning pile of Facebook friends:
*The best friend of a girl I dated in high school in Philadelphia, who unbeknownst to both of us, had been doing props in DC at the same time I was getting back into theater.
*The person who played the loyal lieutenant to my corrupt colonel in an amateur production of "A Few Good Men" in college. He also lives in the area and currently works for the state department.
*Two close high school friends that were part of a comedy troupe I performed in during high school. One is a vice-president of a medicinal rubber company (it's not what you think) and the other is a film director in New York.
*The assignment editor of the newspaper I worked at in Albany, now flak-ing for a local college, whose favorite question was, "Hey Brownstein, where's my page one story?"
I think there needs to be a new word for the weird cognitive dissonance, the sense of compressed time bridged instantaneously, that comes from reconnecting with old memories after getting "friended" on cyberspace. Maybe "webui" or "netstalgia."
Don't get me wrong. For the most part, it's incredibly exciting to have people I was once close to back in my life. In some of these cases, we had previously tried to find each other through more conventional means, and discovered one another purely by accident (or a degree of separation) on Facebook. But it sure makes repression rather difficult. The phrase "The past is not dead; it's not even the past" takes on a whole new meaning when the past sends you e-mail with photo attachments.
A final note: There also needs to be a new word for people on the opposite end of the spectrum. I am not proud of this, but as of this writing, I have 7 Facebook friends whom I've never met, and 15 who I've spoken to only briefly.
What does that say about me?
Perhaps I should put a poll on my blog.