It’s become a standard part of this decade’s social landscape, like singles bars in the 1970s or email in the ’90s — the retrieval of old friends through Facebook.
You used to need a high school reunion for this, but the Internet is so much easier and far-reaching. A few spare minutes, a couple clicks of the mouse, and… huh! That goofy guy who sat behind you in math class is apparently a lawyer in Texas. Or your arch-rival on the cheerleading squad is now a consular official representing the U.S. of A. in Kuala Lumpur. (And she wants the recipe for the peanut butter blondies your mother always used to send to practice.)
I’ve done these searches as much as anyone, especially during the past year in which I’ve been working on novels. It’s a great way to procrastinate or distract oneself from actually writing.
There have been some wonderful “finds” where I reconnected with an old friend, or forged a new tie that was in fact deeper and more interesting than the original friendship.
Take Craig A.: We sat next to each other in 3rd grade. He used to tease me by opening the encyclopedia to a glossy color page of photographs of parasites. (Ewww! Gross!) In return I would threaten to kiss him, which was the only thing that could gross him out enough to get him to turn the page.
That’s almost all that I remembered from our elementary school days. But he friended me on Facebook. And he turns out to be a witty and intelligent Facebook post-er, as well as someone who actually remembers stuff I write months after I’ve written it. We met for coffee earlier this year when I was in New York for a family visit. Now he feels like an actual friend, much more engaging than my memories of him.
But then there’s the other side to this. About a month ago, during one of my fits of procrastination, I did a Facebook search for a boy who was the total summit/pinnacle/personification of High School Crush for me. I worshipped this boy. I lusted after this boy. I would have cut off my right hand (metaphorically of course) for this boy’s romantic attention. He was unkempt and idealistic, prankster and philosopher — my white knight, Prince Charming, Aragorn, Darcy, Bobby Sherman, Bobby Dylan all rolled into one.
You get the idea; you had one too.
I found him. I friended him. He accepted. We exchanged paragraph-long summaries of our lives. He turns out to be a CPA living in suburban Virginia with a minivan and five children. (I have changed the details to protect, um, myself, but the fake details make my point as well as the truth would.)
And that was that.
Except for the quiet feeling of loss that has remained with me.
My memory had placed a numinous halo around this person. It was not so much that he was special, but my feelings about him were special.
Remembering him would take me back to a moment of mystery and magic, when I believed that someone else had the power to completely transform my life. When a single casual and unthinking gesture might send me soaring for the rest of the day or crashing into journal-writing despair. There was magic in his grin, in his sweaty smell after running track, his philosophical rants while waving a whole-wheat sandwich in the air in the cafeteria. I never knew what happened to him after high school, so there was the possibility that this magic was still out there somewhere, ennobling some little corner of the world.
And now I have learned that he is a CPA with a minivan. And that I can exchange 50-word autobiographies with him and the earth doesn’t move, the sky doesn’t open, I just click my mouse and move on to other emails about plumbers or parent-teacher conferences.
Another example on a slightly broader scale:
As a teenager, I belonged to a Zionist youth group that was a deep, wonderful, life-shaping experience – the root of my progressive politics and Jewish identity, the venue for my first romantic adventures, source of some of my closest teenage friendships.
But it was also a peculiar subculture, a kind of science-fiction Valley That Time Forgot. In the middle of 1970s New York City, we were modeling ourselves after 1920s pioneers in Palestine. We pledged not to smoke, do drugs, or drink alcohol. We learned how to milk cows. (Well, some of us did. Guess who didn’t.) While the rest of the world was doing disco with John Travolta, we were having long, intense discussions about which was more important to us: Zionism or socialism?
As an adult, I lost complete touch with nearly everyone associated with the group, Hashomer Hatzair. And my experiences there took on the same halo as Mr. High School Crush. It felt like my own Chelm or Macondo, an insular, magical village where the rules of the rest of the world didn’t apply. I occasionally imagined a coming-of-age novel set there – one that would evoke a sense of a lost world apart and out of time.
And then something unexpected happened. An old Hashomer acquaintance set up a Yahoo Group for alumni of the organization. People joined and started posting notes on a daily basis about Middle Eastern politics, youth group memories, dumb Internet jokes, music, soccer, family, you name it. I started reading posts from people I hadn’t thought about – much less communicated with – in years.
And the group morphed from being a glowing, mythical memory into a part of real life. Rather than floating above the earth, it grew legs and feet. It was staked to the ground with a hundred wires held by a hundred different people posting on the Yahoo Group. It was no longer a creature of my imagination.
The visceral urge to write about it – to recreate it, or figure out its meaning, on paper – faded.
Sure, I can still incorporate it in a story or novel, just as I can write about the letter carrier on our street or the woman who teaches my exercise class. But it doesn’t have that same glow. That same pull. I suspect Proust would not have felt as driven to write about his childhood if he were exhanging daily Facebook status updates and madeleine recipes with his Aunt Leonie.
So yes, certainly, things are gained from our era’s signature game of Internet hide-and-go-seek. It’s nice to know how people’s lives unfurl. It gives a sense of closure and dramatic fulfillment to learn that the cheerleader became a consul or the goof became a lawyer.
But things are also lost – the halo around Mr. High School Crush, the bittersweet sense of my own private Chelm. It’s possible to have too much information. When you know what happens in the end, there is less drive to invent your own endings. When the past gets anchored down to the present, it loses its airy magic.
So maybe it’s unexpectedly good news that some people – unlike my friend Craig, unlike Mr. High School Crush – still remain unfindable. Unfriendable. UnGoogleable. They’re off who-knows-where, living happy, brilliant, electronically-undocumented lives as nomadic sheepherders or housewives or air conditioning technicians.
I’m very happy they’re still out there, lost somewhere beyond my reach.