Tuesday, December 1, 2009

the Facebook disconnect

A couple of years ago, I participated in the Cringe Reading Series, an event where you get up and read your diary from when you were 14 years old to a bar full of strangers. It was great fun and I have happy memories of it; the only reason I stopped doing it was that I ran out of material. I have a handful of screamingly funny diary entries from my adolescence and hundreds more that are just depressing, and not in the "so bad it's good" way either. When I first read about the event, I had an unstoppable desire to participate in it, and the interviews I did with Paste Magazine, NBC News, and the LA Times were also fun.

But I didn't mention anyone's first and last names when I read my diary out loud. Two of the three entries I shared, in my three appearances on the Cringe stage, concerned a boy I'd been romantically obsessed with who had a very uncommon first name, and I didn't say his name aloud when it was mentioned in those entries—I shortened it to just his first initial. The last time I talked to this guy was 20 years ago, and I felt like there was something unkosher and creepy about saying intimate things about him while naming his name, especially since one of the diary entries was filled with colorful epithets condemning both him and the girl I suspected of making out with him (though I knew only that the girl had made out with someone on the gym steps, and I was afraid it might be him because he often hung out at the gym after school, but had no evidence that it was). If he heard about it he might think it was funny, because he had always been a good-natured sort, but I still felt uncomfortable with it.

Lots of the other people who read at the Cringe Reading Series were a lot more forthcoming with the first and last names of the people they were in love with as teenagers. And I didn't understand it. Those first and last names could have ended up on TV, in news articles, and in the Cringe Book, a compendium of scans of people's real diaries with ironic commentary.

Of course, the ideal situation is that you're still friends with those people, and the two of you have grown into such angst-free, well-adjusted adults that you can just laugh and laugh and laugh about it together now, plus you have the miraculous good fortune of still being enough the same kind of people that you can speak to each other as adults and understand each other. Like when Stephanie Klein, author of the fat-camp memoir Moose, appeared on a talk show with the guy who had been her boyfriend at fat camp 15-20 years earlier. Or when one girl at Cringe gave a shoutout to one of the very guys she was reading about, who was sitting in the audience that night. But a lot of us aren't still friends with the person we were obsessed with. Too often, we kinda NEVER WERE friends with them, which means that if we wrote a memoir about them and then contacted them to be on a talk show with us, they would be like, "Jenny WHO?" and possibly even be skeeved out. Maybe we had had one conversation with them, which we analyzed to death, but knew in our heart of hearts was completely meaningless. And, maybe even more to the point, that shit from age 14 was painful, even if the diary entries are funny now. A lot of us have no desire to laugh with the person we scribbled anguishedly about, in the days when our self-esteem and taste in music and clothes were not as good as they are now. The past is in the past. Moldy old first and last names, forever etched in black and white on the Grecian urn that is your eighth-grade yearbook.

So my suspicion is that most of the people who name names are not still friends (if they ever were friends) with those named. And this goes not only for the tiny cross-section of the population who has performed at the Cringe Reading Series, but also for the much larger group of people in early-to-mid-adulthood who blog about their adolescence using the first and last names of people who loomed large. In fact, their current lives seem so many lightyears away from that era of pegged acid-wash jeans that it almost doesn't seem like those people are real. They achieved a sort of folkloric otherworldliness during the era in question, one that can be bestowed only by an overwrought teenage girl given to dramatization, and this status as more mythological character than just, you know, some guy has only grown more stable in the years since you've seen the person and the memory of them becomes ever more mysteriously hazy. This idea is reinforced by movies about people who used to be teenagers, who moon up at the ceiling and go, "Bobby Riley...oh, he was so dreamy..." and maybe there's a time-travel plot involving bobby sox. (I'm thinking equally of Peggy Sue Got Married and the sock-hop episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

My other suspicion is that it's easier to imagine that the people aren't real if the coastal, cosmopolitan city where you live now is very far away, both geographically and ideologically, from wherever you grew up. If you grew up in some work-at-the-mill-until-you-die town where you were the only person in your high school class to go away to college, and everyone else had babies and found Jesus the second they graduated from high school, it's easier to imagine them living in a totally separate universe from you where they couldn't possibly Google themselves and find something you wrote about them (because in their world people don't use the Internet?). I grew up in the New York City area and am still here. People who grow up here don't tend to leave. They are alive, doing their thing, and you might run into them anytime. Even if they moved away, they're in touch with plenty of people who are still in the area. And plenty of them grew up to inhabit the same cultural milieu as you, where marriage is optional but college is not, where it's considered normal for someone in their 30s to spend a weeknight at a bar reading out loud from an old notebook, where the irony of such a practice is understood. They might even be at the bar on Cringe night.

But what's extra strange is that, concurrent with the upsurge in blogs and stories that name names, Facebook has grown to such proportions that, if you wanted to find someone from your past there, you probably could. There's a page where you can look up the entire graduating class of any high school in any year. Not everyone in the whole class will be there, but most of them will. And even if you choose not to actually contact any of them, lots of them will have contacted each other, and you will feel tempted to join in. You'll be able to look at most of their pictures and see which of them are friends with each other. It will all seem real again, both in the same way and in a different way than before: It'll seem the same in the sense that all the clique ties that were so important are in evidence again now, when you look at the friend lists. That the juxtaposition of certain names with one another conjures memories that you thought were long buried. That if Jessica and Nicole are friends on Facebook now, you should probably be friends with them both or else it's like getting excluded from their party just like in sixth grade. But it's different too, in that the folkloric quality that the people have come to have, in your mind, is shattered by the receding hairlines, unattractive spouses, flat-footed status updates. (If you hear every other day that the person you once kissed during a game of Spin the Bottle is "tired," you too will become tired.) You start to feel like the girl in the Meryn Cadell song "The Sweater" who realizes "love made her temporarily blind" when she reads the label in the Sweater Belonging to the Boy of Her Dreams: 100% Acrylic.

If you're especially unlucky, your old crushes may use your Facebook connection to proselytize their religious beliefs to you or try to sell you Amway products. It'll appear in hideous HD how much wittier and brighter your current, real friends are than these shmoes. You'll make the connection between your erstwhile worshiping of them and the fact that, at that time, you also worshiped the song "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins because it was so beautiful and sad.

I'm in a better position than average, with respect to the uncommonly-named boy. For one thing, I know he's still a nice person. He was visiting his parents in our hometown one weekend four years ago, right before my wedding, and saw my parents outside when he happened to drive by their house. He stopped to say hi to them and ask after me, which was sweet in the same way he always used to be. (Of course I had a zillion questions for my parents about how he looked/seemed; it was semi-exciting that they'd told him I was about to get married.) For another thing, I actually was friends with him for a time, before I went and ruined it by making him my "boyfriend" for two months in seventh grade. (Then he dumped me, and I pined after him for years.) In childhood he spent lots of time at my house. So at least there'd be no "Jenny who?". I could still send him a Facebook friend request. It's not out of the realm of possibility.

But I still kind of prefer to think of him as not quite real, and this goes double for the countless other crushes I had who I wasn't really friends with, who never came to my house or met my family, who I barely talked to but thought about constantly. And I think I have plenty of company in that, based on all the bloggers and performers who name names so cavalierly that it's as if they were talking about a soap-opera character. Facebook is shattering all that. I don't know how we're going to reconcile those two realities. In the future, will we all be privy to the mundane day-to-day trivia of everyone we've ever known, in their dull adult lives? Will the phrase "I used to know him" become obsolete, because now a classmate is forever? Will there cease to be any distinction between the past and the present? And how will this impact the angst of future teenagers if they know they will never, ever really be able to leave their hometown?

Earlier this year I went to a talk by Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite pop-cultural writers/speakers, where he put forth the theory that "people believe that things are going to happen that aren't really going to happen, and the reason for this is technology." He meant that technology lets you very clearly see unrealistic things happen to other people, on the Internet and in movies and on TV, and it starts to seem likely that those same things will happen to you, even though they almost definitely won't. Like maybe you'll cover Michael Jackson's "Black or White" before a national audience, like Adam Lambert did on American Idol, or Clinton and Stacey will make you throw out all your harlequin-print stockings and replace them with structured cotton twill blazers like on What Not to Wear, or you'll slay vampires like Buffy or carjack cars like the guy in Grand Theft Auto or blow up enemies like in any action movie or maybe get whacked by the Mob. People think fantasies are closer to reality than they really are because they seem so real on video. Right now I'm fantasizing that Chuck Klosterman will see this blog post and respond to it. I'm probably friends on Facebook with someone who's friends with one of his friends, so maybe someone will pass along the message.

So I wonder how Chuck would apply this theory to the Facebook disconnect. Are we to conclude that the Facebook connections we make with people from our past aren't really real, we just fantasize that they are, and that Facebook is sort of a video game about our own life where unrealistic things happen? There is some truth to that. If the only connection you have with a person is from junior high, you're kind of kidding yourself if you think you really know them. The type of interactions we have on Facebook—"liking" people's status, etc.—are so trivial and 2-D that they don't really constitute a relationship all by themselves. But on the other hand, Facebook resurrects these people. It puts you back in touch with them, either directly or just by virtue of your being listed with your high school class. All you have to do to talk to them is hit "send a message." And if you do, you'll soon be brought unceremoniously back to earth from your fantasy-driven perceptions about them. You're uncomfortably aware that these people still live and breathe, and if you spoke in public or blogged about them by name, they might find out and have a reaction that you don't like. Does Facebook coincide with Chuck's theory or oppose it?

I think the answer will lie in how memoirists and bloggers evolve into this new reality where everyone we've ever known is available online, neatly catalogued, reachable with a click. Maybe it'll become the norm that if you're gonna read old diary entries about someone in a public forum, you have to message them, and interview them, and have a whole horrible conversation about what went on between you all those years ago, and consider their point of view as well as your own, and hope they think it's as funny as you think it is, and invite them to come hear you read as if you felt nothing but affection for them and no dread. I hope that doesn't happen. Or maybe people will just start using pseudonyms more, or first initials, or nicknames, or just "he," because they're wise to the fact that dreamy Bobby Riley is alive and well and owns four delis in the Pittsburgh area, so they're not as carefree with the naming of names.

Your story is your story, it's a piece of creative writing about how you feel, informed by your memories. A pseudonym may be a lie, but so are your memories. They are fictionalized by the passage of time, as a story you tell with ironic distance.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jenny! A Cringe google alert brought me here. I know it's not your point, but I just want to say: my publisher (and my publisher's lawyers) definitely didn't want any first and last names in the book that didn't belong there. Any real full names used were okayed by the person themselves, and they actually signed a release saying it was okay. (One guy was tracked down with just a first name!) All the rest were either changed or omitted.