03 May 2008

Plans, Facebook, and Why No Amount of Sheep-Throwing Will Ever Lead Me To Predict the Downfall of Human Society

Plans went down this week, and I’ve been thinking about community ever since. Do virtual networking sites like Facebook and Twitter really help to build stronger communities, or do they impede actual human interaction, until one day we’ll never leave our houses at all and merely communicate with people by sending them one-sentence updates about the minutia of our shut-in lives and then throwing virtual sheep at them?

I vote stronger communities… of shut ins.

No, I’m kidding. It’s just the gray skies and 49 degrees Fahrenheit talking. Clearly, Chicago hasn’t gotten the memo that it’s MAY and thus could bring on the sunshine and springly weather any day now. And until it does, I’m sticking to my winter policy of never leaving my house unless I have to, dammit.

And that’s kind of the point, I guess. Lately I’ve been feeling more connected than usual to the wide circle of people I’ve met in my life, thanks to the marvel that is Facebook. Look, I know that you probably hate Facebook. You probably think that it represents everything that is silly and intemperate about our stupid society with its one-sentence updates and its zombie fighting and its obsessive reports about who has added or subtracted what from their interests, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But Facebook is also like a giant living phonebook, with entries for everyone under (and some over) 35 that I’ve ever met, and in that sense it’s been an amazing tool of reconnection. And every time a new friend pops up in my inbox, it’s like turning another corner at a reunion and running into yet another person I really liked ten years ago but haven’t thought of or heard from in a while… but this isn’t just a school reunion, it’s a reunion of everyone in my whole LIFE.

Just in the last month, Facebook has reunited me with:
-- the children of my parents’ friends, those friends-of-convenience we all had in childhood because it was easier to play with them than it was to be a baby misanthrope as our parents drank too much wine and pretended to be normal people for once. Most of these people I haven’t seen since junior high, and yet in retrospect I realize that even though we were sort of just friends because our parents were friends, as it turns out they’re cool people in their own right, and I’m pretty excited to reconnect with them. Even if I have to drag my parents along to do so.
-- the first person who ever taught me improv. That’s huge, right there. He gave me the gift of Chain Murder Mystery when he was a skinny teenager with a mullet, and now he’s a high school theater teacher in Ohio. This morning we had a conversation about 1992 and high school musical.
-- my fifth grade pen-pal. I’ve never actually met her, but I have met her parents. They took me out for dinner in Albuquerque a few years ago, which was a little weird, since – again – I’ve never actually met their daughter, only sent semi-illiterate letters and HIDEOUS pictures of myself to her in the early nineties. And now she’s my friend on Facebook. (One day, Becca, we WILL meet. I swear. And it will be heartwarming enough to get into the Reader’s Digest. OH. Or if one of us gets cancer or something, maybe we could get Oprah to foot the bill. And buy us both new cars. Just a thought.)
-- the high school English student teacher who was cool enough to come to our Poetry Society and who we called Franz, who let me give him advice about writing and life when I was 17 (because really, who DOESN’T want advice from a precocious, overly-dramatic seventeen-year-old who’s never lived outside Wisconsin?) and who, after finishing out the year with us, moved to Turkey to teach, and who is now a travel writer based in Madison. Check out his blog here.
-- a bunch of the amazing people I met at Nadia’s wedding.
-- tons of people I haven’t seen since high school, which is great, because now if whoever’s in charge of these things actually gets around to organizing a ten year reunion for us, I’ll actually be able to match some names and faces. Not to mention the fact that, again, I went to school with some really incredible people, only I was too much of an idiot to actually recognize that particular fact at the time. It didn’t really help that I only thought about myself, back then. (And SO much has changed since then. Ha.)

So, I admit it: I’m kind of in love with Facebook right now.

For a while, I actually thought that my love of Facebook would eclipse my love of PLANS, which is to Facebook what Model Ts are to corn-powered jet packs. [If you’re not a Grinnellian, or if you haven’t already heard me explain Plans a million times, here’s a little (long-winded and perhaps overly-informative) History of Plans that I wrote about five years ago. (I just realized that I’m coming up on my ten year anniversary with Plans. Weird.)]

While Facebook has been one giant reunion, Plans has been a continuous community since the very beginning of college. Unlike Facebook, where you generally only connect to people you actually know in life, Plans allows you to meet new people, through the web of interconnected discussions and references. Over time, it’s not uncommon to become a regular reader of plans written by people you’ve never actually met in real life – and then, over time, to start thinking of those people as friends. Moreover, because Plans is nothing but text, it’s a place of discussion and reflection. Not that there’s no place in this world for virtually poking people, but… that place is Facebook. When I need advice, or want help sorting through my thoughts and feelings about some issue of ethics or current events, I go to Plans. When I want to find friends from sixth grade and then attack their vampires, I go to Facebook.

After graduation from Grinnell, we spread out across the globe. Recently I found something I’d written as a senior in high school, announcing my intention to find a college that drew people from all over the country, so that I could take a post-college road trip and crash on my friends’ couches in every state. As it turns out, I set the bar a little low. I ended up with friends all over the world, and Plans has helped me to keep up with many of them. A few years ago, I went out to dinner with a Grinnellian I hadn’t seen in years, and though she went around the table asking everyone what they’d been up to since Grinnell, when she got to me we just looked at each other and grinned. We were on Plans. We kept up with each other’s lives. We hadn’t seen each other since college, but we were still connected.

When Plans went down this week, I realized how much I’d come to rely on that community of friends, classmates, and colleagues for their insights and wisdom. A week without Plans and I had no idea what was going on in the wider world. Sure, over at Facebook they were all partying til dawn and playing Scrabulous, but I needed the Plans community to help me think about environmental legislation and the legal and moral implications of polygamy and what was going on with the democratic candidates and what cute thing Doug Cutchins’ daughters said this week. The Plans exiles ended up huddling in a chat room over at Facebook, bolstering each other’s spirits and trying to figure out ways to help. The Facebook Plans group felt a lot like the time there was a tornado in fourth grade and we were all stranded inside the school’s Little Theater for hours, sitting on the floor in tight groups, worried, and trying to make the best of things. We were survivors, exiles from the same community, joined in concern over our lost home. And when Plans finally went back online Thursday night, we straggled back and welcomed each other home.

Plans has been a great gift in my life, as it has given me access to a wide network of thoughtful, kind, intelligent people with tons of collective life experience to share. It’s an incredibly rich, deeply supportive community that – even though it’s just a bunch of text on the screen – feels an awful lot like a family.

And so I have to say that this trend of social networking doesn’t worry me at all, because I know that the best kind of social networking can help you to grow as a person, and keep you grounded and connected to people and events all over the world. Because after all, it’s about people, about building connections with other human beings, and in that sense it’s no different than writing on cave walls or composing blank verse: just another way to reach out to another human and hear them say, “I hear you. I understand you. I’m glad you’re here.”


Natalie said...

i like you.

Anonymous said...

As it turns out, Facebook can also bring one much happiness when bored in class. It's definitely a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Stumbled on this from Plans, and... I like it! I think your last paragraph is spot on. Despite being a social and well-adjusted individual, I don't know where I'd be without the virtual communities/social networks I've been a part of. They're just so darned useful.

Anonymous said...

Just like oneileri, I came across this through plans (and through liking your previous posts), and I'm also in total agreement. There's something atmosphere about plans that is so categorically different from facebook that's hard to describe to non-grinnellians, or even grinnellians who are non-members...but I think you got at it here.