A childhood friend and I play a game we both know is ridiculous: One of us presents the other with the name of someone we both knew but haven’t stayed in touch with since high school. “Lacey-Ann Vespasian,” she’ll drop into voicemail, and it will fall to me to tell her whether I have thought about Lacey-Ann even once since graduation.
We play this game not because it has a point, but because it’s strangely satisfying. I find myself wondering why that is, as June rolls in with its fresh crop of graduates. For here is a group that will never fall out of touch with each other.
Do they know how odd this is, they who have come of age since the ubiquity of Facebook?
I’m pretty sure they don’t, any more than they know how bizarre Facebook relationships are in the first place. Much has been written about social media turning friends into hash marks, and what that might do to a generation’s definition of human connection. In a virtual world that transforms identity into a brand and life experience into its marketing campaign, friends become the audience. They are amassed and tallied and tiled like trophies along the edges of our identity, there to impress us and to be impressed by us as our scripted self meets their scripted self in some sunny nowhere of exotic palm tree-fringed beaches and adorable couple-with-a-puppy domestic displays.
Authenticity might not be a prime hallmark of such friendships.
Researchers have found that Facebook users self-censor their profiles when they believe their audience members—er, friends—fall into disparate categories. We present different selves to our grandmother than we might to our CrossFit buddies or our board chair or our senior prom date, but on Facebook most of us have just one profile page. So that person we project on Facebook? Watered-down version of us.
This falsified identity is thrown into unusually bold relief in one’s 20s, when constructing identity is our number-one pursuit. It’s the most momentous decade, frequently marked by the kinds of life changes—choosing a partner, sinking roots, launching a career, breeding—that will define us forever.Indeed, our whole lives long we remember more about our late adolescence and early adulthood than we do about any other stage in our lives, a phenomenon social scientists call “the reminiscence bump.” The reason? We remember best the things that make us who we are.
Given all that, it’s probably worth wondering if the less-than-authentic self and its less-than-authentic connections are the wisest things to cultivate in these prime identity-building years. Forgive me for sounding cold, but I can’t help but wonder if Facebook’s worst evil isn’t that it’s a substitute for depth—but that it’s a substitute for disappearance.
Staying in touch, particularly with everyone we’ve ever known, can hold us back. “When people stay in touch, it’s harder to completely remake yourself,” says Katie Davis, an assistant professor in the University of Washington Information School and coauthor of The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in the Digital World. “There’s this collective memory, not only inside people’s heads, but online and far into the future.”
Ironically, Davis likens today’s socially networked world to the all-up-in-your-business small towns people dwelt in before the Industrial Revolution. “It’s an interesting idea that maybe that ability to recreate yourself and be completely forgotten could be just a blip in history.”
That blip is now itself history. And the great emotional test of our age may be learning how to live in that small town that technology has made of the whole world. Recently the New York Times columnist David Brooks poignantly suggested that where technology allows every bond we’ve ever made to remain forever, the necessary human art of intentional untethering call us to take action. Growth demands we break bonds from time to time; euthanizing certain relationships, U-turning onto new paths. These are not reflexive skills in the age of hyperconnectivity.
When my daughter was little and didn’t want to leave the playground, I would meet her sad eyes and say, “But if we don’t leave, how can we ever come back?” That’s what I feel like saying to this June’s graduates. Leave-taking may feel sad…but it might actually be less sad than staying in touch through nothing more purposeful than inertia, linked to a person via a Facebook feed daily chugging out updates on her cat’s diabetes and her cousin’s Kickstarter campaign.
Maybe this is why my friend and I love our silly game. A reminder of a person we’ve not thought about in years provides actual wistfulness, those sweet little surprises of memory, in a world that’s fast replacing the romance of the past with a constant ticker of updates on the present. That fiendish Internet, having already killed off so much artistic ownership, so many pleasurable forms of wonder…here’s what I want to say to the Class of 2015: Don’t let it take nostalgia too.