Thursday, March 25, 2010

Socially Networked

 I used to be a lousy letter-writer, but somehow with the advent of the personal computer and email in the late 20th. century and my own acquisition of this new-fangled technology, I have become somewhat better at staying in touch with friends and family members.  That's not to say that I have kept up with every person I knew in high school, college, and grad school, but there are a few.  And I'm a lot better with keeping up with the friends of my "adult years", although there is always a lot of room for improvement.  But I make the attempt, and do try to send quick notes now and again as well as electronic birthday and "thinking about you" notes.  

(Yeah, I can say "my adult years"...with a straight face, even.  I hit the big 5-0 last June.  I am a "whole-half-a-century" old, old being the operative word here.   Wow...I never believed I'd be this old.  I remember as a little kid trying to figure out how old I would be when it became the year 2000, and I thought then, "I'll never live to bet THAT old...that's older than Mom and Dad!"   Uh-huh.  Mom is 74, Dad was 72 when he died four years ago, and he'd started subtracting years instead of adding them on his birthday.  He used to say, "I'm 'plenty-nine'" when asked his age.  Now that I'm fifty, I am a card-carrying member of AARP, although I must admit I have not yet asked for my first discount.  That will come, but later on down the road.  I'm still climbing that hill, boys and girls.  I've still got to get used to the idea of a new age bracket on demographic information forms.   But I ain't dead...yet.)

Ah, but I digress....  (Hey--that's a privilege of those of us in our  advancing years!)

Not being a social butterfly by nature, the whole idea of a "social network" is something that has taken me some time to wrap my mind around.  I knew what it was and how it worked, but the idea of posting one's personal information on the world wide web for everyone to see was a bit daunting.  Fortunately, for those of us who do not live for the spotlight or crave public notice, there are ways to limit the information that is available to the casual web surfer.  It's a matter of deciding what you want to say about yourself, how much you want to reveal, and what risks you're willing to take.  It's also a matter of whether or not you want to be found by people who might be looking for you.  After all, there are probably some people out there you'd rather not find you, right?  I can think of three or four...or even a dozen.

My first foray into the "social networking" scene came last spring and summer when I joined a couple of smaller social networks geared towards beading enthusiasts since I have taken on the hobby in my advancing years.  I wanted to find out what other beaders are doing, learn some things, find suppliers, and interact with people who share the same interest.  That seemed reasonable, and fairly "safe" for someone who's just not that "social" a butterfly.  So...   Those sites have been a lot of fun.  I've met some pretty neat people from as far away as South Africa, England, and Australia and as near as just down the interstate a few miles--all from the comfort of my family room at the keyboard of my very own little MacBook.  We have discussed quite a number of things, even beading, on occasion.  We've laughed at some of the funny things that happen to us, and cried together over the tragedies that have come into our lives.  We've supported each other in times of crisis or need, and patted each other on the back for our successes.  And yet, we have not met each other face to face and probably never will.  But we still connect, talk about our work, share what we're doing, and flutter on to other sites and interests.  And, I am finding, that we are connecting on Facebook now, too.  Small world, and getting smaller.

I'd avoided Facebook while I was still teaching because I had too many students who used the site, and was really trying to avoid any professional "questionability" with the possibility of connecting with/"friending" any of my students outside of school.  It just didn't seem like a good idea--or professionally appropriate, and given that I was teaching high school and middle school students in disciplinary alternative school settings, that simply increased my caution and disinterest in the site.  I have always been very careful to keep my personal/private life just that outside of my work.  So I avoided it.  Two years after I left teaching, though, I thought, "Oh heck, I'll try MySpace and see what all of this 'social networking' business is all about on a much larger scale."  And I did connect with a few friends there.  But after a couple of months, I lost interest in the thing, the novelty had worn off, and I really forgot all about it.  There just wasn't much that interested me about it to keep me coming back.  I actually left my page untended for about four months before I finally deleted it.  The friends I found on MySpace were migrating to Facebook anyway, so it seemed like a logical change to make.

I joined Facebook a month or so ago.  Why?  Weeellllll, I don't really know.  It was a way to connect with people I hadn't seen in years...uh, make that eons.  Actually, truth be told, I think the real impetus was attending a concert presented by my college's choir while they were on their "Southern States" tour.  The event was also a mini-alumni gathering for area Doane College graduates, and being with people who'd walked the same paths and had the same "Doane Experience" that I'd had got me thinking about friends I'd lost touch with over the years.  It was time--nearly 30 years after I graduated--to reconnect. 

Local friends and several of the organizations I belong to are using Facebook not only as a way to keep up with each other, but also to "get the word out" when necessary.   It didn't take me too long to get signed up on Facebook, fill in my profile page, and find my way around.  Of course in the past weeks I've tweaked things on my profile a bit here and there, added photos, joined in a couple of games, made my "nest", and have become, at least at some level, a "resident" there.  And, I've managed to reconnect with some people that I might otherwise never have found again, and through them, others and even made some new friends.  I've had some fun exchanges with my cousin whom I haven't seen in almost 15 years...a searingly bright and amazingly funny young man (well, he just turned 40...) that I never really got to know when we were younger because we simply lived too far apart.  When I look at his picture, I see both his dad and my own.   I'm looking forward to getting to know him better.  Connecting and  reconnecting:  that has been the best part of this social networking experience.

With the college and grad school friends (and even a few high school friends!), it amazes me the number of memories that have resurfaced lately.  Some of them have given me pause, others have made me laugh.  All are sweet memories, though....  Half a lifetime ago, when we were all young and wet-behind-the-ears, we were walking the same road as we headed toward our futures.  When the road split into the different paths we would ultimately travel, some of us stayed connected, some of us did not.  Now, as I  wander through friends' pages on Facebook, I leave little notes occasionally, look at the posted pictures, and feel a little more of a connection with my past, present, and, in some ways, my future.  Ah, but the time that we've missed being connected....water under the bridge. 
Not long after I'd joined Facebook I received a friend request from an old theatre classmate/buddy from my college days.  I remember him as an  amazingly creative and multi-talented guy--an actor, a musician, a poet, someone who could always see the good in other people no matter how badly they treated him.  A pure and kind soul.   He'd found me through a mutual friend and was simply saying hello, how are you, etc. in the request message.  The thing that struck me about his message, though, was the way he apologized for what he's been doing for the last 30 years, saying he'd been "in hiding" because he was afraid to contact people he knew because of the success they'd made of their lives compared to what he'd done.  He's the father of seven, married to the same sweet woman for 26 years, and working as a truck driver delivering food.  How much more successful can he be?  He's got what a lot of people--our contemporaries, even--don't have:  a stable marriage and successful family, an honorable job that people depend on, and the talents and abilities to communicate with people in so many ways.   I am awed.

It strikes me that it's easy, in a way, to connect with someone you haven't seen or talked to in a long time through an email or a post on a "wall" because it doesn't need to be a huge "reunion", but just a casual "Hi, friend, how are you?" kind of thing.  It's not face-to-face, it's not all that personal...just words on a screen.  Safe, in a detached sort of way...very 21st. century.  If you get a response, of course that's great.  If not, well, hey, you can try again or let it pass.  No biggie, right?  Well, maybe.  You and I know that there is at least ONE person out there that you really do want to connect with...but you'll curb your stalking instinct and wait patiently for a reply.  You might cruise by their page now and again, but you won't go so far as to keep sending that friend request because you don't want to seem too eager.  All the while, you're waiting and wondering, though...

I think you have to give people time and space to consider making that connection.  Your remembering them does not mean they remember you--or want to.   Some of those memories can be painful reminders of time past.  Others remind us of what might have been.  Still others bring a sense of happiness, even comfort, as we recall the friendship.  We all want to be thought of as successful beyond belief and wildly popular, when in fact the reality may be quite differennt or even completely opposite.  Posting one's profile and putting information out there for others to see makes us vulnerable to all kinds of things--not just those who read those profiles with a darker intent. 

Socially Networked?  Yeah, I am.  Isn't that the way of the 21st. century?  You almost have to be.  You can't avoid it, you're networked with others whether you know or like it or not.  Somehow, some way, somebody has you linked to someone else, and it just goes on and on.  I know only two or three people who don't have a cel phone, no one who does not have a computer or use the internet or email.    If you're not connected--tethered, if you will--to some kind of electronic device nowadays, you're just "out of it, man".  Facebook, MySpace, and all the others are just a matter of networking the networks you already have in your life.  It's human nature to want to make contact.  Just wait until it happens between humans and other species.......  Now that's a social network!

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