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Friendship in the age of profile pictures l Chuck's World


August 7, 2019

I celebrated a birthday a couple of weeks ago, a remarkable one if an unremarkable number. I guess I could call it the best birthday ever, although you know what? I don’t keep that list, the list of favorite birthdays. It just felt as though it couldn’t be topped, which is a really good birthday in my book.

It helped that I was in the midst of a memory palace, surrounded by people I knew and loved when I was young. Recollections cascaded among our group of old friends, augmenting each other and shedding some light.

Memory fascinates me these days, as those birthdays add up. I worry about gaps, and I’m relieved by spontaneous recollections. I don’t particularly trust my memory, either. We can get creative with our histories, left to our own synapses.

This is why we need that assistance, a critical mass of memory holders to clear things up. I spent my birthday surrounded by people who knew me when, and there was nothing spontaneous about it.

And as awkward as it feels to say this, having a pretty jaundiced view of social media these days, we couldn’t have reunited without Facebook, or at least it would have been much more difficult, and unlikely.

I wrote about this reunion last week, about how a group of us from college, having worked at the same place one particular summer, all traveled to northern Arizona to remember. It was moving and a little magical, really, but it was also an example of how we’ve turned over much of our memory storage to the external drives of the internet.

I have proof of this, too. I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I didn’t have proof.

I’m not a stranger to any of this. I began crawling around the fringes of the online world in 1990, when my 1,200-baud modem (young people, ask old people) would dial into a bulletin board, servers set up to host text-based discussions about the same stuff we still discuss online. Hobbies. Passions. “Star Trek.” Sex. Lots and lots of sex talk. We never change.

I also played around with early iterations of social media, mostly chat rooms on AOL and then Instant Messenger, which is when I developed that jaundice. It was too fast for our brains, I thought; we weren’t used to typing our random thoughts and sending them out into the world willy-nilly, and it showed. Things got rough and it could be ugly, and I didn’t see much improvement over the years.

This would turn into Twitter, of course, which is useful and also a cesspool of spontaneous ugliness. I wouldn’t wish Twitter on my worst enemy, although I guess it would be a good place to call him names.

Facebook is more problematic, though, because its usefulness is obvious.

You can ignore it, and I’ll admire you if that’s the case, but as Facebook quickly approaches 3 billion users, I suspect it’s the one thing most of us have in common. Our viewing, reading, and listening habits have become diffused, spread across streaming services and niche platforms that cater to specific interests.

Facebook is the great equalizer, and the first stop for many.

We formed a Facebook group in April of last year, 16 months before the big event, which allowed us to update each other in a private way without sharing details with the rest of the world. We posted old photos and reminisced, reminding each other of what we were planning.

Most of us were already connected, and had been for years. So, even though it had been decades, all of us scattered around the country, living out the rest of our lives, I knew what to expect, and so did they.

And after we arrived in our rented house in Flagstaff on the afternoon of my birthday, I watched out the windows as the cars pulled up and the memories piled out. There were no surprises, and I recognized everyone immediately. I’d been looking at profile pictures for years, and knew what to expect.

One of us, though, is a self-described Luddite, although that’s not quite right. He’s not at war with the modern era, although he’s suspicious. Mostly he just ignores it. He doesn’t own a computer or a smart phone, and he feels fine about this.

But he was lost, and obviously stunned, and it struck me that this was the way it used to be. And maybe the way it’s supposed to be; I’m still working through it.

He was baffled by the crowd, having not seen us in over 30 years, his memories unsweetened by relentless Facebook updates. We all found this hilarious, and even teased him a bit, pretending that one of the spouses was someone he should remember. It was mean, but too funny to resist.

I stood at his elbow, trying to be helpful through the laughter, pointing out faces and explaining, when he turned to me and politely asked my name.

“Help me out a little,” he said, and I mentioned something about him being the best man at my wedding.

But he got there eventually, of course. His internal hard drive was just fine; his facial-recognition software just needed a little tweaking.

It was funny, and a little strange, but in the end it felt awfully human. Profile pictures never tell the whole story, it turns out. People do.


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