Shortly before christmas last year I had an experience with the internet that left me speechless. The actual effects, besides possibly this blog post, aren’t exactly negative, but the implications of it, and the incredible ease with which it happened, left me a little stunned.
To put it simply, my past caught up to me. A friend, who I had trouble even recognizing at first, friended me on facebook. This one connection was enough to fill my notification streams with the faces of people I hadn’t seen since childhood and pictures I was in before I knew how to read, let alone had heard of something called the “Information superhighway”. My newly rediscovered friend was one of a small handful that I had actually gone to school with continually from Elementary school through High School. Growing up in the NYC School system, that was natural. Equally natural to me was losing touch with most of the other kids as we moved up and between different schools. But now, by reconnecting to a single relationship that ran all the way back in school, I was around them again. Curious, I dove into the stream of new profiles.
What I found was part photo album and part class reunion. Old friends were getting back together, talking about old times and updating each other about all the new things happening in everyone’s lives. Old pictures were scanned and reminisced about, any relationship status of “married” received obligatory public comments of impressed congratulation, and a couple people threw up class photos from back in elementary school, tagging most of the names with either the person’s direct facebook link, or just their name if no one was yet connected to them. That is about when things started getting weird for me.
Something about seeing everyone’s picture streams mesh together Jr. High school, College, Elementary school, and wedding pictures side by side made me a little uneasy. Coincidentally, I had seen one of the posted class pictures a few weeks before while at my mother’s house for the holidays. Looking at the electronic version I realized that it had more people identified than I had been able to identify when trying on my own. On the first grade class picture I couldn’t even find my face without the tag someone put on it. In some ways, facebook knew these events from my life better than I did.
That’s when I realized that this was not just a class reunion or looking through an old photo alum, this was history rebuilding. The activity is much the same, you get together with your friends, talk about the old days and who we all used to be, but when it happens in a social networking site the result is very different. This time, when you reconstruct what happened way back when, it stays reconstructed. The more people that join in, adding details, fleshing out stories, agreeing and disagreeing about how things happened, the better the history becomes, until our childhood photos sit side by side with our wedding portraits in the public profile of our lives and arguments we have forgotten are summarized and immortalized on someone’s Wall.
I was stunned at the ease with which social networking tools allowed this kind of collaborative memory rebuilding to happen. If you had asked me two months ago how to go about getting in contact with my 3rd grade teacher, I would have stared at you blankly. Now, I would just go and reply to her facebook mail (I will soon Ms. Santiago! I just don’t like facebook mail). I almost dismissed the original friend request as SPAM, but the strength of our mutual connection to one of my/our Jr. High teachers made me stare at my friend’s picture until I could put an identity to the face.
If you are a big user of social networking tools you are unlikely to be shocked by anything I’ve said. Even as an arms-reach user I understand that this is simply the tool working as advertised, and I’ve always known that this kind of full-life documentation was possible. I’ve known that it was possible but I always thought of it as a problem for the next generation, the one that is growing up inside the social network right now as the only natives in a strange land. What I didn’t see, or didn’t let myself realize, is just how fast the network is filling in our lives behind us. To a large degree, the online reconstruction of our pasts is happening whether we participate or not.
My childhood happened before the internet, most of my life occurred before digital cameras became mainstream, and I managed to get out of college without anything that current social networking users would recognize as a profile. But the network is there with family and friends on it and the old connections can be re-connected as easily as new ones can be built. If I am going to have to live with this in my lifetime, without the experience or established social norms that would have come along with growing up with such a system, I want good tools and a deeper look at what kinds of things our society might have to change in order to keep up.
The whole experience greatly increased my interest in ideas for a free, and truly user-controlled, social network as well as in the book on privacy, the law, and networked society that I’m attempting to work with Eben on over the course of this semester. More on both later.