I went to a giant suburban school – the kind with the brown bricks and the weird linoleum floors and a football team and cliques and a whole lot of American Eagle and Abercrombie. Everyone (I mean everyone) wore American Eagle and Abercrombie.
I had this one sweater from Abercrombie that I spent some obscene amount of my own money on – it was wool and striped and it was made of the most wonderful mix of colors. I thought it was the best sweater I had ever seen – anywhere, ever – and in some ways, I think I attached it to my identity.
Well, one day, a “popular” girl wore it on the same day I wore it. I thought of her as popular because she was pretty, and because boys who were attractive treated her like a friend. She was “in”. Anyway, there she was in my sweater and I was mortified. Looking back, I assume this was just as awkward for her as it was for me. At the time, I was mostly just thinking about me.
This girl and I were in the same math class and that day we both wore the sweater, we blinked at one another for a long time. We didn’t speak. After all, we were in different cliques. But we stared, and blinked and then looked away, embarrassed. I can’t really explain why it’s so horrible to wear a really specific outfit and then have someone else be wearing the exact same thing but trust me, it’s probably in the top ten worst things that can happen to you in high school. I’m pretty sure there’s an episode of Full House about it.
After this happened, somehow, silently, that girl and I made an agreement. Neither of us ever wore the sweater again unless it was the day after the other one had worn it. We weren’t enemies or friends, we were just partners in never feeling that awkward because of each other again.
And we literally never spoke. Now, we’re Facebook friends. “Friends”. That word. When I was in high school, “friends” meant you go over to each other’s houses, drive to dances together and hang out in front of one another’s lockers. “Alisa?” you might say, “You know her. She’s friends with Katie.” Friendships were a way of defining oneself and linking each other.
I’d say I had… six friends in high school? Now, I’m virtual “friends” with just about everyone I even sort of knew in high school. People that I didn’t realize knew who I was. As we all know, Facebook is essentially a database of everyone you’ve ever known. It’s a web of links – a map of the people you’ve come into contact with in the various stages of your life. Contacts: that could have described what these things were called.
That’s what email calls it, after all. But no, Facebook called them “friends”.
What does this do? My day-to-day social knowledge is filled with facts about people that I no longer see on a daily, annual or even once-per-decade basis. A girl from elementary school posted a picture of her three-year-old daughter the other day – a kid who I see so often I’d probably recognize if I found her at Walmart or something. A pretty girl from high school, who broke up with the quarterback from high school eight years after they started dating, just got engaged to someone else. A boy who sat near me in global history in high school just finished his third tour in Iraq. A girl I was friends with and eventually lost touch with battled cancer last year.
I know a lot about these people; much more than I ever did when we were populating the same walls of the same high school, and now we’re scattered all over the country. Way back then, when we actually had the opportunity to know each other, we were all too focused on the non-existent social rules that we assumed were stringent to open up to one another. We all had assumptions about one another – many of which weren’t true, obviously – and those assumptions hindered us from really knowing each other or being there for each other. The way you are for friends.
As it turns out, all of us are just as complex as one another. Now, we’re grown up, and this thing connects us. And we see each other for who we really are and who we’ve become. And, in some ways, even though it’s just a website, we really are sort of all “friends”. We congratulate each other on births and engagements. We give condolences for losses. We cheer each other on. We know each other and we’re there for each other. The way you are for friends. I know that Facebook hasn’t magically changed the dynamics within actual schools. And in fact, kids are being bullied online. But why? What about that word? Friends. We’re all friends. A common community. Linked. Possibly forever. Why would we ever not be there for one another when we now see very clearly that the connections we make now are in some ways permanent?
We’ll never know, but I have to wonder: since Facebook defines every person we cross paths with as a potential friend, will it someday penetrate our social selves? Has it already? Is there a shift – even if it’s a miniscule one – in the way we’re seeing each other? Is there a chance that maybe in our subconscious, when we meet someone new, we don’t look for the bad or awkward things in them, but instead we’re programmed, by that word, to see a potential friend?
I have to say, I really hope so.
You can read more from Lauren McGrail on her blog.
Feature image via.