An unexpected byproduct of social networking, indeed of the Internet itself, has been the increased ability to seek out and find information on a vast range of people and things previous generations would have given up for lost. Genealogists can research obscure corners of family history, collectors can track down valuable items, and investigators can even uncover incriminating pictures or statements from someone’s distant past (a recent European legal ruling on the so-called “right to be forgotten” has changed that slightly). The popularity of Facebook among Baby Boomers and Gen Xers also means that millions of individuals are visible to each other on a digital plane even as they remain wholly cut off in the old, real world.
We can be pretty sure that the people who count 300, 800, or 2000 Facebook friends do not actually socialize with all of them in a physical space; indeed, of the paltry thirty-odd men and women I know through Mark Zuckerberg, there are several whom I’ve never met in person. Facebook lets us “Like” and “Friend” at the click of a mouse, rather than at a beat of the heart or a stirring of the soul. Admittedly, I have established a very modest public profile as a writer, which makes me accessible to faraway readers of my books, but even among the former co-workers, barroom buddies, and hometown cronies who see my posts, there are several I’ve not spoken to for many years. All those connections can still be valued, but they are not exactly friendships in the traditional definition of the word.
It is easy enough to use Facebook, Linkedin, or Google to look up old pals or romances unbeknownst to the subject, but the queries are often unsatisfactory, especially if the people sought are named John Harrison, Bruce Chow, or Lisa Simpson; it’s even more complicated with last names which are also words or geographic locations, e.g. Crane, Washington, Burnaby, Pine, or Case. Yet even successful Internet “reunions” can be anticlimactic, serving only to remind us why the ties dissolved in the first place, or that they were never particularly strong. What social networking makes convenient, it might also make embarrassing or disappointing. Before the Internet, certainly, there were still alumni clubs, family newsletters, and veterans’ organizations, through which bygone associates could be contacted, but now the associates’ trails need never grow cold. Now the grapevine is electronic and instantaneous. Now it is much harder to idealize memories that, technologically at least, are never allowed to fade away. Nostalgia is an emotion ill-served by the eternal immediacy of the World Wide Web.
At the end of the movie Animal House, the where-are-they-now fates of the characters are spelled out to comic effect: Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi) is a US senator; Otter (Tim Matheson) is a Beverly Hills gynecologist, ROTC bully Doug Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf) gets killed by his own troops in Vietnam, etc. But for D-Day (Bruce McGill), the guy who drove his motorbike up the stairs of Delta House, the conclusion is only “Whereabouts Unknown.” I always thought that was kind of cool. Some of life’s trajectories should not have to register on the spectrum of conventional biography, much less on the sterile algorithms of Google. For me, there are a number of absent friends whose destinies I have personally wondered about for a long time, but somehow meeting them again on Facebook, or anyplace, probably wouldn’t do justice to the affection for them I have preserved in my mind. The author of On the Road understood:
…just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.