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October 3, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet

The Flux Capacitor

This makes twice now that people I knew as a kid have found me online. To some extent, that's my fault: I made a conscious decision to own a domain under my own name, and to post here under my real name, so I'm easy to find even without resorting to Facebook or other social networks. The first time around, someone from my elementary school in Kentucky googled me, and the second time it was a classmate from Indiana.

But since I have a remarkably poor memory for names and faces--not to mention names and faces from more than a decade ago, and at least two changes in geographic location--it amazes me that someone would remember me, and then bother to actually look me up.

Finding people, even across time periods, has long been a killer application for the Internet: personal ads, find-a-classmate services, creepy stalker websites, etc. Like most of the Internet's services, these aren't new experiences. There were personal ads, reunions, and stalkers long before DARPA. But the Internet is a universal accelerant. All those things happen faster now, and I'm not entirely sure about the etiquette for them.

Once I get past the "hello, how are you, this is what I've been up to, nice to hear from you" stage of correspondence with a long-lost acquaintance, where is it supposed to go? I was a substantially different person in fifth grade, after all--shorter, at the very least. A lot weirder, people tell me. For that matter, I don't even really remember the fifth grade. I barely remember high school! Sometimes I forget last week! There's no good way to tell someone that you don't remember who they are.

Once the introductions are out of the way, I feel like there's an expectation that something will be produced from the correspondence. It feels owed. I don't mean this in an unpleasant way--it is a nice surprise to get a letter, and I appreciate it. I'm just unclear on how to move past a state of initial awkwardness.

The Internet, being a medium familiar with awkwardness, comes to the rescue with lots of shallow signifiers for friendship. So you can send a Facebook request and consider the transaction basically completed. Look!--we say.--I have a line of text that says we're friends, and we can see each other's photographs! I'm so glad we caught up with each other!

And there's nothing wrong with that either. It just feels a bit too instant-gratification to relieve my vague unease with the whole process. I've made real friends online--but it tends to be a slow, rhetorical function, one that requires the same maintenance as a conventional friendship. My once-forgotten correspondents occupy a limbo zone between the two: I knew him, Horatio, but that was a long time ago. Where be your gibes now, indeed? Crossing the gap between these ages is something I am still trying to navigate.

Future - Present - Past