Thursday, December 22, 2011

The end of the high school reunion?

We tend to think little of the actual effects of media and technology upon us and upon our culture. It seems as if they are neutral tools to be used for good or for ill. In reality, however, it seems that social media and various forms of technology and dramatically transforming culture and the way in which we interact with others. It's a topic I have addressed before, but it always has a way of manifesting itself in new ways.

So, here we are at the New York Times again. They recently ran a story about the decrease in high school reunions. A major factor, the article reported, is facebook. Perhaps that seems a stretch at first, but the article does a compelling job of explaining why. People feel that they don't need to see one another when they know all about former classmates' lives through social networking.

But it's one thing to know about a person's life and another to know them. It's one thing to see a picture on a computer screen and another thing to shake someone's hand, give a hug or be present in real life. It's one thing to have a series of questions answered that are mostly available to the public online and another thing to sit down with someone and ask questions, have a conversation, learn about life in a manner that isn't neatly packaged on facebook.

In the article, one of the most fascinating quotes to me was this one from Michael Fox:
“Even as a borderline user of social networking, I have a pretty good grasp of where people are, what they do, their family life, etc.,” he said. “So a lot of the mystery of the traditional reunion was missing.”
This sentiment was echoed by Donna DeFilippis, who has been organizing reunions for more than 30 years:
“It used to be that you walked in the door totally blind, and there was such energy and excitement in the room,” Ms. DeFilippis said. “Today, even if you’re not friends with them on Facebook, you can get a cursory look at your classmates online, so it takes that fundamental mystery away.”
The absence of mystery. How often do we contemplate the way in which social networking robs us of the sense of mystery? Who would have ever thought that something like facebook would radically decrease the desire for a high school reunion? Who would have thought that engagements, weddings, pregnancies and other big announcements would seem less meaningful when proclaimed on social networking?

It reminds me of a children's television show, "Adventures in Wonderland," that I watched as a child. On one particular episode, Rabbit is struggling to get others' attention. He tries to be as loud as possible, screaming, yelling, making all sorts of noise. No one will listen. Eventually, he begins to whisper. At this point, the people around him come closer, they stop what they are doing, they become intent on hearing his words. They are curious. They want to know what mystery is surrounded by silence.

Today our social media-immersed world has us attempting to share monumental moments and experiences by adding to the noise. We submit our statuses and photos and comments and "likes" into a world so drowned in distraction and cacophony that the only response we receive is a "like" or another comment, placing our decision of a vocation or news of receiving a child on the same level as what movie one watched on Friday night or someone's opinion on PB&J sandwiches for lunch.

This isn't to place a blanket condemnation upon social media (after all, I am blogging, right?), but it is a cautious note that we all take time to consider how we are being affected and how we can seek to protect the beauty of mystery, silence and surprise.

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