Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Making friends online and off

I knew things were getting out of control when I got a Facebook friend request from Patricia Lopez of San Francisco..

I’ve never known anyone by that name in San Francisco or elsewhere, so at first I thought she must be a grade-school classmate using her married name. Yet it was clear from her photo on Facebook that she was at least 20 years younger than I am. I couldn’t see a single thing in her background that might have connected us.

If you haven’t yet discovered the gigantic time suck that is Facebook, first of all count your blessings that you still have a smidgen of free time. Second, suffice it to say that this online site does an uncannily good job of liking old friends, by cross-referencing demographics such as hometown, high school and college experiences.

Along with Twitter – a “microblogging” site that allows people to “follow” each other electronically through messages and Internet links limited to 140 characters – Facebook has almost instantly become one of the Web’s must-see sites. Along with Second Life, a site I have so far resisted, it’s become a kind of second life.

Sometimes it seems that we don’t talk to our friends anymore, we Facebook them. We don’t discuss a topic with a colleague, we Google it or we youtube it.

Addison County hasn’t escaped this phenomenon, rurally bucoloic though it may seem on the surface. In fact, our distance from the rest of the world seems to encourage these disembodied ties to the rest of the ether-world.

In a scene eerily reminiscent of the movie “Wall-E” where interaction with machines has supplanted human interplay, Carols’ Hungry Mind Café in Middlebury is populated every morning with people such as myself who are staring into our laptop computers.

Our interactions seem to be almost exclusively focused not upon our physical environment – the few actual conversations around us, the friendly folks behind the counter and the humans sitting next to us -- but on the pixels on our screen, transmitted through distant web servers, transoceanic cables and the invisible electrons of the wireless connections that beam to our eyeballs someone else’s electronic, online simulacrum of reality.

(And for the record, I just went online – where else? -- to be sure that I was using the word “simulacrum”correctly.)

Anyway, it’s all got me to wondering: Are we rocketing down the slippery slope to a sort of netherworld in which we will have replaced our normative, usually comforting physical reality with a cold, disembodied and wireless reality?

So hooked are we on our gadgets that we might even be losing touch with what’s right in front of us. As Greg Brown says in one of his songs, everyone else is walking around, “talking on cellphones and walking into doors.”

When I stand waiting in line at the co-op or Greg’s Market, I don’t stare off into space anymore or look around me to see if there’s anybody whom I might know. I pull out my Blackberry to see if I have any new e-mail.

They don’t call it a “Crackberry” for nothing.

If this is where we’re headed – into a world where we find our new friends on Facebook living on the other side of the continent while ignoring the person next to us – that would be a very sad outcome for Vermont.

Why Vermont in particular? Because we’ve built our life here on the social and economic connections that hold us so satisfyingly together in physical community.

We shop locally. We eat food that’s grown here. We know our neighbors and our neighbors’ kids and what team they play on at the high school or the rec league. We know who used to own that farm down the road, who lives there now and maybe even how many cows they’re milking.

We watch the weather together and relish it as a topic of conversation. We have an identity that’s deeply drawn from the sense that we’re all in it together, here in this lovely little mix of idiosyncratic bioregions and webs of human connection.. Not a worldwide web. The web of Vergennes and Ripton and Leicester, Otter Valley and MUHS and Mt. Abe, the Farm Bureau and Ducks Unlimited.

But is that irrevocably changing?

Because of my personal and professional interests and the way Twitter.com has insinuated itself into my life, I now know more about certain people who live in Australia and San Diego, and who “tweet” (post messages on Twitter) about healthcare and climate change, than I know about the nice couple that lives next door.

Indeed, Twitter is in the process of becoming so ubiquitous – exploding in two years from a few thousand users to several million – that for its aficianados, life seems to occur in bursts of 140 characters.
It used to be said back in the 1960’s that the revolution will not be televised.

Maybe not. But it might well be tweeted.

Yet when you dive into the new media – smartphone in one hand, laptop in the other, a wireless headset stuck in an ear as you navigate the neighborhood using a portable GPS – you begin to learn something strange.

Rather than cutting ourselves off from others, much of this technology is about the old tried and true human instinct to connect more widely and, better yet, more deeply.

Many of us have had the experience of finding a lost old friend by tracking his online presence through Yahoo or Google. I’ve shared secrets in email that I might never have revealed in face-to-face conversations, and those shared secrets have often brought me closer to others.

My business partner and I run a 10-person firm together, connected by the umbilical cords of cheap phone service and broadband connections, though we live on opposite sides of America. The process has enriched our nearly 20-year partnership, and I swear we get along better – and are no less creative -- than when we lived just a couple miles apart and saw a lot more of each other.

There’s a reason that Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and dozens of other new forms of communication are called social media. The juice is not in the isolation of a keyboard and computer screen. It’s in the heartfelt connections they bring.

And if it’s love you want, the old-fashioned touching and looking deeply into one another’s eyes, well, the number of happy marriages traceable to online dating sites must by now be in the hundreds of thousands.

I don’t mean to say, however, that there’s any substitute for face-to-face communication and the pleasure of others’ company.

Even in the café where the row of us spends hours staring into our laptops, the web of friendship blooms. I’ve become friends with several people because we like to write and do our email at tables near one another. At some point you look up you’re your screen and the deeper instincts reassert themselves.

“Only connect,” wrote the British novelist E.M. Forster. “That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will bee seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect…”

And as for Patricia Lopez, the woman who contacted me and wanted to be my friend on Facebook?

I was right to think that she and I have never met. She contacted me because she saw on my Facebook profile that I’m interested in environmental issues.

We’re friends now.

Sort of.

Gregory Dennis’ column appears here every other Thursday. Connect with him through email at GregDennisVt@yahoo.com, or in person at the nearest café with a wireless connection. He blogs at http://middleburyvt.blogspot.com.

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