Yesterday a student from last semester stopped by to say hi and chat a bit. Hey! He told me, smiling broadly. I saw you on Facebook the other day!
Was I on Facebook? I couldn’t remember. I’m not often there; every few weeks I remember I have an account and I log in, to find someone has left me a cupcake, or invited me to play Scrabulous! the Facebook version of Scrabble. How did he see me? I desperately ran through the possible implications of this: did I have private information on Facebook that I didn’t know about? Photos?
Quickly I realized that he hadn’t actually seen me on Facebook, of course, but that in contemporary Facebook-speak he meant merely that he had seen my name there, and that I had an account. I am, actually, hardly ever on Facebook. I avoided it at all costs for some time, until a blogging friend invited me to join; then another one, and so on. And recently, about two months ago, I received two e-mails out of the blue from former college roommates I had long since lost contact with. No sooner had I added them to my friends list, then I had sudden access to their friends lists and found myself spending inordinate amounts of time tripping down memory lane while I recognized a handful of names, sent e-mails to them, and found myself reliving my college days from the comfort of my home office.
Facebook can be a wonderful tool for reconnecting, I think, when it’s used that way. But there is something a tad disquieting about having these shared lists of friends, and I think that’s when troubles arise--especially for young people. The other day a student came by my office, bent on proving to me that he had, in fact, e-mailed me a paper on the day it was due. He stood over my shoulder and logged into his Yahoo account, hoping to pull up the very same message he had so diligently sent me a few days ago. He had 412 messages in his inbox.
Wow, I told him, as he scrolled down through his e-mails. How does a person have 412 messages?
He grunted. Well, they’re all Facebook stuff, he replied, as if this somehow justified it all.
Facebook messages? I probed further, hoping to get some further clarification on all of this. But he found my e-mail, returned to him some days ago because he’d mistyped my name, sandwiched way down the list between some messages with outrageous subject headers I didn’t even want to look at.
Oh, my bad, he said and then, without missing a beat, wanted to know if it still counted since, Hey! There it was! The date was there and everything, to show he had honestly tried to send it to me the day it was due and how could it really be his fault that the paper had sat, in his overstuffed inbox, surrounded by friends invites and YouTube links.
I am still wondering what a young person possibly could do with 412 messages, hundreds of them from people he doesn’t know. Does a person really and truly even want all those friends, or be capable of keeping up with them? How do they wade through the deluge of virtual invitations, video clips, internet games, profiles, list servs, e-mails and all the other trappings that go along with a life spent half-in and half-outside a virtual world? I'm still a good many years away from having to deal with all this as a parent, but clearly the challenge today--for teachers and parents alike--is to find ways to help our kids organize their virtual lives; having done that, we can cross our fingers and hope real-time life will follow.