Friends in virtual spaces

April 21,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I've written before about the mixed feelings I have over Facebook, and over how it seems to have taken over the lives of my students to such a degree that they have, on occasion, trouble interacting with the real live world around them (in which I, as their professor, play a fairly important role). But I appreciate the allure of Facebook, and lately I've found myself enthralled by it. There's something about that little beckoning search window, the possibilities it presents. You type in a name and hit the return key, and wait. When the little thumbnail faces pop up, you scrutinize each one, hardly believing it possible that you recognize one of them--that you are seeing someone you once knew so well; they've changed, of course, but they are still there all the same--hidden behind a new hairdo or a filled-out face.

Something also happens, I think, when you hit your late thirties--you feel the need to reach back into time and reclaim parts of yourself; friendships you once had and lost, due only to time and geography--at least I know I have felt this need so strongly lately. I've felt the need to take up again where I left off when I was so much younger, in a time before so much of my life was shaped by parenthood. We have many friends here in North Carolina, but it's been years since we had friends who weren't somehow connected with parenting. I've made some great parent friends, and I have friends who started out being just good friends and peers, then we turned into parents together and a wonderful new dimension was added to our relationship. But apart from my hairdresser, who really knows me quite well (this is, in my opinion, the mark of a good hairdresser relationship: You have to be able to not only get a good haircut, but also feel like you've visited with a friend in the process), and my office-mate/colleague/friend, I can't think of a single person I've met here who became a friend because we share common interests outside of child rearing and school functions and special parenting groups.

My Facebook friends are scattered far and wide. I graduated from a small high school in Turin, Italy, and I have recently reconnected with a small handful of friends from that time, over 20 years ago. They all live in exotic European locations with exotic European lives and jobs--at least, so it seems to me. When I went to the alumni Facebook group for my school, I scrolled through pictures of hundreds of great-looking young people with long, hyphenated European names and wondered, "Who ARE these people?" Why didn't I recognize any of them? And where WERE all those good-looking young men when I was in school? Then I looked closely and realized that all but three or four of them were recent graduates of the school and I felt old, so very old to think about how I had graduated in 1987 and had somehow expected time to stop.

I could use these friends now, I really could. One of them is an interior designer--I'd love to have him stop by and redo our guest room AND stay for lunch afterwards. Another is a personal fitness trainer--boy, I could use one of those. I have another friend who does stand-up comedy now and, because there just isn't enough comedy in our lives these days, having her nearby sure would be a big bonus--she'd be the perfect friend to call up and have over on those days when I take life's twists and turns way too seriously for my own good. I love having these friends out there again, knowing that they are alive and well and that they look pretty much the same as when I first saw them, give or take some changes. But it's a tease in a way, these quick messages back and forth; the cutsie Facebook virtual "gifts" I get from them now and again. I pine for real-world connections, for the immediacy of flesh and blood contact we once had, maybe some 20 years ago in some cases, when I was just a girl, really. I'd love to sit across the table from any one of them and sip some coffee, and share conversation and some laughs. I'd like to see if they are still the people I once knew, and, more importantly, see if I am, too.