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Who I Thought I Was

This morning I dreamt I was going to a workshop about the use of technology in academic research. I was with people who reminded me of my colleagues and coworkers in the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia. A dozen of us, newly acquainted, tromped across a green while animatedly talking about our expectations for the workshop, what we would learn and who would be there.

I had a feeling the workshop would barely exercise the skills we already possessed. Walking into the room, we found the other group had already arrived, and I found myself keeping in check my judgements of them as being simple and inexperienced.

The long desks were arranged in rows. In the corner, two adjacent screens were mounted at right angles to each other. People seated on the long edges of the desks faced one screen, while people sitting at the ends of the long desks could face the other screen. The way in which people had already spread out, however, made it difficult to find space in the less-conventional/not-as-well-preferred end seats. I puzzled for some time about not being able to find a space at one of the ends.

The dream’s scene shifted to a darkened room with a single screen and folding chairs, with the already present workshoppers on the auditorium’s left. As I and my cohort sat down, I thought about the differences between our two groups, differences crystallized for me by the fact that my group had been more rigourously educated at elite institutions.

A woman found an open chair next to me and asked what the presenter meant by her last comment. I said “declension” to explain that the situation the speaker had described could be explained by the recent financial crisis and the resulting decline in personal and collective wealth. After considering for a second, she nodded understanding.

When I woke, I was immediately aware that my terse response was, on one level, nonsense, given that the preferred meaning of declension is the identification of the variations of nouns and adjectives in Latin according to case, number, and gender. My go-to dictionary tells me declension is poetic for a condition of decline or moral deterioration.

Later this morning, I realized that this dream reflects some of the anxieties I have after recently creating a Facebook account and receiving friend requests from people I haven’t spoken to in twenty-five years.

Before signing up, I emailed one old friend that I am too maladjusted to have a Facebook account, that I was too sensitive to negotiate the messy flux of relation and memory that Facebook presents, too much an introvert to have a healthy and uncomplicated response to our inescapable mortality. I said that I worried about hearing from people only to be disappointed in who they've become, who they never were, or who I wish I had been. Many an academic’s assessment of social phenomena is conditioned by just such reflexive beanplating.

When I received my first friend requests, I was stunned by how much some of my childhood friends and acquaintances had changed. Oppositely, I was also shocked by how little one friend’s appearance had changed. I browsed through that friend’s photos, coming across a portrait of her and her husband. Her face seemed unchanged, and looking at the closeup of the two of them was like looking into the past, like coming across a portal to a sensibility that was alien, intriguing, and unattainable, illusory. I wonder if some people have a similar reaction when they see my picture.

There are so many things I want to say about my recent foray into Facebook. While I still feel that it’s a walled garden and I am reluctant to contribute photos, video, and text to the site because it is a for-profit concern that gives me little real control over the disposition of those assets I place on its servers, I also see how powerful a social tool it is because it enables the inexperienced to communicate with each other easily and frequently. I also want to use the word “promiscuously,” as in a network device that operates in promiscuous mode. On Facebook, one can see messages directed at friends even if one is not directly connected to the messager. Facebook encourages people to connect to each other by promiscuously communicating information to recipients not specified by the sender. I don’t have anything concrete to say about seduction on social networking sites like Facebook except to say that the communication I’ve so far seen is friendly and good-natured as opposed to aggressive and predatory.

I told Pam that in the last four days I’ve spent on Facebook, I’ve seen more pictures of Latino/Latina, Asian, and black people to whom I’m connected (at one or two removes) than I have in that last sixteen years since leaving California. Connecting to people who I knew in Monterey, CA, even though now they are scattered across the nation, puts me back in the fold of rich racial and cultural diversity. Not just black people and white people, but lots of all kinds of people.

My reaction while browsing the profiles of long lost friends has surprised me. I’m deeply awed by the families my childhood friends have started and grown. One of my childhood crushes handles firearms; one friend has worked for a non-profit for abused children; another has a spouse who is in Iraq; some of my friends have lost siblings. I look at their faces and the faces of their families and I’m amazed and excited. I find part of myself naively lapsing into a belief that things aren’t so bad, that there is good in the world, that people have integrity and often act selflessly.

But this reveals so much about me and my own general assumptions. I realize I’m not exactly who I think I am. Connecting with people I knew long ago, even in this on some levels superficial way, is so far a positive experience. Remembering and reigniting my love for them brings me back something I’d somehow lost in myself.

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That was a lovely and thoughtful post, J. I have been a tentative and reluctant user of FB and now you've given me a way into analyzing my own mixed feelings about it. Thank you.