Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Death of Personal Reinvention?

Sorry - Nerf Herder (mp3)
Linger - Cranberries (mp3)

A March New York Times Magazine included an intriguing column on the impact of Facebook on the maturation process, an article suggesting that Facebook risks preventing the normal maturation process of adolescents and young adults because Facebook always keeps your past crammed into your present.

To this day, I distinctly remember the horrible nausea that washed over me my senior year when I visited Rhodes College in Memphis. I had a similar feeling when I visited Washington & Lee. The nausea stemmed from feeling that, were I to go to one of those schools, I would always be trapped as the guy everyone thought they knew in high school. Rhodes and W&L were, for all intents and purposes, slightly altered universes of the very school I was so desperately excited to escape.

At my high school, I completely identified with Anthony Michael Hall's character in Sixteen Candles when he referred to himself as "King of the Dipshits." My geeky nerdy classmate friends were just enough more socially awkward than I that they seemed to look up to my ability to communicate with other "regular" people. My less geeky nerdy classmate friends tolerated my presence with patience and bemusement, but it's not like any of them were at a kegger on the weekends thinking, Y'know, this party would launch into the stratosphere if Billy showed up...

Socially, high school for me often felt like I had a special backstage pass for High School Musical. I was allowed to witness all the cool people be cool and fun people have fun, but I wasn't ever really a part of the performance. I was part of the stage crew or something. Just be grateful they're letting you see it all! was kinda the vibe.

You remember the video for "Take On Me" by A-Ha? (Sure you do.) Remember the dramatic conclusion, where Lead Singer Dude is trying to escape his sketchy cartoon bonds to join that girl in the full-color real world? That's totally what high school felt like, like I was pounding the walls and beating the floors and desperately begging for a full-color existence. I was trapped in two dimensions -- academics, comic books, role-playing games and church stuff -- and couldn't ever seem to break into the real world of... well, girls. The parties weren't nearly as painful to miss as the girls. I just wanted to be around them, to understand how they ticked. They were such a mesmerizing mystery to me. I longed to be able to study them like I did math or English or German, but I couldn't seem to find the right teachers.

To say I felt awkward, was awkward, in high school is to insult awkward people.

I wanted nothing more out of college than to escape that image of myself, an image I'd helped create, and an image I was convinced might haunt me the rest of my life if I couldn't escape it.

With 20 years of hindsight, it's far easier to accept that almost all teenagers feel this way. Even the most popular kids can feel like outsiders, and even the sweetest and kindest girls can feel like they're tolerated more than loved, endured more than appreciated. I thought my high school misery was unique, but it was really just one verse from "Message In a Bottle" I was sharing with millions of my peers.

And now there's Facebook.

Hawthorne wrote "The past lies upon the present like a giant's dead body." With Facebook, we have revived the damn giant, and it's now a zombie who wants piggy-back rides all over town.
Who knows whether the woman who wrote NYT article is right to be afraid of Facebook, but it's worth keeping an eye on.

As I approach 40, I've begun to love all of my different personae over the years even as I've begun to realize that the awkward nerdy Billy in high school is virtually identical to the wacky goofy Billy in college who is almost exactly the same eager uncertain Billy who worked in Warner Robins who is a hair's breadth away from the austere handsome unshakable Billy who sits here writing this entry. What I thought was a series of substantial personal transformations were actually more about a single persona traveling through a variety of environments, each time with a little more experience and wisdom in his quiver.
Sure, I've changed over the years. It's called "growing up." But I have trouble believing Facebook or even "helicopter parents" can leash a kid to their youth forever. Eventually, growing up happens no matter how hard we fight it, no matter how strongly we deny it. The past may never be past, but it never stays completely present, either.

Neverland never had Wi-Fi, yet Peter Pan still never managed to grow up. So maybe it's a little quick to lay all the future developmental problems of today's youth on Facebook.

However, if I read another one of those dang lists, I might go postal, and prison would definitely curb my future growth as a human.

Go getcha some Cranberries or Nerf Herder on iTunes or Amazon.com! Support great music!


Madelyn Hayes said...

Seriously? FB is going to prevent an entire generation from maturing? I think not. It does seem to be doing a good job at allowing those of us who are approaching 40 to re-live our youth just a little bit.

troutking said...

Where's my little button to click that says "I like this"?

Karos said...

I accidentally clicked you today, and I'm glad I did. I always enjoy your insights.

I hate Facebook. And yet I have one. I have a wary, cynical view of it. But it has pushed its way into my life like so much bamboo under the fingernails.

Your high school experience sounds similar to mine, although I think sometimes it is harder on boys. I spent a lot of time writing about the merits of nonconformity for the school paper. I think I was both trying to explain that those on the fringes were worthy of love and attention, and to criticize those that ran in identifiable flocks.

I truly hope FB is a passing fancy, like the author's mention of the old Friendster site. My nearly-15-year-old daughter is on FB and in my estimation it's yet another avenue for bullies to hide behind the anonymity of the Net while they chip away at the delicate self esteem of others.

Anonymous said...

Nice one.

Your BFF

Billy said...

MH, yes, I suspect FB will live longer for the slightly crustier generations than for the young'uns.

Karos, thanks as always, and I kinda like Facebook in relative moderation. Your FB concerns are why I suspect it won't survive for that generation, but our generation doesn't seem to be using it that way, for the most part. I hope we don't start. The last thing any of us needs is a flashback to High School Cliqueville.

BFF, thanks, and if you're a part of that "couple down the street," I look forward to our secret meeting!