The article, not unreasonably, is mainly about young people and their use of Facebook, and how the technology redraws their sense of privacy and friendship. But for people of a certain age– specifically, my age– Web 2.0 is a time machine.
When I went to college, I lost touch with my friends from high school. Actually, I didn't lose touch with them. I pretty much napalmed my connections to Henrico High in my headlong drive to get out of the South, go to college, and reinvent myself. Of course, after college some of the people I had been close to moved away, and we lost touch. This is the normal way of things, or was way back in the 1980s.
However, a few months ago, I started finding some of these people on Facebook or LinkedIn. Friends from high school who I'd heard about vaguely, but really hadn't kept up with; people who I'd been close to in college for a year or two, before we went off to to other things with our lives.
Most of these reconnections have been pleasant, low-key things: we do a little high-level catching up, exchange a couple e-mails, and that's about it. For a couple other people, though, reconnecting has been more intense and rewarding: a couple have been through marriages that I completely missed, lost partners, survived serious illnesses. I feel weirdly guilty about not knowing all this already. It's not like I haven't had lots of other friends, and my own life, but still I come away with this sense that not only I should have been better-informed about the lives of these people, it would have been good had I been more present, if only peripherally.
At the same time, that's more than offset by the pleasure of being connected and findable again, and having some sense of what they're doing– either very generally, with my LinkedIn reconnects, or with my Facebook reconnects, knowing what they made for dinner and thought of Obama's speech. It's a little bit like the connection you have in the dorm, when you can see who's not around, who's studying, and who's got a crush on whom.
It strikes me that barring some serious legal or technological reversal, mine may be the last generation that has the experience of losing touch with friends. I suspect that my kids and their friends will grow up with Facebook (or whatever's hot ten years from now); and not only will they always be able to get in touch with their friends from seventh grade, the chances are good that they'll be able to see what those friends are doing. Of course, some friends will mean or or less to them over time– the central nodes in that network of friends will constantly shift– but just disappearing entirely may become a lot harder.
This could often be a good thing– think of all the people whose lives start to drift when they lose touch with friends, or the degree to which becoming anti-social is a predictor of things like depression– but it could have its down side as well. I think it was necessary for me to separate myself from my high school world in order to become someone different, and I'm not sure that I'd have been able to reinvent myself so thoroughly if the whole class of '82 could comment on what I was up to. Reinventing yourself– or just following a passion that you have, and pushing that interest as far as you can– isn't normally something you do by yourself, or out in the desert; more often it's something that you do in the company of other people, and very often something you do with new people.
Maybe my children's generation will need the ability to turn parts of their network dark when they embark on some new adventure, then re-light them later. As a technical feat, this shouldn't be tough; as a social one, it might be harder. You could always disguise not being in touch with old friends as a function of time and work pressure and so forth, but switching off a set of friends would be a more explicit declaration that you're taking a break from them. Still, when it comes to shaping identity, the ability to forget can be as important as the ability to remember. It's easy to implore people not to forget who they are; but sometimes, in order to become someone better, you need to forget a little bit.
My students are already serious users of these technologies– I hardly have a substantive e-mail exchange with a Said Business School student that doesn't almost immediately yield a connections on LinkedIn– and my kids are likely to have their social lives shaped by them as profoundly as by school and neighborhood. But I think people in my generation have discovered something that they couldn't. Humans have an undeniable desire to connect, and people go through certain stages where they need to disconnect. But the more graceful parts of our nature are happy to overlook years of silence or old awkwardnesses for the chance to reconnect. And that's a great thing.