Tear Down This (Social Network) Wall

Let me set two similar high school graduation scenes, but with important differences.

1) When I graduated in 1999, as the names were read and each student walked to the stage to get their diploma, you could easily tell where their friends sat among the student body.  When a member of one group of friends would walk up, his/her friends were quickly identified by the points of whoops and cheers, among the basal level of applause from everyone else.

2) When my cousin graduated high school last Friday, the reading of names was very different—everyone got solid cheers from across the student body.  Yes, broad shoulders and cute smiles elicited more enthusiasm, but for the most part, each name was met with a hefty, saturated cheer throughout the caps and gowns.

With that said, I am a nerd that loves all things wrought by science.  I graduated college with a degree in molecular biology and worked in neuroscience lab for about two years afterwards.  I firmly believe that both business and government could stand to learn a lot, while saving money, (imagine that) by employing the age-old Scientific Method to their problems and questions more often.  I tell you this because what I am about to propose is very, very poor science.  I am aware.

I started wondering why the pronounced difference in cheering occurred.  It was noticeable enough, with eleven years in between, (*sigh*) for the thought to occur to me.  Why would that be?  Maybe my cousin’s class just had better school spirit.  Maybe I’m just getting older and notice more.  Maybe time has changed my memory.  Maybe I’m totally wrong.  Maybe all these kids were drunker.  Maybe a little of everything.

But then I started thinking, what if this is because of Facebook?  When I graduated high school in the Pre-Facebookian Era, there were palpable cliques.  They weren’t rigid enough to be featured in a teen movie, people were cordial enough, but on the weekends you had a pretty good idea who you were going to see, what stories you might be a part of and whose house you’d end up at.  There was some overlap and bigger gatherings and people hanging out with people you might not have expected them to hang out with, but for the most part the social circles were well understood by all and it very clearly manifested itself in the patterns of applause during graduation.

But with my cousin’s class, everyone cheered for everyone.  That can’t be faked nor induced by a pushy administrator (“Be sure you applaud loudly and equally for everybody, kids.”)  Every cheer was heartfelt and solid.  No, it wasn’t perfectly equal for everyone, but the baseline enthusiasm per kid was markedly higher.  Is this because Facebook weakens the clique’s walls?  After the weekends, the pictures all go online and the activities from across the high school (save the super secret stories) are up for all to see.  Even if you were out of town, you can always browse and get an idea of exactly what had happened socially.  Any crossing of cliques would be noticed and would start to become commonplace.  You’d feel like you knew people that, in reality, you might not even talk to that much.  The boundaries of those cliques seem less and less relevant and pretty soon lateral social movement is a lot easier—or is just normal.

There are already some interesting social studies—real ones—about the effect of Facebook on today’s under-25 crowd.  My favorite is that the auto industry is starting to get edgy, if they didn’t have enough to worry about.  Kids are driving less and less these days and the theory is that they are getting that Social Fix delta from status updates and photo albums.  That is pretty amazing when you think about it.  There is a significant percentage of kids who are happier to play games, chat and browse profiles than drive somewhere to hang out.

Anyway, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who looks back on their middle/high school days and thinks that cliques were actually a good thing.  If Facebook is really to take some credit for knocking down social walls among teenagers, then more power to it.  That’s great…but let’s not forget to get outside every once in a while, dadgumit.

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Follow Caleb at www.twitter.com/calebgarling

Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at

www.calebgarling.com


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