What ever happened to “what ever happened to?”?

After I finally caved and joined Facebook, I spent about two months in a state of perpetual excitement, as every day seemed to bring a new friend request from some long-lost soulmate. It was wonderful, and I was thrilled with each and every new reconnection. The experience made me question my hitherto-held stance on my high school reunion, i.e., there’s no way I am deliberately going to subject myself to dinner and dancing with those people. Anyone that meant anything to me, I reasoned, was still part of my life, and all I would get from a reunion was confirmation that everyone else was as horrible as I remembered.
Facebook changed my mind, and I am very glad I’ve been reminded of all the really great people I went to high school with, and of all the wonderful workmates I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years.
I recently created a separate Facebook “persona” for interaction with students, and for some reason I started reflecting on the impact of Facebook, and its various social networking counterparts, on human relationships. I’m not talking about the dire predictions of the technophobes, who seem to believe that one cannot be an active member of society and own a cellphone/computer/MP3 player; I’m actually talking about the phenomenon I experienced as a new Facebooker.
Some of my students, less than two decades old, already have more than 500 ‘friends’, and unless the Aztecs were right, all of these people will presumably still be in constant communication, at least electronically, for the next seven decades (give or take).
What happens in 2030? Will high school alumni groups bother with reunions? Will alumni groups even continue to exist, or will Stu Dent simply “like” first his high school, then college, then university, then job #1, ad infinitum?
This line of questioning then led me to wonder whether or not anyone will ever again slide into obscurity. Once upon a time, it was the exclusive bailiwick of cheap paper tabloids to expose in salacious detail what “happened” to the once-famous or infamous – a name or face you hadn’t though of in years suddenly splashed across lurid newsprint at the grocery store checkout, “tragically” lost in a haze of alcohol/drugs/sex/performance art. Remember the child actors from “Different Strokes”? How sad…
Well, first of all, thanks to Twitter and Facebook and Myspace, no star need ever fade again. You can make one movie or guest star in one episode – or, heaven forbid, get your own “reality” show – and immediately have thousands of people who are apparently willing to spend the rest of their lives reading about your life in 140 characters or fewer. If your tweets are good enough, you might never need to do anything else again – you’ll still be famous.
If that’s not enough, thanks to the Internet, you can have your own web site, and use it to prolong what might otherwise have been a much shorter career. When I started thinking about this blog post, I happened to be listening to hits from the 80s, and thought to myself, “I wonder whatever happened to Howard Jones, anyway?” You know what happened to Mr. Jones? Nothing. He is still touring and recording, albeit with significantly less embarassing hair. Thomas Dolby? Not permanently blinded by science, as it turns out, but rather, once again, still touring and recording, and, it seems, entertaining TED audiences to boot.
Don’t get me wrong – I certainly do not begrudge Messrs. Jones and Dolby their continued success. I am merely observing that the level of that success is directly related to their presence on the Internet. Before the advent of the Internet, and triple-w marketing, artists like these would have either moved on to other careers, or, perhaps, in the style of Jimmy Buffet, cashed in on their moderate success and started a chain of seedy bars (“Thomas Dolby’s Science Lab”?).
Finally, thanks to the miracle of Google, not to mention all the sites actually devoted to tracking the famous and the notorious, you need never again lay awake at night wondering whatever happened to Jan from the Brady Bunch.
Regular readers will know that I am enamoured of the Internet and the possibilities it offers. I truly believe the technological revolution is a good thing, and I, like many of my peers, can’t remember how we functioned before we had e-mail and cellphones. But sometimes I wonder if we’re losing some things, too, like the mystery of tabloid celebrity or the joy of reconnecting with someone we’d forgotten we loved…
…and don’t even get me started on textspeak. 😛

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