It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind ever since I dug out the old issue of the Whittenberger Summer Writing Project and decided that I wanted to try to find and contact everyone who had attended. I can only imagine what organizers of high school reunions have to deal with, but this has been a little different–to start with there were only about three dozen of us, and we started off being scattered all over the state (little chance of family connections or mutual friend networks among someone from, say, Pocatello, and someone from Bonner’s Ferry, for instance), which made finding everyone seem like an especially thorny endeavor.
Nevertheless, the idea that I might be able to find and reconnect with 30+ people who had shared a couple of idyllic weeks together in Caldwell, Idaho during the late 90s seemed to me to be an absolutely beautiful challenge: as a search problem (how to use google and other search tools to find so many people after so long, particularly when, due to marriage customs and gendered traditions, several of the participants would be unlikely to still have the same surname as they did when they were teenagers?), a communicative problem (once I found someone, how to contact them, to tell them what I had in mind and share my sense of enthusiasm and genuine excitement and curiosity without creeping them out?), and as an organizational and technological problem (where to meet/convene once we have connected? How to include someone who doesn’t use or want to use the connective tool we’ve selected?).
The most common method I’ve used to find people have been combining google searches with social media queries (Facebook and LinkedIn have been especially rich harvesting grounds). I’ve usually started by plugging their name into the search engine, then adding quotation marks around it, and then adding words like Idaho, their hometown, and or anything that I think I’ve learned about them from prior searches. The most frustrating results have been the ones from the pay services, the social media aggregators or ‘public records locators’–the ones who give you a slice of information, maybe an age and hometown, and then want to charge you 29.95 to get a ‘full report.’ These sites are terrible and I’ll never pay that fee. I wanted my searches to be absolutely in the public domain (things that have been placed freely onto the open web, preferably by the individual themselves) and to be free. I’m no private investigator and I’ve no desire to dig through people’s court records or other personal information.
One of the other most notable effects of this searching process on me has been that it has led to a realization about how I conceive of the nature of communicative technologies. In the case of Facebook or LinkedIn, when I’ve located someone, I’ve had no qualms whatsoever about sending a friend or connection request along with a brief, simple message, something along the lines of: “[Person], my name is Steel Wagstaff. I was just digging through a box in my closet and found an old publication put together by a host of Idaho high school writers way back in 1998. Did you attend the Whittenberger Summer Writing Project in the Summer of 1998? If so, I’d love to invite you to join a Facebook group I’ve started as an experiment 15 years later to see what everyone’s up to these days. If I’ve contacted the wrong person, of if you’re not interested, I’m sorry for messaging you. All best!” I’ve noticed in sending these requests, however, that Facebook has added a layer of distance to these messages (as well as a potential moneymaking provision). If I’m trying to send a message to someone that I’m not yet friends with, Facebook will usually show me a radio menu with two button options–the top one informing me that I can send my message directly to the person in question’s normal message inbox for a fee (usually around $1.00, but sometimes a little bit more), while the free option will send my message to their ‘other’ message folder, which I imagine gets used and checked much less frequently. I can see why Facebook would have instituted this change, but it’s a new one to me, and felt a little limiting, particularly because they’ve removed the ability to send messages along with friend requests. LinkedIn has its own limitations on messages that you send along with ‘connect’ requests–they have to be fewer than 300 characters and they can’t include any links. Neither of these restrictions are particularly onerous, but it’s been instructive to see the ways that social media services enable (while limiting, constraining, and controlling) people who aren’t yet part of a mutually approved network relationship to communicate with each other.
I said earlier that this has led to realization about my own conceptions of the nature of these communicative technologies, and I got a little distracted. It has, and here’s how: I’ve been able to find what I think is a web-based avatar/representation almost every single one of the roughly three dozen attendees of Whittenberger in 1998, and I’ve felt very little compunction about contacting these people through these web-based/social media networks (that’s what they’re for, isn’t it? That’s our expectation at least, that they’re tools not only of connection and reconnection, but also of discovery. I imagine that all of us have, at some point, whether recent or at our beginning of tool use, have had that strange wonderful experience of finding or being found by someone we’ve once known and are pleased to ‘know’ again). There have been, however, a few instances where I’ve been unable to find a person on a social media platform, but I think that I have found a possible (even likely) address or phone number (occasionally a home number, but more likely a work number). And here’s where I have pause. I certainly wouldn’t visit one of these home addresses to find this person, even if I lived in the same town, and I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to drop by their work place, nor would I feel comfortable cold calling them, either at home or at work. Part of it is the way that presence demands response, I think, by which I mean that if I were to speak to your face, say hello and make some kind of request, it would be very hard for you to observe social etiquette and not respond or ignore me. Using social media, I’m able to give people this out (the ability to ignore a message without my ever really knowing for certain that I had found the right person, that they had seen my message, and chose to disregard it) which allows everyone to potentially save face and avoid embarassment. This is true of phone calls as well as in-person visits, with the added awkwardness of my pretty limited experience with using a phone call to someone’s workplace to say, “Hey, do you remember me? We went to a writing camp together in Idaho for 2 weeks once. Oh, yeah, and it was in 1998, when we were 15 years old. Half our lives ago. Yeah, so I found your work number and thought I’d call and see if you want to join a Facebook group I started. Hello? Hello?”
So there’s that. I don’t especially think that any of this is worrying (I don’t think that social media is (or has) in this case produced some kind of atrophy of my social skills), but that social media and internet connectivities have made possible all kinds of potential interactions, social transactions that seem otherwise too risky, too difficult, too bizarre, too potentially frightening, one-sided, unsolicited even, which can be both good and bad. In the case of this Whittenberger reunion group, I’m really working hard to ensure that it’s only for the good, which means that I’ve posted notices whenever I add a photo or note or memory that I’m happy to un-tag or remove anything that I’ve posted if it makes anyone uncomfortable or feels like an unwelcome intrusion on their lives or privacy, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve been thinking and wrestling with as I start digging deeper into this memory collector project. More to come soon, I’m sure, but for now I’m curious to know what you (unknown reader) think about all this. Have you developed an ethics of communication regarding face-to-face, telephone/text, online mediums? What are your guidelines for these kinds of communications or things that I should perhaps consider more thoughtfully?