One of the most interesting things about the Facebook social networking system is that you can traverse the nodes. It works this way. Everyone on Facebook has friends and those friends have more friends. By working your way through friends of friends you can sometimes loop around and find your way back to a familiar cluster, in a manner akin to circling around. Occasionally you’ll go down sidetrails and explore the outworkings of a forest of connections. But that’s tiresome and occasionally you will attempt to jump into a wholly different cluster of people based on a clue, like the fragment of name or perhaps an email address and find a thread back into a world you’d left.
That world could be your high school classmates, people you went to college or grad school with. They could be people you worked with, or shared an activity with at one time or the other. And because bits of those networks still survive, once you find a line back to a cluster from a time past, you run into names that invoke mirth, fear, shame or dread. The past has the power to haunt; to modify the persona we have built in the present with the inconvenient facts of personal history. But nothing, I think, is more perilous than finding the names and pictures of old flames. The mouse hovers ever so tentatively over the “add friend button”. It’s a very strange feeling to be separated by a single click from people who are decades distant. Maybe if you’re wise you’ll navigate to another page.
When Robert Frost wrote the Road Less Traveled, social networking software had not yet been invented. Frost’s poem went:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
But that was then; and now social networking software allows you to haunt the steps of companions whose fellowship you have left. We flit through the meandering paths of the wood and watch how those others have fared, and as those older faces look back on you in Facebook, without even the awareness that they’re being observed, it’s tempting to wonder how much of yourself has traveled with them, and they with you. Maybe Frost was slightly wrong. Maybe the melancholy we feel isn’t the result of musing on the road not taken; it’s the consequence of some part of us having gone down all those trails leaving us wondering who they left behind.