Why Facebook won’t kill the class reunion

February 3, 2012

From the minute they allowed us grown-ups to join Facebook in 2007 right up to the IPO filing, the same question has been posited again and again, first on technology blogs, then later in the mainstream press: Will Facebook kill the class reunion?

Alumni are interviewed, both for and against. Statistics are cited, showing a decline in reunion attendance over the past five years, often without noting that many of us, due to economic realities during this same time period, have sometimes been forced to choose between shaking our sagging booties on a faraway campus and eating. High school and college reunions get lumped together, presupposing a similar pull toward both, which rings false for those of us who saw high school as an unfortunate trial to be endured and college as the moment when, freed from nuclear families and provincial roots, we grew into ourselves in no small part through interactions with new friends.

The real fallacy of this line of questioning, however — that it’s either Facebook or the reunion — lies in its presumption of causality: Why take it as a given that knowing more about our fellow alumni would cause us to be less likely to want to see them in person? If anything, speaking purely subjectively, scrolling down an endless stream of status updates, family photos and videos of my college friends’ toddlers walking around with hampers on their heads (I’m talking to you, Nick Spooner) makes me want to see them in person more, not less.

Remember the aerogram? For those of you born into the digital age, they were my generation’s Twitter: a prescribed, limited, rectangular box into which we squeezed all of our random thoughts, activities and ephemera. I both wrote and received my fair share of these Precambrian tweets when I lived and worked abroad, and the two details I recall most vividly about the act of slipping one’s finger under the edges of its fragile, blue seams — aside from how difficult this was to do gracefully — was that the anticipation of reading an aerogram was nearly always more thrilling than the fact of having read it; and that, once digested, those blue missives never once sated my desire to chat with their authors in person. Rather, they made me long, more achingly, for their presence.

Decades before the advent of social media, student and alumni offices on college campuses across the country instinctively understood the value of providing pre-game tidbits of information about one’s fellow classmates as a means of piquing — not quashing — desire for face-to-face contact. Such desire leads in the short run to fostering a sense of community on campus and, in the long run, to bolstering endowments, which is the real reason, by the way, they throw those parties for us every five years.

Like many colleges, my alma mater, Harvard, the now infamous birthplace of Facebook, provided every freshman with Facebook’s progenitor, a yearbook-style hardback book filled with black-and-white head shots of our classmates, under which their names, hometowns and high schools were listed. We studied those books, those faces, the way Talmudic scholars study the Torah, parsing every name, city and school for meaning. When we finally met the people behind those faces in real life, we were already well versed enough in the whole who-what-where-when of their lives that we could skip over the formalities and head straight into the meatier why.

Post-college, alumni magazines have always kept us up-to-date with the Facebook-like information of those willing to share: marriages, births, new jobs, and the impossible-to-fathom early deaths. My alma mater takes this a step further, asking the members of every reunion class to describe their past five years in short essays, which are then collated and published in crimson-colored class reports called red books; these are such intriguing documents of the triumphs, failures, loves, losses, self-deceptions and truths of any life, let alone the 1,600 therein, that there is a thriving market for them on eBay. When the books arrive, with a weighty thud, they offer a narrative cheat sheet which, far from dissuading their recipients from attending the reunion, provide — at least to those of us already predisposed to go — further impetus: to hear more about his crazy divorce; to hug the woman who lost her child; to gaze into the eyes of the former lover; to appreciate, communally, our good fortune at still — incredibly! — being alive.

This spring, on campuses across the U.S., members of the class of 1987 will convene for their 25th reunion. They were, significantly, the last to have started freshman year before the advent of the Mac. They will also be the first 25th reunion attendees to have potentially followed the Facebook streams of their classmates every year since the previous reunion five years ago. All the stuff that once filled the backseats of their parents’ station wagons when they arrived on campus in 1983 — typewriters, LPs, photo albums, file boxes, books, calendars, cameras, address books, telephones, maps, dictionaries, answering machines — now fits on a device slim enough to slip into their back pockets. On that device, should they so desire, they can also (magically) catch up on the minutiae of their former classmates’ lives, a canapé to stave off the innate hunger for face-to-face interaction as they wait in local dives for friends to arrive to share that rarest and most sustaining of human delicacies: a slice of real life together.

PHOTO: Princeton class of 1982, 25th reunion, Andreas Praefcke, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One comment

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Wow! As a member of the Class of 1987, thank for that quick technology recap. I think I got my MAC the next year. It had a 5 inch black and white screen. I think you are right that social media does not take the place of a class reunion. I don’t think that I would be nearly as interested in going if I didn’t see those snippets on FB every day. Plus, it is a lot of fun to dress up and go somewhere elegant like the new 200 Peachtree venue in Atlanta.

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