At dinner the other night with friends, we learned that their eldest daughter, a college sophomore, had had her boyfriend visit for a few days over the holidays. The visit went fine, or so it seemed, and then the relationship ended, abruptly and unexpectedly.
A sad, if not uncommon story; the punch line was how my friend found out this had happened—by the fact that the boyfriend’s Facebook relationship status had been switched to “single.” A phone call confirmed the breakup, and since her daughter didn’t change her status for quite a while, it didn’t take much deduction to figure out who broke up with who. (Apparently, this happened at the airport as he was leaving; at least he had the good grace to do it in person and not dump her by a text from the tarmac, so he’s not a complete heel.)
For some reason, this put me in mind of the search I did for another friend and colleague whom I lost touch with a couple of years ago. I found myself thinking about her and wondering what she was up to, so I turned, naturally, to the internet. I started with Google (yes, I know, very 2008) and all I could find were older results; filtering for recent pages came up dry, as did a search in the last place I knew she had worked. Bing was no better, leading me to an outdated entry in Zoominfo; nor was Intelius or LinkedIn or even Facebook, since hers is not an uncommon name.
Admittedly, I didn’t do an exhaustive search; it was more of the I-wonder-where-and-what variety. And I didn’t reach out to mutual friends and connections, which would be a natural next step. (I did, though, do a quick obituary search, for my own peace of mind, which happily also yielded nothing.)
Of course, I have no idea why my search failed. I guess the surprising part to me wasn’t that I couldn’t find the particular person I was looking for, so much as that there was any way not to find somebody you were looking for. We’ve become so much of a culture of self-broadcasting by tweets and status updates and blogs and Foursquare badges and smartphones with GPS functionality that it’s difficult to imagine being invisible, unfindable, off the radar, gone.
There have always been resources to help us learn more about people—from Who’s Who and Burke’s Peerage through Current Biography, Find a Grave and ancestry.com. In the constellation of reference tools, they belonged up there with resources about books, journals, places, words, facts as among the primary categories. A moment’s contemplation of the title of Who’s Who tells you one of the main traditional reasons for that: an implication that certain people are more important than others—that their lives are worth memorializing, remembering, remarking on, emulating (or avoiding).
Today, it’s not only easier to get famous (Snooki, anyone?), it’s easier to be known or at least known about, and by extension less easy not to be known. Has it been at least a week since a long-lost classmate friended you? (Or since Facebook developed a new tool that gave away more of your private info by default?)
The traditional biographical sources helped to satisfy our curiosity about people we would likely never meet. Now it’s easy to get “friends” who we may never meet and know intimate things about people we’ll never know. As an old (real) friend of mine used to say: “People. They’re everywhere” . . . but that’s another story.
JOE JANES is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle.