Yesterday I met a blogger I’ve been reading for over a year, Mater of Materfamilias Writes. I met her husband too. Doesn’t seem like a revolutionary event, three people in midlife eating Mexican food in San Francisco. But if I look back to my 20’s, and remember how we met people then, how we forged communities and thereby ourselves, I can’t help but think yesterday’s carnitas were not insignificant.
The ways we interact with our selves and others change, across the decades and across technological disruptions, even while remaining curiously the same. Cue Mr. Redding, if you will.
I’ve seen technology upend human society twice in my lifetime.
1. Upon the invention of the personal computer. Let’s not quibble about who gets the credit, Xerox, Apple, IBM, Digital Equipment, I tip my hat. Just imagine writing in the era of typewriters, images born in chemical washes, and calculations on paper. The personal computer allowed us to work and create in a frictionless manner. All this productivity helps in the creation of a self.
2. As virtual communities evolved, now to be known as social networking. What began as bulletin boards, newsgroups, and forums, aided by new software developments in web user interfaces, mobile voice and data devices, and what they call “cloud computing,” became MySpace, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. I suppose the voyage was launched by the invention of the written word, and furthered by the telephone, but those things of course happened before I was born. Each person’s self requires reflection, affirmation, from others. Each time the territory broadens, the spaces where other voices can be found multiply, our concept of self stretches.
These are known facts. Bear with me.
Think now about the human process of building a self. Think of what we go through in order to get to 50.
Little children explore their raw selves, how they eat, sleep, and move. At some point raw innocence gives way to the constructed self project. Children, teenagers, and young adults forge a social persona, test relationship boundaries, create the self they will take into the adult world. This takes a long time. Not easy, but fruitful. At some point, likely in our 20’s, we take that constructed self, put our heads down, and test. The testing self, the implemented self, has children, makes career progress, tries to influence the surrounding world. Finally, I would argue, in the 50s or thereabout, one begins work on the integrated self.
The integrated self takes the tested self and, well, integrates it. Life in the decades between 20 and 50 remind me of a shuttle launch. Lots of rocket fire, some tiles fall off, we drop our engine into a distant ocean. One regroups. Relationships shift. Some of enormous import. And some, farther from the foundation but in many ways just as telling, may involve carnitas.
Now consider the confluence of the integrating self, and social networks. Here’s what is unchanged about meeting someone in the real world, even if you met them via social networking.
- Your instincts are still mostly correct. I hadn’t gotten Mater wrong. She is warm, thoughtful, and companionable.
- Your instincts will markedly improve as you age. Thank goodness for that. Pretty good compensation for a bad hip, and often called wisdom.
- However, you will continue to make incorrect assumptions, as always. I hadn’t gotten Mater altogether right. Because she’s prettier than her photos, and vivacious, even mischievous here and there. Yes, the human propensity to make conclusions in advance of sufficient information is alive and well.
But here is what’s different now.
- The conversation in your first in-person meeting will cover so many topics, since you have history, and you will want to at least touch on almost everything you thought you knew about each other. So, as Mater said, you may chat as though small children were underfoot, changing subjects, jumping from the general to the specific, never quite finishing a thread, starting many.
- You will want to give and receive some assurance, since the old virtual relationship has been broken by virtue of real life contact, and you will probably tell each other, “Yes, I liked you there and I still like you here.”
- You will have formed a more detailed picture than previously possible of who someone might be prior to seeing them in the flesh.
- Most importantly, you will be willing to relinquish that prior picture and replace it with the figure of the person you’ve just met. In all the ebb and flow and side angles that only humans in their temporal glory allow. Would that we allowed the people we’ve known in real life to remake themselves as easily.
All the above is probably more or less true no matter how old you are, and therefore no matter what stage your self hood. (Although it’s another subject altogether to consider how the young differ from the old in their sustained online personas. Next time.)
But at 50, (well, technically 54, but 50 sounds so much more like it matters), as I said, we are integrating. Our children are mostly grown. If we chose a career we love, we’re at its peak. If we wound up in a career of expediency, many of us are shifting to something more heartfelt. And we know, by this point, who our friends are. Or who they can be.
You realize now that you, for yourself, are mostly right. The patterns you recognize are largely accurate. The people you like are mostly good. And sometimes they are even mischievous, they reinvent themselves. Paradoxically, this stage of life allows for comfortable surprise, because it seems most often to be coupled with recognition, even of the unexpected. At 50, assuming hard-won self knowledge, social networks allow us to choose, to intend, maybe, is the word, our companions. To feel ourselves recognized, expansive, and useful. Roam if you want to. Cue the B-52s. All around the world.
I always thought that old people who told me 50 was the best age were lying. They weren’t.
Mater and Pater, all of which is to say, I had so much fun meeting your elegant and comfortable selves, and found myself thinking, as I drove home, “Hmm, I wouldn’t have minded if the afternoon had given way to drinks watching the sunset, and a longer conversation.” Next time. For you both, as to all of us here in the network, of all ages, I wish a wonderful weekend. It’s cold and grey in Northern California, right now, but experience tells me we may be surprised by sunshine later in the day.