For many people, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Internet is the increasing ability to reconnect with people from your past. It used to be that hunting down long-lost friends was a time-consuming and often frustrating affair. In recent years, however, social networking sites such as Facebook have revolutionized the process by making it simple to locate anyone, anywhere, just by using a simple search engine. This leads to millions of people getting in touch with past classmates, friends, and distant family members. All this reconnecting can be exciting and wonderful, but using Facebook to its fullest extent can also have a down side.
For those of you who have not experienced Facebook yet, it’s actually a pretty simple concept on the surface. You create a personal profile, generally using your real name and accurate information, and then you decide just how much of that information you want to be accessible to the public. You can also join specific networks and groups for anything from schools and colleges to places you may have worked. In those groups you will find others who attended the same school or worked at the same place, and this can make it very simple for you to find people you used to know, and for them to find you. Likewise, a general Facebook search by name can help you locate the cousins you haven’t seen in years, or the ex-boyfriend that you really wish you hadn’t dumped. Wondering if he’s still single? His Facebook profile will probably tell you.
Where things get complicated is that there is no practical way of filtering out specific people. If you’re hoping to reconnect with those from your past, it’s pretty much essential that you make at least your name and photo available for public searching. This will allow all your old friends to have a chance of finding you, but it also means you may be found by people you hoped you’d never hear from again.
There are two aspects to Facebook that are beneficial when you suddenly find yourself among a mixed bag of pleasant and not-so-pleasant friend requests. The first is the capability to block other users from seeing your information anymore, or from being able to contact you in any way. Blocking is a reasonably extreme action, typically reserved for when harassing or inappropriate behavior gets out of control. But if someone from your past requests to connect with you on Facebook, and the very sight of their name sends you into a near-homicidal rage, you can certainly exercise your right to block them in order to make absolutely sure you never see or hear from them again. This is a swift and decisive way to mold your circle of friends and acquaintances into a custom shape that perfectly suits what you want in terms of social interaction on the site.
The second way to handle awkward situations is more subtle, and is more about embracing the nature of Facebook rather than fighting it. Often when you first start out searching for people, there’s a huge expectation that this will lead to engaging, meaningful reunions that will develop into lifelong friendships. As you gain more experience with the site, however, you’ll find this is mostly not the case. One of the beauties of Facebook is that it’s a convenient way to keep a very passive eye on people you’re mildly curious about, without the pretense of a profound connection. Because let’s face it, in most cases if you were really all that interested in being close friends with these people, you would have made a concerted effort not to have lost touch with them in the first place. It’s much more likely that both of you just want to drop into each other’s lives, say hi, and then quietly watch from the sidelines, maybe exchanging a line of conversation here and there. Facebook is perfect for this sort of casual interaction, and eventually you’ll probably get to the point where you feel okay adding people that you’re not really all that interested in, or with whom you had a rocky past. They probably won’t bother you if you don’t bother them, but at the same time you can continue to satisfy any mild curiosity you might have about each other. As one of my friends so aptly put it, “I always like adding old acquaintances on Facebook, so that we can hurry up and get to the part where we mostly ignore each other.”
The beauty of social networking sites like Facebook is that you as a user are in control of what information you share, and with whom. You have the power to locate potentially hundreds of people from your past, without the pressured obligation of having to spend a significant effort on all of them. Certainly there will be some people that you do want to develop some sort of deeper friendship with, but you can hand-pick those people as you wish, and still have a more casual attachment to those you only consider to be acquaintances. After all, even though we can’t have an intensely close relationship with every single person from our pasts, it’s still nice to know where they are and how to find them, even if we just pop in occasionally to say hi. In other words, it’s very much like real life.