Making true connections in a Facebook world

November 3, 2008, 10:59 PM UTC

I saw snow for the first time this season last week. I was on a train from Philadelphia back to New York and — after spending the night listening to Phillies fans in the streets and waking up at 6 a.m. to spend the stormy morning on a Gen Y panel — I was exhausted. But when I looked up from my book (Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere) to the snow swirling against the rust and mustard of autumn trees and a winter-gray sky, it gave me a little rush of joy.

While it certainly meant the onset of winter and, as we say in my family, a *suckster* commute, it mostly reminded me of being a kid. Those of you from comparable climes will know what I’m talking about: waking up to white everywhere, waiting with bated breath for the local radio or TV guys to confirm school was canceled, and clambering into your snow-day finest to go act a (frozen) fool outside with your friends.

But as lovely as that memory was, it also made me think of a conversation I’d had with one of the panel attendees that morning. A thirtysomething father of three living in the Philly area, he came up after the talk to ask what I thought the youngest Yers would be like as they grew up. But before I could get a word in, he started talking about his own kids. I’m going to kick them off the games and the phone and send them outside, he said. “None of that.”

And then he told me about his three-year-old, who had been wreaking barefoot havoc on his tricycle on the curb recently, and attracted a neighbor’s concerned attention. “He comes running across the street,” the Xer dad told me, laughing, “meanwhile his 12-year-old is wearing a helmet on his Razor scooter in the driveway. He said we just have different parenting styles.” And while coddling parents worried this Xer, something else really stressed him out: A friend complained recently that his 16-year-old had sent 11,000 text messages in one month — “My wife and I calculated,” he practically yelled, “that’s 366 a day!”

When people ask me what I think will be Yers’ challenges moving forward, I often cite technology. And not because of the technology itself, but because of all it enables. Parents now have to work to get their kids out of the house, instead of working to get them in, the way our moms used to at dinnertime. And as much as tools like texting and Facebook have made it possible for us to maintain more “friendships” than ever, I’d argue that those same technologies have made it more difficult to cultivate the few close relationships that shape every person over a lifetime. There’s something about actually being together, talking all night, and even getting in fights that can’t be replicated on a laptop or iPhone — and that’s essential to being a person, never mind a success.

After all, how can you lead or manage if you’ve never learned to really, substantively, fundamentally connect to other people, in the truest sense of the word? And let’s be honest, you can’t do much of that and send 366 texts a day. (Which, incidentally, speaks to something else I’ve been getting angst-mail about lately: Mom and Dad, take your grown kids off your cellphone plan! Sheesh.)

It’s nothing that’ll be solved in a day, and maybe some of it is nostalgia for a simpler, less wired past. (Hah.) But I’m already hearing some working Yers say that they’ve started carving out downtime from all the pinging and buzzing in an effort to stay sane and centered. As it stands, we’re at that moment when — with so many new and exciting tools and not much sense of what their long-term effect will be — we’re more or less letting it all run wild. But that can hardly go on forever, and I can’t imagine it’ll be too long before we reach an equilibrium where we can exploit the great aspects of these tools without falling victim to the more problematic ones.

That occurred to me, too, on that train: Sitting in the “quiet car” on the Acela — where the woman next to me actively shushed other people on the train, pointing imperiously to the “Quiet Car” sign above — I was struck by how annoying the endless click-clacking of BlackBerrys and laptops became, and how much I missed the low hum of, you know, people that used to make travel fun and interesting for me. But perhaps most disturbing was that I succumbed to it myself, curled up in my book like some sort of sad sleeping snail passing time till more favorable conditions emerged. And that’s why it was so nice to look up, surprised, and be reminded that there’s a world out there, and I used to – and should – enjoy it.