The Internet didn’t kill high school reunions, it rejuvenated them

In the weeks leading up to my 10-year high school reunion in 2009, numerous friends asked me why I was even bothering to go. We live in a world where you can keep connected with those you care about via Facebook, they argued, allowing you to forget about everyone else you graduated with and bypass the cheap beer. People imagined a world in which everyone already knew what everyone else was up to thanks to the Internet, leaving us with nothing new to catch up on.
Over and over, these were the questions that came up as I made plans to carpool with friends out to the cheesy suburban bar where the reunion would take place. Admittedly, many of these friends couldn’t fathom the idea of going to a high school reunion at all—some people never want to see their high school class again after they enter into adulthood, and that’s a fair choice. That wasn’t me at all. I’d been rearing to go to my 10-year reunion since the day we walked across the football field with diplomas in hand. But I was still left wondering: was there really a point to all these watered-down beers we were about to drink if we were all still Facebook “friends”?

There is a point

“Hey, didn’t you run over the iPod nano?” one of my old classmates asked me immediately after I arrived at the bar with friends who carpooled with me from the city. “That was,” he paused with a smirk, “totally unnecessary.”

Indeed, I had run over the original iPod nano—it happened in 2005 when I was living in Cincinnati, working as a developer and writing for Ars Technica on the side. The tool I used to run over the iPod nano was a Volkswagen Passat—I wanted to find out whether Apple’s new device could “withstand the crushing power of German automotive engineering.” That review ended up exploding in popularity across the Internet and—bizarrely, in my opinion—putting my name on the list of tech writers worth watching.

Maybe all those naysayers were right about Facebook ruining everything, I thought to myself. Those were events in my life that would have been unknown to the people in my high school class if the year was more like 1995 and services like Facebook didn’t exist. Instead, the majority of my ~700-person class knew most of what I had been up to over the last 10 years, and I them.

At first, it was borderline embarrassing. Half the point of showing up to a high school reunion is to hide all the bull-headed things you’ve done over the years and showcase the great ones. Then again, that’s half the point of Facebook, too, but that never stopped anyone from posting college party photos featuring a human-sized inflatable penis (his name was Captain Pecker, and we dressed him up like a scarecrow for all the major holidays). Yes, I had accomplishments to share, but I wasn’t fully prepared for people to already know about them—among other things.

But with time and beer, it became less embarrassing and more social. Classmates were using their Facebook discoveries about one another as jumping points to strike up conversations with old acquaintances, or to make more detailed inquiries about each other’s lives. Thanks to the Internet, I previously knew that an old friend had changed career trajectories to become a programmer, but I had no idea she had begun working at Google and met her soon-to-be husband there. I knew that a good friend of mine from gym class apparently lived in my neighborhood in Chicago, judging from his Facebook photos, but I didn’t know he had become a butcher and worked at one of the most revered butcher shops in the city. There were many more stories like this, from my perspective and others’.

Gathering bits and pieces about one another from the Internet didn’t stymie conversation at all—it enhanced it. Instead of engaging in the stereotypical reunion-style chatter (“Are you married? Do you have kids? Where do you live now? What do you do? The weather, am I right? How ’bout them Bears?”), my classmates were largely able to bypass the small talk and jump straight to the interesting parts that they’d seen online. Conversations weren’t just more efficient thanks to 10 years of Internet stalking, they were deeper, more meaningful, and frankly, more fun.

At the end of the night, groups of people who had not arrived together were leaving together. Others were piling into cabs to continue the party elsewhere. The gather was roundly seen as a success—it was no Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, but old friends were able to reconnect in real, human ways that clicking “Like” 15 times a day couldn’t replace. The Internet had helped us all keep up with each other like a newspaper keep us up-to-date on the news. But in order to complete that connection between online and digital friendships—well, you had to be there.

[photo by JD Hancock used under Creative Commons]