I just joined LinkedIn. No real reason … I was looking up course descriptions for English classes at Berkeley, seeing what folks were teaching, and whenever I do that I see the names of some of my old buddies from grad school. Wondering what they're up to, I start Googling, and this particular time I was led to LinkedIn.
LinkedIn makes concrete what already exists without our necessarily thinking about it: once you extend yourself from the people you know to the people who the people you know know, you're connected to a lot of people. Take my grad school years and subsequent academic semi-career. From that, I have a couple of close friends who also happen to be academics, I have old friends, colleagues and acquaintances that I could contact out of the blue without seeming too weird, I have a handful of students who have been successful in various fields. Not to mention the people who have gone into various forms of journalism … I've got most of the world of popular (and not-so-popular) music covered that way, along with most of the world of technology. Heck, when it comes to journalism, I even have a few experiences of my own that make me a useful person to have as a connection … just to mention interviews I've done, I could drop an email to a few sportswriters at the Chronicle, there are a couple of indie-rock "stars" that I "know."
I've only got a few LinkedIn connections so far, and some of them are family … I guess I already knew that I knew them. Most of those connections only have a few connections of their own, but one, a writer at the Chronicle (at least for a few more days … he's taken a buyout and is switching to freelancing) has 183 connections. Through him, I am part of a fairly impressive network. Ironically, one person on his list of connections works for an indie label … as I told him, I'm now thisclose to Arcade Fire.
Then there's the part where connections start connecting. For instance, a friend with whom I attended grad school (we taught together, partied together, wrote together, worked together on various projects) is now a pretty important figure in the techie world (she's one of only a few people I know with her own Wikipedia entry). The ex-Chron writer did a tech column for a few years. At one point, he interviewed my old grad school friend. Or there's the time some years ago when my old grad school friend was working for the Bay Guardian and got me a job writing a story about the new women's soccer league. I showed up at a practice, and after all, who the hell am I? But it turned out one of the players was an ex-student of mine, she vouched for me, and the next thing you know I'm talking to Brandi Chastain.
All of this makes it seem like I have an awful lot of friends. And in fact I do consider many of the people mentioned above friends … not Brandi Chastain, but certainly the ex-Chron writer, who happens to sit next to me at Giants games on occasion. Or even people I rarely see but think fondly of, like the current pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times. But the truth is, I have regular interactions with only a couple of people, my list of … what to call them, close friends? … my list of close friends is very small. I can, with little effort, connect with fairly important people in the larger music community, and some academics as well (in academia, I've found it's a bit easier to just jump in and introduce myself … I can't just write Neva Chonin a mashnote email out of the blue, but I can email a fellow academic and just mention a thing or two I've written to get the conversation started). But when the weekend rolls around and it's time to get together with friends, the pool of choices is tiny … they're great choices, but there aren't many of them.
Perhaps this is one reason why it is so nice to reconnect with friends from as far back as high school. It's been fun taking part in a Yahoo group devoted to such friends, and it was a delight having Mary Beth Libbey in town for a week or so … we only see each every six or seven years, but it's always the proverbial "we just picked up where we left off" deal.
There's also a somewhat artificial group of "friends" congregating around this blog. TypePad isn't particularly conducive to community building … it's not like a LiveJournal, where the community is at least as important as what is written, or the social network sites like FaceBook, where what is written barely matters at all. No, TypePad offers a venue for me to blather, to pretend I'm like Neva Chonin or Ann Powers or Annalee Newitz. I pontificate, people comment, and most of the people who comment are friends (since I'm not famous enough to have many regular readers outside of my friends). The point is, between this blog, and my name showing up in Google, and my "vast" set of connections, it sure does seem like I've got a big Steven Community out there.
Yet I spend most of my time sitting alone, thinking about myself. If I were being honest, I'd admit that the real Steven Community has a population of 1.
I could make an argument that our virtual friends ARE our "real" friends in this day and age. I certainly consider all of you out there my friends. But I also know that for many (most?) people, the daily conversations I have with my next-door neighbor are always going to be more "real" than the "conversation" you and I are having right here, right now.