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Everyone knows what Facebook is for. Chatting with your friends in a public place. Arguing vehemently without repercussions. Posting pictures that make you look decent for a change. RSVPing, but completely without meaning it. Instant gratification.

This is what we’ve become. Fickle, flighty, vainglorious, impatient, and all hanging out there for the world to see.

But this is progress. This is the future.

So be it.

Maybe we will discover workarounds. Maybe we will get better, saner, gentler. Maybe.

But the other best thing about Facebook, the thing that actually makes us more aware, is the window it offers into all those alternate realities. All the other lives that were once so close to your own and now, well, went a different way.

* * *

When I scan my feed, skimming through the ad invasion that was always inevitable — doesn’t Mark Zuckerberg know by now that I’m never going to play Basketball Kings? Ever. — I read through a lot of updates and click on a few photos and articles. The algorithm has gotten decent at knowing what I’m interested in and what I’m not.

The future.

But the thing that nearly always makes me stop mid-scroll is seeing a major life update or tell-all post from a long-lost friend.

It’s sort of amazing  to see where your peers are and what they’re doing.

The thing about living in this world, with all its billions of people muddling and dancing and crawling through, is you can only ever know a certain few. Perhaps you meet 20,000 people over the course of your life. Perhaps you really get to know a couple thousand. At any one time, you might only come into regular contact with 200. You’re only actively involved with maybe 20. And you’re probably intimately involved with only a few.

And the thing about the Facebook world is that it keeps track of all those thousands, even after you’ve left one phase of folks for another. It lets you know what is going on with the people who were your best friends — and your less-than-best friends — at each stage.

For me, I can separate my Facebook friends into a few categories: professional life, grad school life, college life, high school life, pre-high school life, and then the group of friends and family who have been there the whole time.

What’s incredible, and perhaps a little frightening, is that I can be somewhat in the know about friends from all those past phases.

For instance, I know that some of my old friends, folks I haven’t spoken with in years, are buying houses (and where) and getting pets (and what they’re named). I know when they get new jobs. Sometimes I know how they feel about their bosses. I know how depressed they are. How elated they are. How confused they are. How glad they are to be introverts. I see when they get engaged and when they go to sports games.

But the far more interesting things aren’t the things that Facebook highlights by default: careers, relationships, residences.

Most interesting are the things that really differentiate us. The things that make me think, Wow, this person did that! or, I should get in touch with so-and-so again! or, most strikingly, That could have been me!

Some of my old friends, Facebook has informed me, are now die-hard neo-cons. Some are Beyonce-can-do-no-wrong feminists. These were people who hated social studies in the sixth grade.

Some are switching genders. Some are having abortions. Some that I might have guessed, and more that I wouldn’t have, are coming out.

Some are moving to Africa. Some are publishing books. Some are taking up posts on Capitol Hill or in Hollywood. Half of them are in school or teaching English, because this, apparently, is what my generation does.

I’ve seen girls that I was interested in get married. Have kids. Get divorced.

I’ve seen a few get in trouble with the law. Get sick. Go, it seems, crazy.

I’ve read stunning and horrifying blog posts that explain the logics of people who, when I knew them, could barely string together a coherent thought. Never raised their hand in class. Quite possibly had no opinions about anything. And here they are, shouting to the world: “I believe [insert controversial position]. Deal with it, haters.”

It’s the way one might feel when he sees his childhood friend become an activist. When your fifth-grade sidekick goes on to headline a rock concert. When your old neighbor wins the presidency.

Now how did that happen!

And in tricks of cosmic connectedness, I’ve seen old friends befriend other old friends in a Kevin Bacon-like web of digital acquaintance.

How did we get this way? How did these people I used to know, who lived on my block and sat next to me in English and returned my serves in tennis, how did they get to such hugely different destinations? It makes one realize the importance of nature and the extreme particularity of nurture. The slightest divergence in environment, it seems, can make all the difference.

Etnernally, universally, there may be no paths less traveled by. There are only utterly new paths. Every one personal. Every one new.

Which would explain why the scenery gets to look so different along the way.

And if I ask, How did they get there when we started in the same place all those years ago, I must begin to wonder how I came to be where I am?

Surely, some old friends catch Facebook-fragments of my life hurtling down their newsfeed and think, That Griffin Jackson, what happened to him! Or maybe, Look what he’s up to these days!

In a digital world — and, often, a physical one — that seems ruefully out of touch with any reality but that of its own creation, at least here we might find a glimpse of the real world.

This is our Ghost of Christmas Present, granting peeks into the Cratchits of our friend lists.

This is our palantir, ever-useful for perusing the things that are and those that, for each of us, might have been.

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