I was a late adopter to IM and then promptly fell off the wagon a few years later. But there was a time I was a relatively frequent user, mostly to communicate to co-workers but every once in a while to chat with a long lost friend. When we first started to grasp IM's potential in the office, my work partner and I thought it potentially quite useful to be able to toss a question or comment out there into the sea of friends and colleagues on our buddy lists and get answers back, in some cases almost instantaneously. We imagined how productive - and fun - our lives would be if we could have instant and virtual access to everyone we knew, whether for professional or personal purposes.
Fast forward to the present, and that's kind of like what Facebook is like. Even for someone like me who isn't "on" Facebook all the time - I check in at discrete moments rather than following the stream in real-time - it is neat to have people from different eras of my life chime in on my stuff, and to have a peek into what's going on with them. Just to give one small example, after my post on being confused about Christmas got posted to my Facebook page, four people chimed in - two of my fellow board members at The Enterprise Center, a fellow congregant from Woodland, and an old friend from my South Bay Taiwanese Youth days in San Jose - while two others "liked" the post, a friend from my undergrad days and a friend from my grad days. The wisdom and kindness I took in from these "touches" was made all the more poignant by the diversity of perspectives represented.
In a status-leveling world in which ordinary people can seem like celebs (thanks to reality TV and Twitter) and celebs can seem like ordinary people (again, thanks to reality TV and Twitter), social networks such as Facebook can be fantastically delicious levelers of status. Not to say we don't transfer our cliquiness to social media. But when a whole range of people from different walks of life and different reference points in your world can comment on your musings, your photos of your kids, your latest gourmet food conquest, or your take on the latest hoo-haw in Washington, I think there's something quite egalitarian about that.
Not to say we all share the same likes or opinions; far from it. But I'm not sure how readily we'd poke in on each others' life stream in the flesh, or even consider different people we know "friends" or "connections," and yet through the magic of sites like Facebook and LinkedIn we not only make a link with one another but have the walls significantly lowered and the ice significantly broken in terms of being able to share a kind word, lament about some political travesty, or exult together over a heart-stopping sports triumph.
If everyone I knew was in one big room, I'm not sure we would circulate or share so easily. And I never got the sense that IM was that way, either. And yet I find almost weekly that I am encouraged by some nifty little exchange with a distant friend, often via Facebook. It makes the world, daunting and scattered as it is, seem a little cozier.