Notes on Alternate Timelines and the Stories That Facebook Doesn’t Share

I wrote an outline of my parallel universes at the start of this year.

The beginning:

1. My mother and father, both born in the Philippines, move to the United States and meet one another, or

2. My mother (or father) moves to the United States, but my father (or mother) does not, or

3. Both my mother and father don’t leave the Philippines, but still meet each other, or

4. My mother and father never meet one another.

And the end:

1. At the start of 2011, I live in San Francisco, work in travel and higher ed, explore the world as often as possible, and am so busy that I forget I am single, or

2. At the start of 2011, I live in Brooklyn, work in publishing and bartend on the side, and date periodically, or

3. At the start of 2011, I live in Montreal, am married to a French Canadian, and have returned to the Bay Area a few times per year since 2002, or

4. At the start of 2011, my 31-year-old self does not exist.

* * *

I recently gave a speech at my best friend’s wedding. I knew both the bride and groom before they met—and was the bridge that eventually connected them. I talked of proximity. Of the crossing of paths. And of cosmic coincidence.

If my best friend and I didn’t sit next to one another in biology class in seventh grade, would we have met otherwise?

If I hadn’t dated one of my ex-boyfriends, would I have met his friend (the groom)—who would eventually marry my best friend (the bride)—a different way?

If I didn’t meet the groom under different circumstances, would I still have met one of his other friends, who would later become a(nother) boyfriend?

How people meet.

How things happen.

There is choice. There is chance and randomness. There are connections that seem meant to be. But I’m not interested here in distinguishing what was what in my own timeline. Instead, I’m fascinated by how Facebook Timeline encourages us to map it out for all to see: A visualization of the haphazardness of the cosmos. A digital record of life choices we’ve made.

Last week, when I erased memories from my TimelineI decided I would not add missing “Life Events.” But as I deleted past status updates—with my post on “Facebook Status Updates (and What I Could Have Said)” fresh in my mind—I looked back on these moments, knowing that behind our status updates lay stories, and often a conflict of which our friends are not aware.

And so, I felt like experimenting.

I recalled those moments when I faced two paths, clearly diverging. I thought of the route I did not take—or the one I was forced to take. In eighth grade, my parents decided to enroll me in the private, Catholic, all-female high school down the road from the public high school that all my middle school friends would attend.

So I added this school to my “Work and Education” details:

I stared at this list, and I admit the sight was odd. But of course, nothing happened: none of the avatars of my classmates from my actual high school, Notre Dame, disappeared from my friends list in the same way that Marty McFly’s brother vanished from a photograph in Back to the Future. 

But I kinda wish that did happen, just to see how my life could have unraveled. Picture this: after the addition of an alternate “Life Event” and a single browser refresh, Facebook Timelinesuddenly—reorganizes. Shuffles. Syncs your life details like iTunes syncs files from a new iPod. Your friend network changes. Your local ads change; mine would now be of New York restaurant deals, or Montreal bike rentals, or wherever I had decided to live. And my high school connections would be no more.

In fact, it’s possible any person I’d met after high school in this life may not exist in this alternate timeline. Right?

And so I thought about key choices I had made. The proverbial forks in the road. I added these to my timeline: The other college. The study abroad program that was second on my list. The city I almost lived in.

If, for instance, I chose the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence in New York instead of Goucher in Baltimoreand moved to Brooklynhow would my Facebook network be different? What would my social graph look like?

* * *

I continue to read about how our social networks are used aggressively to determine things about us, to sell us products or even to figure out our credit profiles. I’ve always sensed, and now even more so, that our Facebook network is more than just a digital collection of “friends.” This mishmash of friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, and randoms offer a glimpse into who we were, who we are, who we strive to be, where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’d like to go. All at the same time. It’s an eerie, ever-changing online tapestry of our past decisions, a record of coincidences and intersections with others, and a chart suggestive of future connections.

But as I’ve said before, Facebook is not a bitingly precise reflection of real life. Though it certainly echoes it.

And yet there’s so much more to our lives than what we declare and post publicly. And so I realized that no matter how sophisticated and rich the Facebook experience becomes, my Timeline could never capture the essence of me. Or my life. There are paths not taken that we cannot “add” to our profile, but that reside in us as what ifs and regrets and secret dreams. These parts of us are hidden, and not appropriate for our Facebook wall.

But they define us just as much as the stuff we do allow the world to see.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

21 thoughts on “Notes on Alternate Timelines and the Stories That Facebook Doesn’t Share

  1. Have you ever seen the movie Sliding Doors with Gwenyth Paltrow? It contemplates the same kind of things: how would life be different had I made our not made that one train? It takes the stance though that you still end up meeting the people you were supposed to meet, maybe not in the same way, but that fate has a crazy way of working out despite the choices you make, the choices you make just determine how long and painful the road you take is.

    1. So sorry for the late response — I think I missed it the first time. You’re the second to mention Sliding Doors, so I think I should watch it! Thanks for the comment.

  2. I see you tend to write about Facebook a lot. I believe people like you and I see things in this supposedly benign social networking site that others do not. It’s just simply not healthy for human development. I too often wondered about alternate timelines, choices I could have made and how would my life had turned out differently. Very good post, Cheri.

    1. It’s just simply not healthy for human development.

      I agree and disagree with this — I think it’s an unhealthy tool/portal for those who haven’t figured out how to use it in a way that adds value to their lives. But — and I don’t recall if I’d commented to you or someone else in a past comment thread — at some point there’s a point of no return, where we accept that social networking is a part of our day whether we want it to be or not, and to not participate (or at the very least, to not be logged in with access) means missing out on experiencing how our world and the ways we communicate are changing.

      That said, anyone can choose to not go on Facebook; I’m not suggesting that people will be “left behind” or something. I just think studying people (how they operate and react) via Facebook is so interesting — it’s like each time I log on, I feel I’m watching (and participating in) a live, ongoing social experiment.

      In general, I’m drawn to the intersection of online/offline and writing about the merging of my virtual/real worlds. The focus of a post may be on Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever, and it just so happens — especially with the rolling out of Timeline — that my latest musings have centered around Facebook. I may write more, or I may move on — it depends!

      Thanks again for stopping by 🙂

  3. Wow! It’s such a insightful post. I can ceratainly imagine the kind of effort gone into the making it. It’s very rare to find posts with such clarity and quality as this one. I thoroughly enjoyed the post and I couldn’t agree more with your opinion on FB.

    I’m a new follower and fan of your website. Cheers 🙂

    1. Hooray. So glad you enjoyed it and feel it was crafted clearly and with effort. At times I get ideas but am not sure if I’m stretching my thoughts to make connections, so I’m glad others can relate to the post. Cheers to you too, and happy (almost) 2012.

  4. I also enjoy and love grabbing one photo album and then another and then another and then another and then another. With all the photos I have stuck on various hard drives is much like envelopes of photos in a drawer or box, my kids won’t be able to experience the dusting off of memories unless time is taken to create some albums. bummer

  5. Have you seen the film “Sliding Doors”? I recommend, as it deals with this subject of alternate paths. Thank you again for sharing your musings and meanderings.

    I secretly think really smart people don’t like Facebook. They see the soulless targeted marketing that Nick so adeptly comments on above (BTW – Nick, you have a nice smile 🙂

    However, I am holding on to my Facebook, just as I want my MTV. I miss those days of short but glitzy videos highlighting the song of the moment… even if it was not the most deserved musical moment. It was fun! Facebook is a little like that for me, a brief hello,
    a dash of humor and a splash of color, and then back to the day’s reality.

    I’ve been thinking about the timeline as a scrapbook. Again, certainly not a full representation of a life. A napkin from a cafe’ in Paris, a playbill from a Broadway show, lots of interchangeable smiling faces. I’m listening to Diane Keaton’s new book on cd.
    Her mother kept a scrapbook of Diane’s career, a large album with huge black letters spelling out her name. Diane Keaton (mother’s maiden name) without the Hall (father’s name and name she grew up with). She talks about trying to find the relationship inside those pages. It’s impossible to fully represent what our lives and relationships mean.
    I don’t think what I listened to on Spotify today will truly tell what is in my heart.

    But that is why we write…. and I am so happy you write, Cheri… you are a treasure.

    1. I think I’ve heard of that movie — with Gwyneth Paltrow, no?

      Thanks for the lovely, thoughtful comment. I particularly love this: I don’t think what I listened to on Spotify today will truly tell what is in my heart. It reaffirms what I’ve been thinking lately — that we must sift through the levels of noise on Facebook — and our other social media networks — and pick out what to pay attention to and what to ignore/brush off…

      You are too, too kind with your comment. I will continue to write.

      And YES: he does have a nice smile 😉

  6. Always enjoy your musings on alternate universes and the online/offline interface. The idea that Facebook could sync your life details like iTunes syncs your iPod is deliciously terrifying.

    Facebooked from birth to death, and beyond. Immortality in binary. Don’t need no soul no more.

    And I agree with Miranda, there is something massively comforting that the hidden bits define us just as much as what we choose to put on display. I think that’s why we keep them hidden.

    If we put everything on public display, would ‘intimacy’ still exist?

    I haven’t thought it through properly yet, but something about the increasing Facebookisation of our lives – beyond coarse issues of targeted marketing – really disturbs me.

    1. The Facebookisation of our lives.

      I am reminded of chests and a closet in my parents’ house full of old photo albums from when I was a baby, and from when they were our age. They take up so much space, but I love it — pulling one off the shelf, wiping away dust, and turning its pages to see yellowing photographs from the 1970s.

      Strange to think if I ever had grandkids, they’d not have that same tactile experience — I have a handful of photo albums from high school and college, but most of my images are online. It’d be different to sift through photos on Facebook or an external hard drive, wouldn’t it?

  7. I’ve been going through a real “what if I had did things differently” soul-searching think-a-thon too. Having hopped around a few industries during my working life, I spent quite a bit of my downtime wondering if I should’ve turned down or accepted a bunch of work opportunities in the past. Where would I be today if I hadn’t left that job, etc.

    They say that you can’t master the future without mastering the past, but I do agree with what a previous commenter said about dwelling too much on the past. It hardly ever does anything for you, unless you’re a historian.

    1. Oh, I completely agree. Dwelling too much? Hardly does anything for you, ultimately.

      I’m wondering now if I came off in this post as regretful or unhappy with my life — because that’s far from how I feel! I simply think it’s fascinating that toying around with Timeline led to my musings here — and that our network is an odd visual web of our past decisions.

      Thanks so much for your note 🙂

  8. But does even thinking about alternative timelines or past decisions really make an impact on how we, as people, can be conscious in our present life? Doing so, ultimately can only bring feelings of regret, disappointment, and pain. Yes, there may be comforting and happy memories of a great decision or of a person in your life, but you would have felt joy during that moment in time. Once that “positive” fork in the road has been taken, you move on.

    And to replace actual past moments with an alternative timeline with the intent of “day-dreaming” of something different, can be entertaining, but how does this help in the path you may be taking today?

    Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy this piece a lot and is why I am making my comments. I am coming to the understanding that my past life lessons and experiences have helped to make me the person that I am, but they don’t matter as much if I am not conscious of my life today. And hoping for “salvation” or living in fear of things that may go wrong, again takes me from living for today. While Facebook seems to bring a person’s present life to the rest of their world – friends, family acquaintances – it also distracts us by taking us away from the here and now to dwell on the past and some future that may not happen.

    1. I thoroughly enjoy exploring and writing about the past. I agree, though, that while entertaining, constant and unhealthy thinking about alternate paths and past decisions could make us less in tune with the present. (Don’t worry — I’m not devising a way to travel back in time to do something over!)

      And yes, Facebook is distracting. I started to view it as less of a tool or portal into real life and have told myself not to take it so seriously. With this attitude, it hasn’t irked me as much.

      Glad you enjoyed this post.

  9. Great piece, as usual – and once again I feel like we’re on the same wavelength. Been thinking a lot about these kinds of choices lately, primarily as part of a larger “did I make all the wrong decisions?!” panic. Really like the idea of alternate Facebook timelines as a visualization of the life choices we didn’t make but could have made. Also oddly and powerfully comforting to think that the hidden bits “define us just as much as the stuff we do allow the world to see”.

  10. I especially like the part “And so I realized that no matter how sophisticated and rich the Facebook experience becomes, my Timeline could never capture the essence of me.”

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