I wrote an outline of my parallel universes at the start of this year.
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 Timeline, I 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 Timeline—suddenly—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 Baltimore—and moved to Brooklyn—how 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.