Growing Up on Social Media, We Learned About Ourselves. Facebook Learned More.

A Facebook event planned seven years in advance became observational comedy about the weird geography of a world built by Palo Alto coders.
Author:
Publish date:
The author in 2010 and 2017.

The author in 2010 and 2017.

In the fall of my senior year of high school, as I slogged through the process of begging liberal arts colleges for an invitation, I received a different kind of solicitation.

Shining blue and white in its mystery, a Facebook event scheduled for October 22nd, 2017—at the time, seven years in the future—asked for my attendance. It came to me between notifications for a Farmville request and one of many wandering salvos in a years-long poke war. The sparse event page introduced itself as "A thing," and contained no event description beyond its location: "a place." Over 600 people were invited by the event's creator, my friend Alex.

At the time, the distance of 2017 was practically unthinkable. The future of futures' futures. A tomorrow that would never come. Hard to argue with the nebulous commitment of "a thing" and "a place." But why seven years in the future? Why make the event at all?

Facebook then, you might remember, was a drastically different beast than it is today. Forget concerns of election-swinging potential and media distribution monopolies; to a Millennial high schooler, Facebook was still jubilantly disconnected from adults—and to a large extent, from real life itself. This was pre-Timeline Facebook, and social media seemed to exist out of time. It was entirely plausible that any social network could quickly be abandoned or obliterate itself.

A few years prior, a misguided social studies teacher had admonished my seventh grade class with disturbing confidence: If any of us made a MySpace profile, we would never get into college. "College," she repeated with emphatic scorn, frustrated with our vacant response to her warnings. "College! ... Your future!" Such was the powerful evanescence of late-aughts social media. Futureless, without time.

Since then, social media has moved to mercurial omnipotence. It turns out that colleges weren't using social media to scrutinize applicants all that often, so much as social media companies were using their own services to surveil everyone and sell off the repackaged data slurry to any corporation or campaign that smacked its lips with a loud enough cha-ching. That Facebook and its peers were engaged in some form of what Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" has long been obvious enough, and some anxieties around murky college admissions processes remain justified. But in retrospect, concerns about being canceled by a college for my social media profiles seem quaint in light of contemporary Facebook, our baleful old testament God hurling massive behavioral modifications down like thunderbolts and sharing our private conversations with the other behemoths of tech's Mount Olympus.

As I put my teacher's warning to the test that senior-year fall, the myopic haze of the college application process sat heavily upon me. I applied to dozens of schools with no idea what I wanted from my near future—even the following year. In the face of all this timelessness, Alex's foresight to create an event seven years in the future felt radical.

Seven is an unusual number for long-term planning. Schools don't hold seven year reunions. Job interviewers don't ask you where you see yourself in seven years. Senatorial fundraising campaigns don't even have that kind of foresight. We like our vision boards in multiples of five, or at least sensible increments, tethered to big life events. Seven years is a cicada cycle. The rise and itching fall of a marriage. It's not how the Internet thinks.

Maybe Alex picked it because seven is a vaguely auspicious number. Or maybe because it feels like such an arbitrary pick. Beyond the distance of the year, it's the whimsicality of the decision that makes "a thing" fun.

The real answer, or the important one, anyway, is that he picked seven because Facebook made that an option. Without a popular social network, without the capability of event-planning and a forward-looking enough calendar, the irreverence of creating "a thing" off yonder in 2017 wouldn't have been fathomable. Alex's event was basically observational comedy about the weird geography of a world built by Palo Alto coders.

After a laugh, and marveling briefly at our brave new world with such features in it, I closed the event page and promptly forgot about it. Surely most of the 386 other "attendees" from my high school did the same. Years passed by as they do—unblinkingly—and many occult-seeming futures proved themselves perfectly capable as the forgettable present. Despite the best efforts of my erstwhile MySpace page, I got into college, and Facebook events for high school basketball games segued into Facebook events for themed college parties, into avoiding Facebook as much as possible. (Not quite as dramatic a transition as Facebook's itself, which went from a bootleg "would you rather" game for Harvard University undergrads to a "useful instrument" for genocide in Myanmar in a decade and a half.)

Instead of being a living yearbook for all the digital connections we've ever made, what we see on Facebook is now highly cultivated. The posts that populate our scroll are filtered by unfriendings, mutings, and, chiefly, by the jack-booted tyranny of algorithms. Tailored to our current lives and advertising dollars, the feed promotes posts we're most likely to engage with—or buy from. The "now"-bias of our attention and clicks makes the timeline unlikely to dredge up a post from a former friend or long-forgotten high school classmate.

Facebook's continual refinement of its news feed has been a decade-long cat and mouse game of scammers trying to game the algorithm and show up in your feed without the Mark Zuckerberg invite. (Pivot to Video! You Won't Believe What Happened to Upworthy. Link in the Comments!) Frustration with the top-down gatekeeping reached such a zenith last year that many of my Facebook friends shared a status update entreating their online friends to comment "Hello" on the post in an effort to trick the algorithm into displaying content from someone other than the usual suspects. "Otherwise Facebook chooses who to show me instead," the posts read. "And I don't need Facebook to choose my friends!" A naive effort, sure, but you have to admire the optimistic perseverance in the face of such manipulations.

The constituency of "a thing," however, was happily frozen in time and unmonetized. Perhaps due to the smallness of his scambitions, Alex's seven-year algorithm sidestep never drew Facebook's ire, and the event page became a bizarro digital high school reunion. The guest list existed outside of the algorithmic cultivation of late-Facebook experience, and if anyone posted, I was notified. These notifications served as reminders of the continual disintegration of my high school social Web, while reconnecting me with people whose posts I never see anymore, people I hadn't considered for years. Every 10 months or so, some deranged attendee would remember the event for whatever reason, and post on the event page, garnering a dozen or so likes. ("Remember this, guys! So crazy, still so far off!") The post's notification would pull the event back into existence for an hour or a day, before receding back into the far, far away. In mid-2011, a giddy attendee wrote: "Guys! Only 2256 days to go!"

Most of the RSVPs were peripheral characters who populated the social logic that shaped me for over a decade—both in opposition and influence. One of the "attending" accounts was that of a classmate who passed away in the intervening years, whose profile picture remains her, a high school student smiling in perpetuity.

One attendee I hadn't seen since high school posted on the page in 2015, asking with a smirk if the event would have refreshments. He followed up on his own query the following year with a post shamelessly promoting the Kickstarter for a business he had founded, some sort of futuristic wallet clip. The closer the event date got, the more I began to value the event-page for providing intermittent ghost-of-Christmas-future windows into my past life—something social media is theoretically perfect for, but in actuality rarely achieves.

Finally, as the summer of 2017 waned and fall brought itself into view, posts on the event page began to accelerate. Excitement and bewilderment began to gurgle: The future, was it finally arriving? A week before the long-scheduled thing, someone wrote, "Holy shit this is actually here, I never thought the day would come."

In late October, when the event finally began, I faced the inevitable melancholy of anticlimax. What had arrived, besides a date that had once seemed distant on the horizon? In futility, I scrolled the page for answers, reading down to the earliest comments. It turned out the first post on the page had been mine, exactly seven years earlier. "I wish I could go," I had written, "but I have a thing at the same time."

And didn't I?

A few days before, I had sent Alex a message, hoping to commiserate about his event being one of the only good things left on Facebook. To my dismay, he informed me that he had been locked out of the private event page for years, after he'd attempted to remove his own administrative privileges. Like many a media company foraging for scraps in the digital forest, Alex was once the Facebook mastermind, but now the joke was on him. I guess you can't plan for the future, can you?

ps-ideas-logo-alone

Pacific Standard's Ideas section is your destination for idea-driven features, voracious culture coverage, sharp opinion, and enlightening conversation. Help us shape our ongoing coverage by responding to a short reader survey.

Related