Class reunions in the Facebook age

Social media can enhance and detract from gatherings

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It used to be that when you left high school, you well and truly left high school.


Unless you were extraordinarily diligent about keeping track of friends through letters or phone calls in the days before unlimited minutes, those friends largely vanished as you staked your own course in life and made new friends.


Not anymore.


For high school students who have had “Pomp and Circumstance” ringing in their ears in the last decade or so, it’s possible to keep lugging those high school chums with you indefinitely thanks to Facebook and Twitter. There’s no need for “whatever happened to” speculation when you can see on a daily basis their musings, photos, and whatever else they choose to post.


Then, for people who got their sheepskin before Facebook was born – or even before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was born – it’s possible to rekindle old friendships through Facebook and, again, eliminate all the intrigue and mystery that surrounds your old classmates.


As it has with so many other long-standing traditions and conventions, social media in particular and the Internet as a whole have changed the way we approach class reunions. And, as class reunion season starts to swing into gear, it can cut both ways – on the one hand, Facebook and Twitter can make you more prone to attend a reunion since you have regular contact with your former compatriots, and the sites can grease the skids for face-to-face interaction. And if one of the primary components of class reunions are butterflies in the stomach as you walk in the door, some Facebook preliminaries can certainly ease the tension.


But, by the same token, why travel halfway across the country, or even halfway up the block, when you’re in constant touch with the people you struggled through algebra with? With Facebook and Twitter, the class reunion is happening 24/7. You know who’s died, who’s come out of the closet, who’s gotten married and who’s gotten divorced with a couple of clicks.


“It’s a coin flip,” according to Mike Silva, the owner of Great Reunions, a reunion planning company based in Grove City, Calif. “It depends on what people use Facebook for. You can’t convey emotion through Facebook.”


He emphasizes that Facebook “is still not the real world.”


For older people, Facebook and Twitter are still not part of their everyday lives. “You’re lucky if you have half your class on Facebook,” said Fran McLean, the proprietor of Five Star Reunions in Rockville, Md. She believes social media “is more positive than negative. People get excited about going to the reunion and the communication is easier.”


McLean also described social media as “an unnatural world” where you could “isolate yourself too much.”


Sharon Karr Sturtevant, a Claysville resident, hails from a rural community in northwest Ohio, and is not at all likely to bump into her high school friends from 20-plus years ago when she’s out and about. Rather than cooling her interest in class reunions, though, Sturtevant thinks Facebook would make her more inclined to attend.


“The pressure would not be as great, because you can see how mundane other people’s lives are compared to yours,” she joked. “Keeping in touch through Facebook makes me miss old friends from home. It is my lifeline.”


In the pre-social media age, locating people for class reunions often involved a trip to a high school’s alumni office, if they even had one, or digging through out-of-town phone books at a public library. No more. Through Facebook, Twitter and other online sites, such as switchboard.com or lookupanyone.com, people can, for the most part, be tracked down without burning too much shoe leather. Arlan Hess, a professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College, said Facebook was a vital tool in organizing her 25-year Mt. Lebanon High School reunion in 2010. Though not everyone from her class was on Facebook, the people who were “told two friends and they told two friends, and maybe 10 more people and 12 more people.”


Hess also believes that Facebook helped break down some the cliques that were prevalent in her high school. She recalls that she felt intimidated by the girl with whom she shared a locker, but they discovered a quarter-century later via Facebook that they had quite a bit in common as adults.


“We are in a constant conservation,” Hess said. There are about 25 people from her class who are in steady contact through Facebook, and they are an eclectic group. “Who would have thought that this would have happened 25 years ago?”


Social media also played a key role when Linda Caputo, a McMurray resident, helped plan a reunion for her grade school in the Brookline section of Pittsburgh. The 65-year-old established her own Facebook page for the group and “what I tried to do was make everyone feel comfortable about coming, because a class reunion can be intimidating.”


She added, “By the time they came, they felt like they were just part of the group.”


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