As I was struggling to get myself out the house by 8am, I mean 8:05, I mean 8:10, I meanifidon’tleaveby8:20seriouslyiwillmissmytrain, I glanced down at my phone to discover that I had just joined Groupon. In Chicago. Another email told me I had purchased a deal for half-off lunch fare at a restaurant there.
Well, I’ve always had the urge to experience everything, and apparently, I was getting my shot at battling identity theft. After the requisite freak-out text messages to my parents and On-Bart phone call to Moommmmyyyy, I arrived at work and got on the phone with the nice folks at Groupon.
They were definitely confused for a while, but finally assured me the credit card in question wasn’t mine, the new R was a resident of Iowa, and the problem was that she’d given R.B@gmail as her email. My email is RB@gmail, but gmail has a feature that ensures email addresses with or without the period go to the same place, so no one else can actually have the email R.B@gmail. The other RB had accidentally put in a fake email address.
Groupon assured me they’d try to figure it out, but since the only contact they had for her was my email, I decided to do some Googling. I quickly figured out what company RB worked for, checked the site to figure out their email format, and shot her an email asking her to fix the problem.
“I can’t believe there’s another RB!” My friend said.
“Actually, there are two. One is some random girl in Florida I friended on Facebook as a joke……wait. Oh my god. Wait a second….”
Several years ago, I somehow stumbled upon the other RB on Facebook and decided we had to be friends. I am one of those people with 836 friends, most of whom I can’t possibly know all that well. But with R — I had a scheme. After we became friends, I’d ask her to Facebook marry me, so my profile would say, “RB is married to RB.” What could possibly be more genius? (If you’re not really impressed with my maturity level right now, I don’t know what to tell you.)
Sadly, R rejected my marriage request. I ranted to my friends, “She obviously has no sense of humor! Seriously, what could be better than being married to yourself!” Perhaps the other RB was more cautious about her online identity than I, or I don’t know, entertained the possibility that she might get in a real relationship someday. Hard to figure out what’s going on in other people’s crazy brains!
Either way, we remained Facebook friends for several years.
But suddenly, it dawned on me. The RB who used my email address went to college in Florida, and the RB I was friends with on Facebook was in Florida last time I checked (several years ago.)
“Oh my god.” I wrote to my friend. “I think I might actually be Facebook friends with this girl.” A quick search on the good ol’ FB determined that this was in fact, the very same RB I’d been digitally acquainted with for years.
My friend’s quick response was: “Ah, the Internet.”
Certainly, in many respects, the Internet, Google, and social media in particular make the world a much stranger place. Certain elements of this story are undeniably modern: My knowledge that Gmail would forward all email r.b@gmail to me at rb@gmail, my ability to google RB in Her Town, Iowa, find her company, find the email address format for her company through the Contact Us page, and email her at work. But in retrospect, discovering that I was also her Facebook friend is the least Internet-y part of the story.
This might not have occurred to me except that I’m finishing up a book called “Always On” by Brian X. Chen, an exploration of our “Anything-Anytime-Anywhere” society. (Look for the review later in Popmatters.)
The book explores how iPhones, text messaging, IM, social media, etc affect us. One thing that tends to show up in studies is that in lot of ways, our online identities reflect who we are in real life. For example, students who are more active on Facebook are less likely to drop out of college. It’s not rocket science — if you’re having fun in real life, it’s reflected in your digital life. Similarly, if you thrive on being social in real life, ditto online.
So while this story makes it seem like I have a pretty massive digital footprint, when I think about it, I have a pretty massive physical footprint, too.
I’m the kind of person who — within three months of moving to San Francisco — would run into three people I “knew” every time I walked seven blocks on Valencia st. A few days ago, someone stopped me to say Hi. I didn’t remember her, but it turned out she was a coworker at another location of my old company in NY, just visiting SF for a few days.
The weekend before, someone came into the yoga studio and told me I looked familiar. “Everyone thinks I look familiar, ” I told him. “I’m that girl that everyone thinks they went to college with.” Turns out we did go to college together, and he dated an acquaintance of mine for three years.
Later that night, we started playing shuffleboard with some random kids at a bar and learned that they went to college with a friend of mine from high school. (On the East Coast, no less.) The list goes on…
So the fact I thought it would be funny to friend RB on Facebook is 100 percent a digital expression of who I am — a person who tries to know everybody everywhere. I meet a lot of people, I ask a lot of questions, and the connections just unfold. Just like I aggressively seek them out in real life, I look for them and enjoy them online. I want to talk to people, and I feel sad when I don’t.
Yes, Facebook made my network a lot of bigger than it could possibly be in “real life.” But it’s not some warped, fake, or absurd alternative world. It’s a pretty accurate representation of my real-life behavior–just magnified.
This brings me back to Chen’s book, which of course asks the question that’s on everybody’s mind: Is the information-overload frying our brains, making us ADD, ruining our lives, drinking the blood of our first born sons, etc.
I’m not really sure I know the answer to that question, Chen definitely thinks, “No,” and after today’s adventure, I’m certainly less inclined to jump on the Cynical Bandwagon.
Just think: What happened with Groupon is the modern day equivalent of somebody walking out of the gym with your navy blue peacoat instead of hers (Think –circa 1999.) If I’m going to do something like sign up for Groupon (which I think most of us will agree is a pretty cool product of modern technology), I need the technology to fix things that go wrong, because I sure can’t leave a note at the front desk.
As with anything, tools are what you make of them. Not everyone is the same. For example, the other RB never responded to my “Haha, we’re Facebook friends email.” She’s probably defriending me right now. And because I’m me, I’m actually little hurt by that.