I succumbed this week and created my own MySpace page  , largely on the advice of a New York Times article about artistic networking. According to my acquaintance Chaz, a midlevel IT manager at a Big 10 school, this puts me, in terms of technology use, still far behind his two year-old niece but ahead of 90 percent of all other academics in America. Academics may not use MySpace, but the rest of America seems to be there.
I’m working on something else now (“The campus novel as a genre is dead,” Rory says) so I’ve been thinking about community anyway, and especially what a weird place the campus of a big state university is. The insecurities of these brilliant people, their jealousies and petty feuds and mutual dislikes, still surprise me after several years. In fact, I’m starting to think that everybody is nuts but you and me, and I’m starting to wonder about you.
Being an adjunct lecturer has reinforced for me the fragility of social connections, and not just regarding tenured faculty. I haven’t seen people come and go like this since army days. The roll call of those in my peer group here, now gone missing (remember Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” ?), is long: Aaron and his family moved to Louisville, Gardner and Emily to Georgia. Dave wrote a kid’s book in Indy, I think, or works as a “recruiter” for a sham online college. Helen’s still in town, more bitter than ever, three years after not having her contract renewed. Maria, one of the best university teachers I ever knew, happily took a job in elementary ed instead of in her field, while her husband makes them rich designing video games. Dr. Bulgebottom ran for local office, lost, and faded into the economy. The woman who claimed to have slept with David Foster Wallace sits alone at the library.
But how is this any different from any other time or place? Community has, since my childhood anyhow, meant diffuse connections. My sister and her family have always been, at best, across the state. Frenchy was in Alaska, then Hawaii, and now West Virginia. The godparents to our children are in Austin. Chaz lives in the cell phone that he buzzes at me when I’m trying to blog. For many in my generation (actually, for many since the industrial revolution) friends and family were always virtual, albeit at lower tech, encountered through letters, word of mouth, photographs, and phone calls.
Here in Inner Station we spend infinitely more time on the birthday party circuit—planetarium, natatorium, squirmatorium—than with friends of our choosing in our homes. Starbuck’s Montessori school is the locus. A few of the parents we like very much, some we endure, and one mother invited Mrs. Churm to a “Slumber Party,” a come-on for selling sex toys in the manner of Tupperware. (Her number-one selling product is something called “Nympho Niagra.”) Her husband is a lawyer, and once, standing in the basement of their McMansion decorated in the style of the Roman orgy, far out in the cornfields, watching our kids play in the tremendously expensive bounce-house he’d bought, I asked what kind of law he practiced. “Basically I protect corporations from workers’ claims,” he said. “That must be lucrative,” I said.” “It’s a living,” he said and shrugged. Starbuck, who’s five, loves them and their place.
When I look around—on campus, online, in America—what I hear in my mind (since it’s playing on my iPod) is the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”—“Ah, look at all the lonely people…where do they all belong?” Everywhere, people seek companionship any way they can get it.
MySpace knows this to be true. There are 178,234,432 people in my network, whatever that means, and their site appears to be paid for by ads like the one for True, a dating service whose tag line is “Live. Love. Learn.” A video loop shows a hatchet-faced young woman apparently IMing with me and laughing delightedly at banter I haven’t typed. Her screen name is Kissyface27, but oddly the service lists her age as 21. In our time, you need VeriSign Secure authorization to live and learn, and loving costs extra.
A thought experiment on community: You’re a successful mid-career academic. You’ve written a book or two, publish articles regularly, go to conferences, are asked to give talks. You’ve worked at two universities and have regular contact with others through your professional organization. How many people know of your existence? 500? How many of those would go to lunch with you on a busy day? 100? How many would buy? 30?
How many would stand by you if you were swept up in scandal or were a sudden outcast from your social scene? 15? How many would hold your hair back while you vomited Boone’s Farm apple wine in their backyard later that night? Now we’re getting to something important.
I currently have 38 MySpace friends—a three-day haul—who love me unconditionally, no doubt, and would let me sleep on their sofas and eat directly from their fridges. But who loves you, baby? And how do you know?