"I'm looking for a crib," I said, and my friends reacted predictably. "I'm so out of touch!" lamented one, while another asked if I had an announcement to make, then raced over to my wife's spot to ask if she was pregnant.
The unusual aspect of this small-town rumormongering was its location. We weren't in a traditional gossiping spot such as the post office, coffee shop or microbrewery. We were on Facebook, the social-networking website, which now claims to be the world's fourth-busiest online destination. The fad was relatively slow to reach my rural Montana town, but now that it's here, I'm struck by how its success comes from mimicking our ancient social patterns.
Consider that Facebook tells you what everyone else is doing—which recalls the old joke about how in a small town you don't have to use turn signals because everyone knows where you're going. And just like in the small town, on Facebook it's relationship news that travels the fastest. For example, when Facebook told us that M "is no longer listed as 'in a relationship,'" or that L "is looking for 'dating,'" tongues wagged. Indeed, when I've gotten together recently with friends in person, we've often talked about what's happening on Facebook. Call it a case of life imitating artifice.
I'm not necessarily claiming that Facebook promotes admirable behavior. Take one of my favorite pastimes, learning people's ages. For 18 years now I've wondered if B is older or younger than I am. Our hair is graying at similar rates, and he's made comments suggesting we're contemporaries, but since B is my doctor, he's been able to look up my age in his files. So I was delighted to see that B filled in the Facebook birth-year field, equalizing our information disparity, and even more delighted to see that I'm three years younger than the old coot.
B has 37 official "friends" on Facebook, a relatively low total that's partly due to generational challenges—folks our age (and especially his age...) have plenty of real-world friends who don't network online. On the other hand, my college classmate P has 896 friends. Does he really know all these people? Or is he like my friend D, who regularly befriends faraway Facebookies he's never met in real life?
D loves to work the network—just like some folks in a small town. You think you know everybody, and then you spend time with a friend who's a Catholic Rotarian on the school board and knows all sorts of people you don't. You're stunned to realize that you don't know all your friends' friends. In the city, you would take for granted such multiple circles—friends from work, the neighborhood, your favorite sports or pastimes—and the way each circle ripples outward. In a small town, they ripple back on themselves.
Facebook, by publicly listing all of your friends for anyone to see, telescopes those circles. Again, it's replicating one of my favorite features of the small town: the way you see the same people in different contexts. I see work friends at basketball, or neighborhood friends at a committee meeting, and they become more fully rounded to me.
There are plenty of people who might find such a lack of privacy stifling, which is why there are plenty of people who don't live in small towns or, for that matter, join Facebook. But that small-town-style intimacy turns out to be a quality that lots of people are flocking online to replicate. Call it the small-towning of 21st century life.
On Facebook, as in a small town, you end up learning a lot more about people than you might have intentionally chosen to do. But when it works, when you love it, it's because you like the things you learn, because the people in your community consistently turn out to be full of pleasant surprises.
Take, for example, the crib. I made my announcement, but explained the details: It wasn't actually about my household. My sister was coming for a weeklong visit and we needed a crib for my new nephew. C said he kept a crib in his garage for visiting grandchildren, and once again the small-town rumor mill had become a network of support.
John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He communes with neighbors in south-central Montana.