How Facebook got us together

A year ago, almost none of my old school friends were on Facebook. Today, many are.

Facebook statistics show that this past year has seen a huge influx of people, globally, of roughly my age who are not techies or bloggers, just normal people. Over the past 5-6 years, Facebook has evolved and changed quite a lot. Some of the best and most liked functionalities on Facebook right now are blatant copies of the best aspects of FriendFeed and Twitter and Flickr and YouTube and Dopplr and LinkedIn and other services (some of which are now already dead).

As us oldsters are joining in great numbers, there is a clash of generations as we use Facebook differently than the kids do and they feel like we are encroaching on their territory (thus learning how to use the privacy settings is the key).

Unless Google Wave kills off all the competition, Facebook will remain the main and the biggest central place for people of all generations to find each other, have fun, or do business. Just like it did for college and high school kids five years ago, and for the techies and bloggers about a year later, Facebook is now introducing everyone to the wonders of Web 2.0.

If you are one of my 1,161 friends on Facebook (yes, I use it for PR and not just for finding old friends), you have noticed I friended a lot of people with Serbian-sounding names over the past year or so. Yup, those are old friends from school: preschool, elementary/middle school, high school and vet school. And by finding each other on Facebook, and through using Facebook as a tool, we organized, for the first time in many years, to meet in person in Belgrade last week.

You may have also seen me tagged in a bunch of pictures from those reunions - check out the photo sets here, here, here, here and here (that's uploaded so far - there may be more soon).

Was it an anniversary of graduation? No. Did we meet as a single coherent class of people sharing the same classroom? No. I went to three such parties on three consecutive nights in Belgrade last week.

One meetup was just a few of us from the last two years of high school (nobody brought the camera, alas).

The second meetup was organized over just a few days - it started on Facebook as I told some friends I'd be in Belgrade and would like to meet. They then contacted some others via phone or personal contact in physical space, we chose the venue (the ancient restaurant "Manjez" - yes, the name comes from 'manege' as that was the place where King's horses were stabled and trained a century ago) and whoever could show up showed up. Eighteen of us got together:

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One of them I met last year when I was in Belgrade. Others I have not seen in 20 or 25 or even 32 years. Only two I had to ask for the name. Some I recognized by the walk as they approached the restaurant. Others did not change in their faces at all. Others I recognized once they started talking. Most of us were in the same class in elementary school (1-4th grade), with some I was also in the same school later, including high school, and with one I was even in the same preschool.

Everyone remembered anecdotes from those old days, many brought photographs, year-books and class pictures. We wondered about people nobody's heard from in years (one of them just e-mailed me two days ago completely out of the blue: he just googled my name). Two of our friends, I heard, died in the meantime (one of them as a conscript in the war between Serbia and Croatia in the early 1990s). Then we walked over to the old high school yard, where I saw that my legend still lives on with the new generations, as you can see for yourself from the graffiti:

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The third party was a more elaborate affair. While the people found each other on Facebook and started planning there, most of the preparation happened over e-mail over several months. Several people came from abroad. We reserved an entire restaurant for our party, hired a DJ to play the 1980's Yugoslav music (which was so amazingly experimental and creative that nobody at the time noticed the syrupy, commercialized Western music by the likes of Michael Jackson) and managed to collect 55 of us, plus three of the teachers:

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The central point for most of us was 8th grade - the time when the two shifts first met during a field trip (let me explain: half the kids went to school 8am-1:15pm and the other half 2pm-7:15pm, then reverse each week. I was B-shift, with English being 1st and French 2nd foreign language. A-shift had French as 1st - even had some other classes taught in French - and English as 2nd. Most of the people at this party were from the A shift, but we partied and made friends and even dated between shifts in 8th grade so much, it did not matter any more).

But I also knew some of them from before and after. It is also a collection of kids from old Belgrade families. Many of our parents knew each other before we were even born. We all got haircuts from a mother of one of our friends. Another friend's mother was all of ours pediatrician. If we needed an otorhynolaryngologist, we went to one of our friend's father. The ties are multigenerational.

While it was fun to meet all of them, including the teachers (and yes, 8th grade crushes), I was most glad to see my best friend from those old days. We spent a lot of time together over the years, visiting each other (our fathers were also friends), going ice skating and horseback riding together, studying math for competitions, partying and just generally growing up together for about eight years of elementary/middle school (1-8th grade). But we have not heard from each other in about 25 years or so. So we spent a lot of time last Saturday night catching up with each other. After getting a degree in architecture, he built and ran a chain of diving schools on the Adriatic coast. As the wars made it impossible to run schools in Croatia while living in Serbia, he shut them down and opened a cafe in the center of Belgrade. He seems to be very happy! After the restaurant kicked all 55 of us out at 2am, we got in several cars and went to his cafe to continue partying and drinking. I got home at 4am, just a few hours before my flight home. But it was worth it. I am still excited and have this warmth in my heart from meeting all those old friends. And it would not have happened if it wasn't for Facebook.

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Wow, this sounds like such a special trip. Isn't it amazing the powers of the social web to reunite us? I'm glad you had so much fun and were able to reconnect with so many people from your past. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.