City Lights: Encountering some faces of Facebook

As of Thursday, I am no longer just a name to three residents of our coverage area. I am also the man with the stuffed Emily Dickinson.

Three years ago, I stayed at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Ore., in which every room is themed after a famous writer and the gift shop offers a slew of literary memorabilia. As a souvenir from my trip, I brought back a stuffed doll of the reclusive poet, which now resides on my bookshelf at home. I explain it away to visitors by saying I bought it for my wife, but let's be honest — no literary young man can truly be inspired without a plush Emily Dickinson by his desk.

Last week, though, Emily took a bold venture outside our home. And I guess she has Chip Michael to thank for the inspiration.

You may recall Chip as the founder of TwtrSymphony, a social-media project I wrote about a few weeks back. Chip, the web coordinator for the Pacific Symphony, set out to put an orchestra together via Twitter, with musicians from around the world — none of whom know Chip, or each other, in person — contributing recorded tracks that will be pieced together in the studio. Even the Twitter friends who encouraged Chip to start the campaign knew him only as a name on a screen.

In the days after I completed that story, I got to looking closely at the names that recurred on my own Facebook and Twitter accounts. Some of them, obviously, I could connect to a personal encounter, but at least half of them were ciphers — mysterious names who repeatedly showed up to "like" my latest post about Obama or riff about pop music. Who were they, really? And how had we come to be friends, in the loosest sense of that word?

So last week, I decided to message three of them on Facebook and set up a meeting in person. In choosing my subjects, I had a few criteria. First, they had to be users who commented on my postings (and vice versa) on a fairly regular basis. Second, I ruled out any political extremists — there are a handful of people I've encountered on social media whom I'd rather not meet face to face. And third, I had to have no memory of meeting them, talking with them on the phone or having any experience not made possible by Mark Zuckerberg.

The three I contacted — Lynn Scheid, Alan Ray and Kathleen Janson — all met those qualifications, and so I was happy when they agreed to a meeting Thursday evening at Starbucks. In preparation, I asked that each of us bring three things: a memento of our childhoods, a vacation souvenir (Emily, in my case) and an artwork or craft that we'd created.

As it turned out, they didn't disappoint. For an hour at Starbucks, we traded stories, laughed and showed off the contents of our bags: a thimble with a model of the Empire State Building that Lynn brought back from New York, Alan's treasured toy cars, a photo of Kathleen in her First Communion dress. It turned out that we had things in common: Both Alan and I were compulsive travelers and relished road trips, for one. Best of all, none of them laughed at me for bringing a doll.

In the midst of our show-and-tell, I asked each of them a question: How had they found me on Facebook? None of my three guests knew the other two, so if mutual friends had connected us, those friends weren't here at the table. And, not surprisingly, all three of them had a hard time recalling how our names wound up on the same comment threads.

Alan, who lives in Huntington Beach and works for a credit union in Cerritos, thought he might have encountered my name through Chris Epting, our front-page columnist for the Huntington Beach Independent. He had friended Chris on Facebook and then met him at a book signing, and somehow or other, his finger ended up clicking on my name as well. Lynn, a Newport Beach resident who works in design, surmised that she had liked an article I wrote; Kathleen, who lives in Irvine and runs a PR firm, apparently had emailed me years ago about an event.

As we sat around that table and struggled to remember how we'd gotten acquainted, I thought of the movie "The Social Network," about the formative days of Facebook. At the end of the film, Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg, in a fictional scene) finds the profile of the ex-girlfriend whose tongue-lashing gave him the incentive to launch a social-media site in the first place. He then adds her as a friend and sits refreshing his screen, waiting for a response.

Now, I've never friended anyone under circumstances that bizarre. On my personal Facebook account, I accept only people I know and trust. But my Times Community News account, which is where I encountered Alan, Lynn and Kathleen, is more or less a public site, which means that anyone who wants to join can. And I know more than a few people whose personal accounts operate the same way: If you want in, you're in.

Do those random followers serve a purpose? Sure — as the movie's title says, they expand our network. For journalists, they're a gold mine in terms of getting clicks on our stories. There may be some primal part of our nature that takes comfort when we post a link and get an indication within hours that 45 people enjoyed it. And as projects like TwtrSymphony show, sometimes the people who aid our endeavors most are ones we wouldn't recognize at Starbucks.

Still, I'm old-fashioned enough that I only like to be a stranger for so long. So the next time Alan, Lynn and Kathleen show up on my home page, I'll now have faces and voices to connect to them. And even if they never meet again, they're bound to share countless experiences over the remainder of their lives. After all, since Thursday night, they've all friended each other on Facebook.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

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