I laugh to myself when I'm wearing one of the "buddy shirts." These were a high school phenomenon that featured photos of students' "closest" friends – the more faces on T-shirts, the cooler you were.
One night, while studying the faces on a particular shirt, I realized how little things have changed: This is what we did before MySpace. Categorizing and ranking friends existed long before these social-networking sites came around.
Sure, the Internet was already a big part of my life by the time I was 16. But besides e-mail, I didn't really use it for social networking. Yet even as pre-Facebook teens, my friends and I were already very much in the business of organizing our friends and finding ways to tell everyone exactly who they were – we actually plastered their faces across our chests!
Here's the idea behind the buddy shirt. Probably everybody is familiar with the team pictures that get taken for every high school sports season. In addition to a team picture and an individual picture of you in your uniform (posed with whatever ball or piece of equipment suited the sport), everyone I knew also chose to get a "buddy pic" in which you posed with a few of your friends from the team. When selecting a picture package to purchase, there was an option to have any of the photos turned into a T-shirt.
It became a status symbol to invite the most popular people from the team to take a buddy pic with you, then to wear that shirt around school. The cooler the people in your picture, the more impressive the shirt was.
Even as 11- and 12-year-olds, we collected one another's school pictures and pasted them under the clear plastic sheet covering our binders. It was the same drill – if you had a cool kid's picture stuck inside the cover of your notebook, you were, obviously, cool by association. Quantity was also an important factor – it was always better to have 30 tiny pictures inside your notebook than 10, just like having 150 MySpace friends is that much more impressive than having 80.
Newspaper pages today are filled with stories and op-eds lamenting the use of social-networking sites and how they've radically altered the way young people conduct relationships. Last week in The Washington Post, college sophomore Felipe Shrieberg vowed that kicking his online networking addiction would open up "a novel new way to get to know someone: face to face."
The statement floored me. Suggesting that people who regularly use Facebook have somehow forgotten how to interact with their peers in real life is like saying that anyone who has ever made a purchase from Amazon would need a map and a flashlight to find their way out of an actual bookstore.
Similarly, a recent Reuters article documented how new couples increasingly make their relationships official by selecting the option to link their Facebook profiles. This might sound silly to the non-Web-savvy, but the act, which requires a mere mouse click and is seen by only those included in one's circle of Internet friends, seems infinitely more discreet than other traditional methods of announcing one's coupledom, such as physically donning a boyfriend's letterman jacket or fraternity pin.
Adults baffled by the proliferation of MySpace and Facebook are confusing themselves by viewing the use of these sites as a completely new and foreign phenomenon. Kids who network with friends online aren't affecting their ability to create real, face-to-face friendships any more than typing a term paper affects their ability to address a postcard by hand. Kids are still kids. Online networking is just an updated version of collecting choice yearbook signatures or, in my case, wearing a friend's picture on a T-shirt.
r Sara Libby is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.