Anyone who's even dabbled in social networking in the past few weeks is surely familiar with the Web's latest phenomenon. It's a chain letter for the Facebook set called "25 Random Things About Me," in which participants assemble a list containing exactly that, and post it online, often with a request that 25 other friends return the favor.
But the fad has spread like wildfire across the Internet – with people detailing everything from mundane likes and dislikes to touchingly sincere revelations about their dreams and insecurities. Even California's attorney general, Jerry Brown, has taken a spin at it – who knew that the 70-year-old former governor was crazy for Flax Plus Multibran cereal?
Most people use those two timeless excuses, boredom and peer pressure, as justification for submitting to the craze – various spins on the title by people on my own list of friends include "FINE. 25 things you didn't need to know about me" and "By demand and via procrastination, 25 instances of navel-gazing."
As they are wont to do with most things that "kids these days" take part in – members of the media have marveled at this latest Internet curiosity and the intensity with which it has erupted. Their hand-wringing has ranged from the paranoid – "Does Facebook share too much information?" fretted the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – to the meta, with PoynterOnline releasing a "25 Random Things About 25 Random Things on Facebook."
Mostly though, the media have dismissed the trend as yet another example of the hollow narcissism that young people take part in online. "It's just so stupid," a Time magazine article complained. "Most people aren't funny, they aren't insightful, and they share way too much." Sounds as if someone needs to get more interesting friends.
Of course, the media are only echoing the same judgments they levied when many social-networking tools first debuted. Twitter, for example – a service by which friends send out a motley collection of "tweets," or short updates about what they're doing at that exact moment – was scoffed at originally. The Houston Chronicle dubbed those who signed up "a collection of people with nothing better to do." But now, Twitter is turning heads for its usefulness. It has become a tool for citizen journalists and a mechanism by which job-seekers connect with employers.
Those who sneer at the "25 Things" are similarly misguided – and perhaps they'd realize as much if they took time to examine the deeply personal nature of many people's revelations. I rarely have time to engage with many of my most far-flung friends, but suddenly, I'm learning about their work anxieties and newfound tastes in music.
I've found it endlessly entertaining to come home from work and discover choice items such as how my best friend from middle school has an uncanny ability to memorize people's license plates. And far from being an exercise in self-importance (I spent all of 15 minutes creating my own list), I have spent hours poring through other people's creations.
My friends' entries have made me laugh. One related the experience of giving a thank-you card to a high school classmate who'd complimented their, um, derrière. As my friend put it," A thank-you note was just good manners."
Others remind me how wonderful the people in my life are: "My grandparents are my heroes. They aren't perfect by any means, but they have always been generous to others, and because of that their house is always full of warmth and love, even during sad times."
And some are downright poetic: "I love Los Angeles. I understand why many people don't, but I've made it my home. If I'm away for more than a few days, I start to get anxious. When I pick up my car from LAX and connect from the 105 to the 110 and catch that first glimpse of downtown, or when I return from Vegas via the 210 and curve around Glendale, or when I come back on I-5 and see Griffith Park, I feel a deep relief and contentment."
With thousands of reminders a day about our country's bleak economic outlook, it certainly seems that such an innocent – and free – pastime is exactly what most people could use right about now.