A couple of years ago, a woman walked up to me at a denominational assembly and introduced herself after she caught a glimpse of my name tag. "I had a dream about you," she said, which, as you might imagine, creeped me out a little bit. In her dream, I was an 80s-style one hit wonder who showed up on VH1 or some such thing. It was, hands down, one of the weirdest conversations I have ever had, because I certainly had never met this woman, and had no inkling of why I might be appearing in her subconscious.
It turns out that she manages online communications and social networking for the denomination, and thus has access to my Facebook profile. She had been seeing my status updates about playing with a band, and it ended up in her dream. She has become a great friend since then, and now we laugh about how she met me before she really met me. In the meantime, though, I was reminded of how much someone can know about me without really knowing me.
I can be pretty prolific in my Facebook updates, so this sort of thing happens to me pretty regularly now. Okay, so I don't necessarily show up in dreams, but I do have people I barely know make remarks about how often I travel, my running habits (when I have them), and my various neurological issues. I no longer accept friend requests from people I wouldn't know if I saw them on the street, and I've defriended everyone who doesn't fit that description as well, but I still have well over 600 "friends" on Facebook. I have an old blog that people used to read, and a bit of a reputation in the very small circle of young clergy women as the Single Rev, from three years of editing (and writing frequently for) this column in Fidelia's Sisters, an online journal by and for that demographic. People know of me from the newspaper in my community, where I work in the church that gets perhaps more than its fair share of publicity. A bunch of Welsh rugby players I met in Ireland found me by Googling "Stacey Minister New York," which encompassed their knowledge of me. My denomination is small, and at gatherings I usually meet someone who has heard stories about me, which is what happens when you function as the social director at all denominational meetings. I'm far from famous, but the point is, I often have to deal with people knowing more about me than I know about them.
It's a small world, and it's getting smaller every day. Welcome to the digital age.
I love the digital age, by the way. It is just so much easier to keep a connection with people I've known at various stages of life. I'm just old enough to remember when it wasn't this easy. Ten years ago, if I had been in the hospital, I would have had to actually call people to tell them. I would have had to tell the story over and over. For weeks after, I would have run into people who had no idea that anything had happened. That is not true now. I posted one brief update that I was in the hospital, and the troops were mobilized. Even the people who don't live on the internet knew, because there were enough people who knew to tell them. Talk about convenience!
On the other hand, it means that about 599 people who don't really want or need to know my every movement often do. But this is how it works these days. I know a lot about people I haven't talked to in years, people I thought I had bid adieu to after high school/college/whatever life stage I shared with them. An overwhelming amount of information about complete strangers is available via the internet. It's not enough to simply live life anymore; we also have to Facebook it, Tweet it, Youtube it, and Foursquare it. And, if possible, have it chronicled on one of the 8 million "reality" TV shows.
Our lives are increasingly public. What we say in conversation ends up in status updates. What we say to a reporter doesn't just show up in a newspaper or magazine; it's searchable on the internet forever, and subject to endless online commentary. If we hadn't learned this lesson already, we learned it recently as a result of the previously mentioned Marie Claire incident.
Early in my ministry, I screwed up big time by posting something about a congregant's funeral that completely broke trust with the family. I thought I had "cleaned up" my blog, but I hadn't looked closely enough. I had another crisis in my first church when I posted about a band I liked, and someone searched the band and found questionable statements that they suddenly connected to me. A few months ago, I agreed to be filmed for a music video for an unheard-of band...that ended up in the local papers, and led people to believe that I was criticizing the city where I live. I'm a slow learner.
It's just so wonderful to be able to share parts of my life with people who wouldn't be able to hear about them, and to hear about their lives, that I sometimes forget how very public it all is. I forget how people might take things out of context or misinterpret my intent. I have a big mouth and say too much in normal conversation. I'm not cautious by nature. In this uber-public society, I'm just waiting for the next time it gets me in trouble.