A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned that Facebook seemed like "nothing more than a granfalloon." In his novel Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut coined the word granfalloon to describe "a seeming team that is meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done." His examples include: people from the state of Indiana ("Hoosiers"), "the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution...and any nation, anytime, anywhere."
In other words, when people believe that they're connected by some external purpose or reason, but are really thrown together mostly by coincidence, you have a granfalloon. In early 2007, Emily Yoffe wrote about this phenomenon: "...I will be interested" she wrote, "to see if Facebook and sites of its ilk end up being a granfalloon, or a revolution."
It turns out that they are both.
A year ago I wrote about the weakness of networks that don't have a logical glue to bind them. Why, for example, would you join a social network designed for customers of your phone company? You have something in common with them, but it isn't something that matters for a larger purpose. The so-called network is just a granfalloon.
One can also argue that an alumni association is nothing more than a granfalloon. (For the sake of job security, no alumni director should suggest this, but I'll risk it, to explore the question.) In fact, Vonnegut says exactly this about alumni connections; the following exchange occurs among three travelers in Cat's Cradle who meet on a commercial airliner (chapter 59):
His gaze lit on Newt again. "You go to college?"
"Cornell," said Newt.
"Cornell!" cried Crosby gladly. "My God, I went to Cornell."
"So did he." Newt nodded at me.
"Three Cornellians – all in the same plane!" said Crosby, and we had another granfalloon festival on our hands.
It's in schools' interest that alumni feel connected to the institution and to one another. Whether we are truly connected to people we don't know depends on whether we have a reason to interact in the first place. The same question underlies the online relationships that my friend suspects of granfalloonery. Are we really "friends" with people we didn't talk to in high school, just because we connect on Facebook twenty years later?
But once again, weak ties appear. Online networks reveal mutual connections and provide history and context for another's place in our lives. If we bother to learn where a non-friend friend lives, what she works on, and what she cares about, she might someday help us solve a problem that we don't even know we're going to have. Or she may just become a friend.
And no matter how or why you meet someone, in the end it's the connection that develops that can make knowing that person so surprisingly enriching, enjoyable, and worthwhile.
So I guess a granfalloon can be pretty important after all.
This posting is dedicated to the memory of my friend Clio Chafee.