What a long, strange trip it’s been: How a College senior came to peace with her father’s Facebook account

Last fall, I logged into my e-mail and found myself staring down 10 of the scariest consecutive words in the English language: “Martin Kohout has added you as a friend on Facebook.” Hearing my startled yelp, a friend asked what was wrong. “My father just friended me – that’s what’s wrong,” I howled. Suddenly all of Goodrich Hall fell quiet for a moment, the stunned silence punctuated by a couple of uncomfortable giggles.

Before I say anything else, let me explain that my father is not your typical helicopter parent. He has an extensive collection of impressively loud Hawaiian print shirts, which he wears to work every day in lieu of more traditional business attire; my personal favorites include a salmon pink number decorated with dancing Elvises and a powder-blue gem that depicts an assortment of dogs on roller skates. Until he finally caved to familial pressure perhaps five years ago and got a haircut, he bore more than a passing resemblance to Jerry Garcia. Perhaps most tellingly, when he gave me the drug and alcohol talk in high school, it essentially boiled down to two sentences: “Don’t drink and drive. When you decide to indulge, stick to alcohol and marijuana.”

So I knew he hadn’t opened a Facebook account to spy on me, but I still couldn’t figure out why a middle-aged man, gainfully employed and happily married, would want to join a social networking site aimed at high school and college students. I love my dad and know he is not creepy by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time I was distinctly uncomfortable with his sudden appearance in cyberspace. It felt a bit like he was trespassing onto my generational turf.

At the same time, though, I realized that my siblings and I are all on Facebook and had probably talked about it enough to make him curious. Keeping in mind his alcohol and drug policy (and what he might think if I did not friend him), I accepted his request. Over the next week or so, I had the bizarre experience of watching old family photos, often captioned with our nicknames, pop up in my father’s Facebook albums. Just when I started to wonder when the novelty would wear off, however, he sent me an e-mail to say that he was canceling his account due to pressure from my younger sister, who argued that as a high school freshman her life was hard enough without having her dad on Facebook.

I admit that I felt a definite sense of relief when I heard the account had been cancelled, though that relief brought with it a little bit of guilt – I worried that my father felt jilted by his children, or at least by the virtual versions of ourselves. Nonetheless, I was less than thrilled three weeks ago when I received an e-mail informing me that Martin Kohout had sent me a message on Facebook. It turns out that that he had reactivated his account at the behest of several of his high school friends, who in turn had opened accounts to celebrate their 30th high school reunion.

At first I was surprised by how many friends my dad had on Facebook this time around (well, only 14, but that’s a lot more than the two he had last year), but I did a little bit of research and it seems that the number of people over the age of 30 on Facebook has been booming. My father got on again because of peer pressure, and now his wall has posts from several of his high school and college friends, including the mother of my best friend from home.

And the trend extends beyond my dad and his weird friends. When I mentioned that I was writing an op-ed on this subject to a couple of friends, my idea was greeted with enthusiasm rather than the nonchalance I might have expected last fall. It even turns out that I am not the only Williams student who has a parent on Facebook: there are a lot more of us than I would have imagined, and if you factor in the number of people who told me that they had a friend whose parents have an account, it seems that living with parental presences in cyberspace has become almost as commonplace as dealing with them in real life. The Style section of the New York Times recently ran an article (“73 and Loaded with Friends on Facebook”) about older-than-college-age people on Facebook. And if you look, there are a number of groups for the over-30 crowd, including “I am too old for Facebook – but I don’t care,” “Boomers Rule!,” “Oldies but Goodies” and “over 40 is ‘Facebook creepy,’” the group featured in the Times article.

My father’s presence on Facebook has made me very aware of the presence of other adults on the site. I am even starting to wonder if he created an account in order to make his kids aware of those other people. Like all seniors, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future lately, and it has occurred to me that even if my dad (probably) doesn’t care about the photo from freshman year of me holding a beer, a potential employer might.

If that is what motivated him to create his account, he has certainly made his point. If he signed up for Facebook just for fun, well, that’s okay, too; it’s really not as bad as I thought it would be. For example, thanks to his recently updated status, I know he’s still wearing that shirt with the roller-skating dogs.

Elizabeth Kohout ’08 is an English and art major from Austin, Texas.