Monday, Nov 28, 2005
This year was the first year I've ever (co-)hosted Thanksgiving since being an adult. After a run of 7 years, each with Thanksgiving in a different place (ranging from Los Angeles to Rochester to Kilauea to Pittsburgh) Rachel and I invited my mom and sister up from LA, Paul, two of my oldest friends Ali and Mark, and eternal friends of the family Jan and Nadine, to our home for an evening of conversation, eating, conversation, eating, and game-playing.
As much as Thanksgiving is traditionally about family, to my mind it's also about bringing together people from different parts of your life. When people you care about meet other people you care about and get along great, it ties your (and by 'your' I mean 'my') psyche together in warm and cozy ways.
It's interesting to think that in earlier times when more of the country was rural Thanksgiving was probably much more than just a family affair. While nowadays Thanksgiving is customarily spent with family, I wonder if that's an exigent property of our social networks.
Think about it: If you have a social network of hundreds of millions of people with several billion connections, and you have to find a way to divide them up into dinner-sized groups with single-inclusion (since most people only have one Thanksgiving dinner a year), it would be an impossible task to try and determine groups that maximize the within-group social ties for each member of the set. If you were to go to Friendster or Orkut, for example, and try and place each member into a single 'primary' community you'd find people separated from others they care about. It would be arbitrary, political, and a hundred times worse than the binary 'my family or yours' quandary that faces most couples each year. (This, by the way, is why I believe Thanksgiving has prospered so much in the last 300 years: It provides a second holiday near Christmas so couples can spend time with both families).
When towns were smaller and social networks were more bounded by geography it wasn't so much of a problem. A town-wide Oktoberfest or similar gathering gives everyone in town the opportunity to celebrate, rejoice, and be thankful with nearly everyone else they know and value (everyone else in the town). As towns grew larger and telecommunications threw social networks across towns, states, and even continents, it became nearly impossible to have a generalized method for efficiently clustering social networks.
What we have left, when everyone has to pick a single place, is to go back home. Family bonds are probably the only forces universally strong enough to get most of us to uproot and travel long distances for a celebration on the same day, and nobody feels slighted if their invitation is turned down in favor of spending time with family. Most people have a family, and in a social networking sense they're the closest thing we have to the limited-size, single-inclusion structure of villages and towns.
That said, I'm happy that we were able to, for a day, create a new family of Thanksgiving-day orphans and wrap them together in the bonds of turkey, wine, and pie.
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