In the age of social media, you can’t go off the grid

Have you ever fantasized about starting your life over, running away to a desert island and leaving the trappings of your environment for a brand new existence?

You know, going “off the grid?”

I’ve never met him and have no reason to believe that’s what Matt Hill wanted when he went missing this week. I expect we’ll eventually get an explanation from Hill himself. But as his story played out in our Facebook news feeds and Twitter timelines, with everyone from local friends and acquaintances to Red Sox relievers and supermodels joining the cyber-search for him, once it was reported that he’d been found, alive and well, I had to wonder: If he intentionally went missing, and his friends and family resorted to using social media to spread the word and find him, is it really possible to “go off the grid” in this day in age?

Hill reportedly disappeared in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, May 24. The story drew national attention when Sox pitcher Daniel Bard told sportswriters and shared the link for a Facebook Community that was established to build awareness and help find him. The group had over 10,000 “Likes” as of May 29 when news broke around 9 am that morning that Hill had been found. A twitter feed called @FindMattHill had 2,100+ followers, and blogs and news sites were posting his picture and descriptions of his 1996 Honda Civic, and noting that his cell phone had been turned off since he’d last been seen alive that morning.

Details are still emerging, but word that Hill was found “alive and unharmed” spread Sunday morning. The Facebook Community “Praying and Searching for Matt Hill” posted that Hill “left on his own will.” It’s a strange story, and now that it’s been exposed nationwide, I’d guess there will be some uncomfortable answers to this story, if we ever get any at all. And frankly, are we even entitled to them in the first place?

Whether or not Facebook postings helped to “find” someone who may not even have been truly missing is beside the point. For the social media conscientious objectors out there who don’t maintain a presence on Facebook and have no desire to tweet or share mundane details of their daily existence, this story probably doesn’t resonate beyond a blip on the radar. But as someone who works with Facebook daily and contemplates its powers, flaws and the ramifications of social networking, I was startled. This story smacked me in the face.

What if Hill was facing a personal crisis and just wanted to get away? What if he didn’t want to speak with his friends and family? And if his friends couldn’t find him, how would random people on Facebook and Twitter be able to track him down even if he was alive (and presumably well)? Could tweeting out pictures of his face across the Internet actually help find a missing person? Or would it do more in the long run to damage his reputation once he was found to be alive?

The story raises a ton of questions, both about social media and more importantly, about Hill himself, and frankly, the truly important answers are about Matt. Those answers are none of our business. But the people who care about Matt Hill, by mobilizing a social search for a loved one about whom they likely feared the most, have suddenly (and unwittingly) taken someone who may have wanted off the grid and ironically, put him on the map. What might have been a personal struggle that Hill would maybe share with only his closest friends, will now define him among his friends and strangers alike going forward.

Maybe the viral search across social media saved his life. The good news today is that Matt Hill is alive and well. Had he gone missing five years ago, his friends and family would have alerted authorities, posted signs on lamp posts in his neighborhood, and maybe the story made the local news in D.C. In 2011, his tale is national news, and it’s likely that most of the people he meets through his real-world social network (not to mention hundreds of people from his past) from this point forward will have heard about his story.

Again, I should stress that I know nothing about Hill or his situation beyond what’s been reported. But his story illustrated a larger hypothetical. The new reality of our day and age is that his presumable desires for privacy and alone time (or alternatively, a cry for help and attention) were amplified by the power of social networking. The grid Hill may have mistakenly thought he could escape may have saved his life, but due to one large misstep, that same social grid, which now spans far beyond what he ever imagined or intended, has forever complicated his existence from this point forward.

For better or worse, it’s a reality we all need to learn to accept.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Forest says:

    I enjoy all the information Twitter provides but the problem is there’s too much information. There’s only so many hours in a day and I could spend all day reading all the linked articles. This is how I end up skimming. Skimming is the only way I can decide if the article is something worth my time.

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