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Reunion ruiner?

Facebook, Twitter and the like haven't killed reunions yet, but they have added a new wrinkle

April 06, 2012|By Tony Peregrin, for RedEye

Who got fat? Who came out? Who got divorced or married (or divorced and married)?

Those sorts of questions make high school and college reunions irresistible. But in an era of digital photo albums and Facebook status updates, has the idea of in-person reunions become as appealing as the prospect of watered-down drinks served in a dimly lit gymnasium?

Not according to Cyndi Clamp, president of the National Association of Reunion Managers, who says there is no clear correlation between Facebook participation and reunion attendance. Any way you slice it, she says, the nostalgia associated with reunions -- currently embodied by Stifler and the rest of the "American Pie" gang in the new $50 million flick "American Reunion" -- continues to have a firm hold on pop culture.

"Facebook is not real life," said Clamp. "What we share on Facebook may be real and honest, but we're also calculating on what we share and how we share it. Facebook does not replace or ruin your high school reunion."

Schools across the country that use professional reunion managers have seen attendance remain relatively steady over the past decade, according to Clamp. The average attendance rate for a high school reunion is about 25 percent.

"The average fluctuates a bit each year, but not enough to show any conclusive evidence that social media has more or less of an impact on attendance than the economy or any other factor," Clamp said.

Lauren Martinez, 28, a public affairs manager in the finance industry, organized her Lane Tech High School 10-year reunion last year, and she said Facebook and other online networking tools were helpful in locating classmates. According to Martinez and the school's alumni office, her class was the first in the North Side school's history to rely 100 percent on online social networking to publicize the reunion. Nevertheless, turnout was less than the national average.

"We had numerous people tell us that they weren't interested in attending because they could already see what everyone was up to on Facebook," Martinez, of Roscoe Village, said. "It definitely became a challenge to try and change their minds."

About 150 of the 1,000 people in her graduating class attended the reunion, which was held at a Holiday Inn in Skokie.

Dave Awl, the Chicago-based author of "Facebook Me! A Guide to Socializing, Sharing, and Promoting on Facebook," said the great advantage of Facebook is that it allows users to make more informed decisions about who they want to spend time with offline.

"Getting together in person lets you get into different kinds of conversations than you can on Facebook," Awl said. "And you know, hugging is nice; so is dancing or telling old stories over late night diner food. As far as reunions go, if you still like a classmate based on your Facebook interactions, then you'll likely be just as eager, or more so, to hang out with them in person."

For Amanda Rahn, 35, a curriculum manager in the education industry, face-to-face contact and reuniting with old friends isn't a top priority. "I've been lucky to make friends that I can see once a year and feel like we just saw each other the week before. I also work from home, which means most of my correspondence is via e-mail and text messaging -- so maybe I've gotten used to not seeing people? I know that when I do, it's nice, but it's not a necessity like it used to be," said Rahn, a resident of Logan Square, who attended her 10-year high school reunion in Naperville in 2004.

"I definitely think that social networking sites such as Facebook helped with starting conversations at the reunion," says Martinez. "For a good portion of attendees, I knew who was married and had kids, who had moved away, and where people were working. There were quite a few instances when I was talking to someone and I brought up something I had seen on Facebook to keep the conversation going."

For Christine Perez, 30, a corporate meeting/conference planner, bonding with old classmates doesn't involve Facebook stalking or attending high school reunions.

"Face-to-face connection is important with those you really care about -- and I mostly get a chance to do that when there is a friend getting married and I get to reconnect with that group of friends who attend," says Perez. "It's the best, because we usually get to chat over dinner and then dance the night away like the good old days."

Tony Peregrin is a RedEye special contributor.

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