A conversation with a friend this evening forced me to an uncomfortable realization: I still view social dynamics like I did in high school.

Remember in high school how “groups” developed. Groups weren’t totally static and they didn’t have clearly defined boundaries, but they definitely existed. Different groups had different perceived social value and people within those groups filled roles with greater or lesser status than others. Cliques were so ubiquitous that I don’t think I could really comprehend the social world without examining them.

What I realized tonight is that I still view my social world as largely divided according to groups. The boundaries are less distinct than they were in high school, and the varying social values less obvious, but I definitely still divide my peers into various segments according to their social alignments.

Of course, there’s a good reason for this perception–it’s largely true. People do tend to form groups or networks. Where my perception is wrong is the level of importance I ascribe to group affiliation. In high school, who your friends were was everything. Your network assigned you a role and defined who you were supposed to be. Fluidity and evolution was severely limited and the formation of new connections was discouraged. Groups tended to favor the status quo.

But that was then, this is now. Groups still exist, but they are no longer elemental to personal identity. We are far more free to define ourselves in college and later in life, and it’s far more possible to cross social boundaries and bring cliques together.

More importantly, though, is the question of social value. In high school, it was obvious. The cool kids had wealthy parents. They tended to play varsity sports are drive nice cars. In college, these things still matter, but they matter much, much less. Social value is multidimensional after high school, so wealth or confidence is a single factor among many in the increasingly complex web of social interaction.

The true picture of a college social circle, then, is dynamic. Personal alignments shift constantly and value judgments are adjusted frequently according to changing assessments of key criteria and changing assessments of what criteria count. There are no untouchables, and there are no “cool kids.” Everything is in play.