On the night before my birthday, I was doing my usual post-and-peruse on Facebook when I noticed a sudden -1 on my friend list. I have a kind of second sight when it comes to unfriending, in that I almost always know exactly who it is. And sure enough I was right.
I went back over our history, one that had barely lasted a year and concluded some 5 years ago at that. I wondered aloud, “Why now?” Did some deliciously unsavory bit of gossip about me resurface somewhere recently? Had I posted something inadvertently offensive? Was he just cleaning house? Certainly, NYC creative circles in which egos run hot and fragile (or just fucking amok), live and die by a Draconian system of checks and balances. Grudges are held indefinitely, and in the absence of fresh meat to sacrifice old demons are regularly resuscitated. I’ve chosen to chalk it up to this, and wish this (un)friend well with my gnarly phantasm.
In a similar instance, I reached out to an estranged friend a few years ago. He had left NYC to start over, and when I messaged him he kindly but firmly informed me that he didn’t wish to resume any communications from that period in his life. It was nothing against me he assured me, he just wanted to end that chapter and all it contained. It broke my heart a little–a lot, actually–but I understood. At least there was closure in the exchange, however painful, with only the lingering regret that someone I loved and looked up to would never know me past that specific point in time, when I was arguably not at my best. Another phantasm to hold my place.
I got to wondering about what FB means to me these days, why I’m still on it, and if I should start closing shop. No doubt the brazen shadiness of Zuckerbot is and has been enough to drive many off the platform, though I’ve remained pretty flippant so far. You wanna mine my data and target me with ads? Fine. Just make sure it’s stuff I’m keen to window-shop, bro. You wanna spy on my messages? More’s the pity and make some popcorn.
FB feels like an ever-emptying ghost town or at best, a party where most of the people you care about have either gone home or are eyeing you from separate corners and cliques, if they notice you at all. Like Nadia stumbling through her LES birthday bash, it’s all starting to feel like a series of vignettes to me, at once both repetitive and shifting for the worse a little more each time. I can’t tell if it’s me or the drugs.
We used to keep in touch with the people who mattered, and it was two fingers up for the rest; now we just keep tabs on everyone.
In true Black Mirror fashion, surveillance is the new mode of interaction. I recently realized that while I’ve unfollowed nearly all but a select few of my exes, I’ve technically remained ‘friends’ with them, which is just nonsense. The same goes for former friends and acquaintances. What’s my reasoning behind that? That they should still have to see all MY shit and how awesome I’m doing, assuming they haven’t unfollowed me right back? And if the latter is true, are we just cycling around the same vague and noncommittal orb of connectivity, never to engage again but hoping the other sees what they’re missing out on?
I am still ‘friends’ with people I know for a fact hate my guts. Are we holding out for some cyber reunion or worse, stuck in a sneaky game of oneupmanship? As someone who has dedicated the last 6 years to being a healthier, better person, it doesn’t speak well of me that I willingly participate in such charades.
When I first joined FB I genuinely did it to stay in touch with friends scattered around the globe. I liked sharing my to-dos, my photos, my musings, and scrolling through theirs in return. But early on I experienced the darker side of social media, starting with a since-canceled friend’s husband and his nonstop harassment. I learned that where social media is concerned, the guise of friendship can be just that. I’ve been vaguebooked about by people insisting they’ve sworn off all drama. I’ve gotten gross messages from dudes assuming that because they’ve seen my photos from no-matter-how-long ago, I’m obviously, psychically aware of and hot for them. I’ve been huffily unfriended by bitter beaux, resent a friend request within weeks, only to then be unfriended again when they got pissed anew.
I’ve had people post extremely personal things on my wall that I’ve had to scramble to delete.
A very married author sent me wildly inappropriate missives over the years, pointedly ignoring my pleas to stop and only actually doing so once I was married myself. (Because I guess officially belonging to a man on paper legitimizes a woman’s consent?) People I otherwise never hear from have jumped on my comment threads to insert their POV, slithering away like snakes in tall grass once their mission was accomplished. I’ve received (and declined) invitations to join private groups dedicated solely to trashing certain individuals. I’ve seen people’s lives and reputations ruined in mere keystrokes within communities that pride themselves on, well, community. For all its talk of bringing people together, FB sure does a good job of providing multiple outlets for divisive behavior.
When politics commanded the FB scene following the 2016 election, things took an unprecedented and particularly volatile turn. People holding beliefs that should have remained firmly closeted in the Middle Ages or worked through in therapy pronounced them loud and proud, newly emboldened no doubt by our 45th President & Co., leaving many of us to regard once trusted and respected friends and family as dubious strangers.
To top it all off, there were the memories that greeted me every morning, and Matthew McConaughey’s True Detective time-is-a-flat-circle speech would inevitably run through my head. Because when it comes to social media, there is no past, present, or future. And that’s really starting to bother me.
As a millennial, I can wistfully recall the years leading up to the advent of social media.
You broke up with partners and parted ways with friends and had no idea what happened to them next. You might run into them or ask around if you were so inclined, but ultimately, they and the period you knew them in was finito. Photos were printed and placed in albums or tacked onto cork boards, or otherwise stuffed in drawers to be forgotten and rediscovered. Gossip happened in person and politics were debated in a similar manner. Unless you were a celebrity of some kind and featured on-screen or in print, the only people who knew who you were had to encounter you at least once in person, to put a face to the name. Time plodded on, and the people you were meant to stay in touch with did and those you weren’t vanished accordingly. There wasn’t any “I could push you in front of a cab today and hug you tomorrow” mind-fuckery.
As is often the case as one gets older, my actual friends are few. I mean the friends you message every day and plan trips with and mail packages to and continue to grow with year after year. Friends you can spill the contents of your soul to without fear of rebuttal. Friends who know when it’s your “Sweet Birthday Babyyy!” Day without needing FB to remind them–friends you don’t actually need FB at all to communicate through, though it vehemently begs to differ.
FB operates on a Pollock-esque algorithm that would be totally bizarre in any other scenario. You either see the same post by the same person a dozen times over or you don’t see them at all ever, and good luck finding the magic hour for optimum posting visibility. What’s more, no matter how far gone the who’s and what’s from your past are, there’s always something there to remind you (enjoy that little earworm, MUAH).
You post and eagerly wait for those hearts and thumbs-ups to come in, and when they linger at the nil mark you can’t help but feel a little dejected.
Conversely, you move with extra pep when they’re plentiful. I don’t need to preach the obsessive validation that social media pushes, the feels-like-famous high of all those followers and positive feedback; being a writer and once-upon-a-time performer who depended on them to get her work and bod out, it’s something I completely understand, and hardly begrudge in others. And I genuinely envy those who can play the game and play it well, who enjoy it even. FB’s even taken to sending out reminders when you haven’t posted in a while, as if all that stands between you and absolute irrelevance is a meme or status update.
The pressure to have a strong social media presence is impossible to ignore, and I’ve seen my peers in similar fields go all but campaign-level in a bid to gain and sustain a devoted following. They bend over backwards and inside out to be present at all times. They share every milestone and mundane event alike, encourage ongoing commentary, and are seemingly inexhaustible powerhouses of self-promotion. I admire and root for them, while continuing to keep my head down for the most part.
I certainly want my work to be seen and considered, but I’ve never been comfortable presenting myself as part of the product. I’m a lousy salesman. That used to be the job of publishers and producers, now it’s on the individual to plant their flag. Even celebs are increasingly pressured to pull in as many social media followers as possible, in order to convince the higher-ups of their enduring relevance and bankability. To be an influencer in any capacity is essentially a tidemark you commit yourself to hitting, or else you content yourself with a more understated success.
Instagram is easier for me to navigate and frankly more enjoyable. Like flipping through someone’s scrapbook, it demands very little while showing you entire universes in snapshot minutiae. I follow all kinds of animal accounts, fellow history nerds, costume designers, adventurers, celebs, Witches, and of course friends. (One Thames mudlarker in particular has me convinced of my retirement hobby.) Many artists and writers I know have opted for Instagram over FB, and I’m gradually heading there myself. What keeps me tethered to the ‘book isn’t entirely clear, other than my own inherent abandonment issues. If I snip those final, indefinite ties to the selves I once was and people who knew them, does that mean my progress was all for naught? Where will those years go if I’m not reminded of them each morning in the memory round-up?
I’m not good at letting go, period. I never have been. And when I was younger it detained me in unhealthy relationships and pursuits, desperate to be loved and approved of. Eventually it drove me to isolation, and a wariness of getting close to anyone. Now that those priorities have thankfully shifted, I wonder what I’m looking to get out of FB these days.
I’m bad with time. I assume I have more of it than I really do, or alternately fret that it’s running out when in fact it’s on my side. Things that happened a decade ago still feel like yesterday, and I’ve stayed up long nights nursing wounds that should have healed and scarred over eras ago. I miss people I could very well reach out to but don’t, and am likewise impervious to those who might wish the same of me. I lock myself in the proverbial bathroom and recalibrate in front of the mirror again and again. I tell myself This time it’ll be different, I’ll be different.
I think we all want to feel witnessed, to know that we’ve left some kind of imprint or testament of our journey, that our improvement has been noted. For better and for worse, social media has allotted each of us a voice and presence, with a wonky but traceable timeline. But it worries me that I’m still trying to figure out how to make the most of it without making it my all.
At this point it feels more like a slot machine I can’t walk away from or bar offering me one more drink on the house.
Nostalgia can be a beautiful but precarious thing if you dwell too long in it. I don’t question my older Gen X sister’s ability to delete her FB account last year and walk away without thinking twice. Life for her and many of her generation happens in real time, with realpeople and concrete validation. It’s foolish to miss seeing her around on FB, as I talk to her almost daily, but I do. I miss her, and all the others who have since shuttered up online.
Because nothing comparable to FB has come along yet, it’s pretty much a party we’re still stuck at for now. And in a perverse way, that feels like the closest thing to connecting. Those of us remaining are in this together, whether we like it–and each other–or not. I’d like to think it’s not too late to reevaluate how we treat our relationships, regardless of their scale, and why we need our screens to act as both buffers and amplifiers. Maybe the worst really is just a bug, a symptom, and there’s still time to go back through the FB matrix and fix it once and for all.
Here’s to you, fellow cockroaches.
Emily Linstrom is an American writer and artist residing in Italy. Her work has been featured in a number of publications, and she is a regular contributor for Sabat Magazine and CLASH. You can view her work at: www.emilylinstrom.com and follow her adventures on Instagram at betterlatethan_em