Culture September 2010

A Death on Facebook

Intimacy and loss in the age of social media
Marcos Chin

I met “S” several years ago, when she was hired by the magazine where I worked as an editor. She was an assistant in a different department, so we had very little day-to-day contact. I somehow learned that she went to nightclubs a lot, and I once overheard her tell a colleague that she wanted to be the editor in chief of a magazine someday. It was a snippet that stayed with me, as her partying lifestyle seemed contrary to such a career goal, and for a while whenever I passed her desk I would worry over the incongruity. Eventually I found resolution in the idea of Bonnie Fuller, doyenne of celebrity journalism. That’s what S meant, I decided: she would be an editor like Fuller, rather than someone bookish, like the legendarily reticent New Yorker editor William Shawn. She even had a haircut like Fuller’s.

Eventually S quit the magazine. There must have been a goodbye party, with the customary boutique cupcakes and plastic Champagne flutes. Months wore on, maybe even years. Much to our collective shock, one Wednesday morning our parent company announced it was shutting down the magazine, and by Friday we no longer had jobs. At first I was intoxicated by the novelty of solitude: it was late January, a nice time of year to spend the day reading on the sofa. But in the weeks to come, I started to miss popping into colleagues’ offices to get their daily romantic updates, or just making absentminded loops through the corridors, halfheartedly hunting for chocolates.

So it came to pass that I started logging on to Facebook. And, like seemingly everyone else I’d ever met, eventually S “friended” me. My policy has been always to accept whoever asks, no question, and never to friend anyone myself. (In this way I maintain the fiction that I’m not an active user.) I glanced at S’s picture—that pretty smile and Bonnie Fuller shag—clicked “confirm,” and unconsciously relegated her to the vast, benign category of “friends” with whom I never interact, but who constitute a comforting background chorus.

S would accept no such fate. Straightaway, photos of her nightlife dominated my news feed. Her status updates were bubbly shrieks of uppercase letters and exclamation points. I considered “hiding” her—this is the function that allows you to make a friend invisible without going so far as to “defriend” her—but that seemed excessive. S was, after all, my envoy to an alternate universe of abandon. Twenty-five years old and barelegged in winter was a variety of fun I’d never known before.

Then, in the spring, a man—G—entered the frame. At first he appeared with other men, the whole group at a table in a bar, offering pints of beer to the camera. But quickly everyone else fell away and he emerged in photographs with S alone, his arm thrown around her. At first the gesture was friendly and drunk, but over time I could track the way his arm both relaxed and tightened, his hand cupping her shoulder, and see him taking possession.

It turned out that G lived in London, and in the fall S posted images from a visit: the couple in a crowded pub, or on a bridge at sunset. By now I habitually clicked through S’s photo albums, a diversion far better than popping into a colleague’s office for a romantic update. Here, I had the satisfaction of a love plot unfolding right in my living room, complete with revolving backdrops and the suspense inherent in a long-distance relationship. When was her next trip? Oh look, G is coming to town! At this I felt relief: I took it as evidence that he was as committed to her as she was to him.

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Kate Bolick is a writer in New York.

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