Social Media’s A Stage, And We’re All Merely Players

Hey, breaking news, guys: the paper of record has just discovered that social media makes breaking up harder than it used to be. In an article called “Breaking Up in a Digital Fishbowl,” The New York Times reports that in this day of shared email passwords, Facebook, Twitter and various other social media platforms, it’s nearly impossible to truly disconnect from an ex:

[The] idea of what it means to break up is [also] being redefined. Where once a spurned lover could use scissors (literally) to cut an ex out of the picture, digital images of the smiling couple in happier days abound on the Web and are difficult to delete. Status updates and tweets have a way of wending their way back to scorned exes, thanks to the interconnectedness of social media. And breakups, awkward and drawn-out in person, are even more so online as details are parsed by the curious, their faces pressed against the digital glass.

Even for those of us who have been spared messy online breakups, it isn’t exactly news that sites like Facebook redefine (and invent new) dating rituals that are complex and difficult to navigate. Though the article lacks any actual news, it does give us an excuse to revisit the issue, one that brings many questions to the forefront. Like: is the convenience of connection worth the price of our privacy? And: are we merely “performers” on the stage of social media platforms, continually changing our role as our relationships to the other players change and evolve?Count me among the people who would be hesitant to change my relationship status until I was sure that said relationship was serious. In fact, it wasn’t until I began dating my husband that I ever listed myself as “in a relationship” on any social media site. Then again, it was 2006 when we met, and sites like Twitter and Facebook were still mere babies and I wasn’t active on either of them. But even on my personal blog, which I started a couple years before I met my husband, and on sites like MySpace and Friendster (remember those?), which I had a presence on, I avoided ever giving specific details about my dating life. It’s funny for a blogger to say, but I didn’t want to give up my privacy, or jeopardize budding relationships, or make the inevitable disentanglement of those short-lived relationships any more complicated than they had to be. But now that I am in a relationship I acknowledge online, I can’t say I’m any less of a performer than everyone else who makes their private lives public.

Sure, the chances of me separating from my husband are much slimmer than the person who just began dating her new boyfriend a few months ago, but we’re both engaging in an online performance. We post smiling photos of ourselves with our significant others and link to their respective pages. We tweet about vacations we take, spending the holidays with our “boos” (well, OK, I would never use that word, but still) and how nice it is to ring in the new year with someone we love. And for whose benefit? Former high school classmates we haven’t seen in 15 years? Frenemies we feel a little competitive with? For the guy who broke our heart and still has access to our Facebook page? After all, our close friends — the people we hopefully still engage with offline — already know about our private lives. And they know about them in a much more intimate way than those who view them through the distilled presentation we perform online.

Presenting our lives in a neatly-wrapped package isn’t new, of course. It wasn’t born in the digital age. Christmas cards and newsletters are an example of a similar performance that has existed far longer than the internet. But social media, certainly, makes these presentations much more pervasive … and a lot harder to distance ourselves from when the package changes. I’m not suggesting we should stop sharing personal information online (my feeling is that that’s becoming increasingly impossible), or even that these performances are necessarily “bad.” They aren’t, and their benefits are worth a post of their own. But I do think we should — all of us — be more guarded in the connections we make on social media sites, the people we let into our (online) lives, and what we choose to reveal about ourselves. Most importantly, we need to question our own motives for sharing what we do (and realize that others have their own motives, too).

For some people, the motivation in sharing certain things lies in measuring where they stand with someone else. Our own Amelia, for example, says:

My current boyfriend and I knew each other a few years ago but then reconnected via Facebook. I started noticing that he would “like” my status updates or comment on my wall posts. So now, to a certain degree, I know that if he continues to do that, he’s still into me. I mean, we’re sort of past the point of not knowing how the other feels, but, say, if we get in a little fight or something and I’m maybe feeling a little insecure, I’ll find myself posting a status update or link or something that I KNOW he would find interesting, almost to bait him. If he responds in some way, I know things are okay. It’s definitely a way of assessing whether someone is into you. Even when I was just randomly dating dudes, one way they would show they were interested is retweeting something I wrote on Twitter or posting a link from The Frisky — once they stop doing that, WARNING SIGN.

She also adds:

Even though I am not friends with my ex on Facebook anymore, a few of my friends still are, mostly so they can tag me in photos where I look amazing and am having fun. That way if my ex ever looks at their photos he’ll see me thriving without him.

In the end, “virtual reality” isn’t real reality; it’s a mega-performance in which we’re all players, often motivated by desires far more complex — and often less benign — than simply wanting to connect.