Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The neurosis Facebook invented

Emily "Prudence" Yoffe (and bear with me even if you're not a Prudie fan, this is merely the point of departure) recently got the following neurotic letter, signed "Hurt Guy":
Two of my dear friends from college got married to each other last weekend. I haven't seen them in four years, but we communicate from time to time on Facebook. I can think of three possibilities why I wasn’t invited: 1) My invitation got lost in the mail. 2) They forgot to invite me. 3) They chose not to invite me. I feel stung, left out, and hurt. Thanks to social media, I have seen photos and video from the rehearsal dinner, wedding, and reception. The event was not small; there were banquet tables for college classmates. For nearly two years, the bride and groom and I were among a tight-knit group who spent hours working together on the college newspaper. Outside of school we had parties at each other's apartments and long conversations over pitchers of beer. Is there were a tactful way to find out why they didn't include me?
Prudie responded with a nod to social-media weirdness, but concluded, "[U]ltimately it’s your problem if you feel you were robbed of a slice of the wedding cake." Which is on the one hand true, and on the other not quite right. I didn't think she was fair to the guy, because as neurotic as he does come across, Facebook has a way of bringing these neuroses to the fore. If you have these neuroses at all - and not everybody does, but I suspect most do - Facebook will magnify them.

Well, not so much magnify them as distort them. Facebook has brought us a form of neurosis that may not have existed before: the fear that people who you aren't close with, maybe hardly even know, or were close with ages ago, are hanging out without you. Whereas we all know that Facebook highlights preexisting anxieties - X is going to Yale Law School, X is engaged, X ran a marathon, X looks awesome in a Speedo - Facebook might well have invented this other problem. OK, maybe not invented - there have always been hyper-neurotic egomaniacs - but this was not among the normal human insecurities. Now, it has joined the more everyday - and rational! - anxiety about social exclusion from actual people in your life. That, too, can be magnified by Facebook, but this is something else. It's about feeling excluded from people who are not in your life, who you don't especially wish were in your life.

Facebook, in other words, gives you a warped sense of who you know, and how recently you were in touch with them. You may find that the people who feel most present in your life aren't the ones you actually see on a regular basis (friends who, for example, may not be on the site, or may not post much, or much that's personal), but the ones who amply document every social engagement. The whole if-it-isn't-on-Facebook-it-doesn't-count phenomenon. Wherein the people you actually hung out with last night feel less present than the ones who put 500 inexplicably captivating vacation photos. (Always in Greece, for some reason.)

The Prudie letter may not seem to fit the bill, because the guy says these were his close friends in college... or does it? Were they his close friends who've since abandoned him, or are they the acquaintances he remembers best, because they dominate his news feed?

The reason I feel for Mr. Neurosis is that I've totally had twinges of this, where, however momentarily, I find myself wondering why some people I haven't actually seen in person since I was 12 are hanging out without me. And this isn't even a neurosis I had at that age, when I was intensely concerned with friendship dynamics. I can't remember ever caring at all that a people not in my own circle presumably hung out on weekends. It wouldn't have occurred to me. I had all the usual clique anxieties of a middle-schooler at a Manhattan girls' school, but this, alas, wasn't one of them.

But Facebook distorts your concept of who your circles even consist of. These people who are your friends (who are, if you paused and thought about it for a moment, no such thing, but they keep appearing under that heading every time you sign on, and anything repeated enough times sounds reasonable) are hanging out without you. How dare they! Never mind that you would not in a million years have invited them to go do something, or indeed remembered that they existed if it weren't for the news feed. It can still feel, in that instant, like a rejection.

Obviously, the pro-sanity approach is to be self-aware, to allow the moment to pass, not to write a letter to an advice columnist, and most definitely not to angrily confront someone who maybe "liked" something you posted a year ago regarding why they didn't think to include you at BBQ held in a state you've never even visited. The great life lesson of adulthood is that other people are far more wrapped up in themselves than they are in you, and that's even the people who are, in some meaningful sense, in your life.


Britta said...

Cliques of friends in HS appear to remain together through this day (like entire bridesmaid party close), and even though I wasn't close to these people and didn't hang out with them then and have no particular desire to now, a part of me feels, "am I weird for only having a few high school friends I have any regular contact with?" Even though it's not anything I devote time to thinking about when not perusing FB wedding photos. The same is true a bit with college friendships, even though, again, I have very little desire to be actively more in touch with people I went to college with with (not because I dislike these people, but rather because I'm better with friendships in the present than actively maintaining LD friendships).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

OK, glad I'm not the only one to experience this! I think it comes both from the general Internet thing of feeling like you know people you either don't at all or don't well, but also from that category: "friends." If someone was once your friend, or even just is on that list, it can seem weird that they've excluded you, even if it would have been altogether odd if they'd included you.

And, more specifically to your point, I think the people who stay close are just more salient. The one's who've stayed in touch, here and there, with the people they liked the most don't have album upon album documenting this. Or if they do, it's two, three, four people, and not as dramatic somehow.

PG said...

With one or two exceptions, the only people from high school with whom I stay in touch are people who weren't really friends with me then (we didn't eat lunch together or anything), but actually became closer via social media when we were in college. Because I am ancient, that medium was ICQ, not Facebook, and I think frequent one-on-one online chats are far more binding of friendship than being a passive consumer of another person's FB or Twitter feed. Still, I tend to be a little skeptical of the idea that only seeing people face-to-face can construct meaningful relationships.

Never mind that you would not in a million years have invited them to go do something, or indeed remembered that they existed if it weren't for the news feed.

This is the key. Whenever I have the slightest inclination to wonder why so-and-so didn't invite me to X event, I remember exactly which people I invited to my wedding (also with banquet tables!) and the feeling is squelched. So far, none of those invitees has snubbed me for their own nuptials, with the exception of one friend who eloped. I'll try to remember to write Prudie if that happens, though.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Still, I tend to be a little skeptical of the idea that only seeing people face-to-face can construct meaningful relationships."

I think - and I said a bit re: this in my response to Britta - that the difference is Facebook. I without a doubt have more to do with you, someone I've met once, or Britta, someone I've never met, than with someone I met once at a party and passively - yup - follow on Facebook. And of course Facebook/email/blogs/etc. is useful for staying in touch with people who were once good offline friends but who've moved. It's not about in-person being magical, but about how this list of friends gives the impression that you have a social relationship with the people on the list beyond what's likely in most cases.

i said...

Nothing substantive to add except: oh god, I have actually had this feeling. A wedding I wasn't invited to. The weird thing? I was never friends with the people in question. They were kids of my parents' friends, and they happened to like each other and not me. So in my case, it wasn't a totally new feeling, but it was a recollection of how I felt when I was, oh, 10, and I had to spend time with these girls who actually had a friendship outside our parents' social events.

Kaleberg said...

In the old days people would Xerox documents instead of reading them. They'd record TV shows on their VCRs instead of watching them. Now, they "friend" people on Facebook instead of being friends to them. These are all wonderful time saving conveniences, but they aren't the same as the real thing.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of! Unless, like the Prudie guy, you're actually confronting the people in question.

But I think you hit upon one of the angles of this - it's about bringing you back to some time in your life when whichever people either were friends or seemed as if they ought to be. Whether you aren't currently close with them because they rejected you, you rejected them, or a mutual lack of interest is ultimately irrelevant. But it isn't a feeling that's possible in reaction to honest-to-goodness strangers. Just effective strangers.


Could be. But Facebook isn't necessarily instead of friendship. It's just that one typically has far, far more Facebook friends than friend-friends.