Truth be told, I thought it was going to be pretty straightforward: head over to SS Two Mall and watch some guy delete some friends from his Facebook contact list. Fun, awkward times. It’s not the kind of thing most of us would own up to doing (but we do, sometimes) and it’s certainly not something we’d feel comfortable doing in front of an audience. Deleting friends is something we like to do in private. But it went a little deeper than that, because you know, art.
“PURGE” was borne out of a singular experience in the digital life of Dr Brian Lobel, who presided over the workshop/lecture/performance with the 30 or so of us in the audience. The passing away of an estranged friend and former lover brought into stark light the fact that Lobel had been unfriended on MySpace some time before the death, an occurrence that escaped Lobel’s attention, and caused him to not find out about the passing of someone who used to be much closer to him, until much later.
It might not be as apparent to a younger generation who have always been surrounded by the trappings of the internet age, but as someone who had to transition from being locked in the physical world of landlines, fixed-time terrestrial TV and (egads) snail mail, digital life really has changed the way we assign value to just about everything. A message is slow in reaching someone if it takes more than 30 seconds over WhatsApp; a narrative is too difficult to digest if all five seasons of it takes up more than 20GB of space on our hard drives; friends aren’t as close as they were once we stop seeing their status updates seven times a day on our Newsfeed. And every once in a while, we conduct an apprehensive review of our friends list and see if there’s anyone of those non-status updating people we should be deleting. You know, for neatness’s sake. Friendships become a little commoditized, taking up space in online real estate that doesn’t really run out, but looks better when you keep things lean and socially impressive. The people you know become the furniture you decorate your virtual living room with.
Lobel proceeds to deleting some of his friends. He sends out a Facebook message to all of his 1,400-odd contacts and informs them of his performance and its intent to cull select friends from his list, and to ask them permission to use their names in public. And then he proceeds to let us in the audience vote on which contacts get to stay and which ones were to be deleted. It was unnerving and perversely exciting at the same time, being able to hold up a card saying either “KEEP” or “DELETE”, living vicariously through the online life of this man willing to cull the people he knows from his list. Some friends replied to Lobel’s message, expressing support for his experiment. Others were hurt that their friendship was to be reduced to a knee-jerk reaction by a group of strangers with little knowledge of their backstory with Lobel. Others pre-emptively deleted Lobel from their friends list. And a few invited the deletion, confident in the longevity of their friendship with Lobel regardless of whether they were still friends on Facebook or not.
How to up that ante? Easy: Lobel asked for volunteers to delete one of their friends from Facebook. I remarked later that, maybe as part of the Asian mentality, we are more prone to delete ourselves from online social networks rather than delete some of our contacts – the aversion for confrontation and awkwardness, coupled with an inherent inferiority complex and self-imposed humility, dictates that we fall on our swords rather than strike others out. A hand eventually juts out – a volunteer was willing to delete forever a friend from her list, in front of all of us. She logs on, and starts skimming her friends list. She finds a name, and describes their relationship. A casual acquaintance at best, who has not been in touch for almost as long as they’ve had each other on Facebook. “DELETE” cards flew up; we egged her on. She hit the “Unfriend” button; everyone clapped. Another volunteer: this time to re-add someone they’ve deleted. An ex, broken up under less than friendly circumstances. She’s blocked him permanently, and so his attempt to publicly re-add her failed. We all felt the hurt at the preemptive rejection.
What does this all mean? Is this the sum of human interaction in the digital age? Is quietly deleting someone from your Facebook list the 2014 version of moving to a new address and not informing your mailing list? Are friends just not that important anymore? Were they ever important? I suspect Lobel has his own answers to the questions he poses through this performance. His performance partner Niki Cheong, livetweeting as we in the audience interacted with Lobel, his Facebook account and his recollections of friends kept and abandoned, attempts to flesh out the mood of the room and posits a few of his observations as well, but the fleeting nature of Twitter’s microblogging platform gives his input into the proceedings the weight of flashing thoughts in the back of one’s head. It helps illustrate the impact one person, and one person’s thoughts and ruminations, has on our virtual lives. If anything, PURGE highlighted the one-sided nature of any relationship: it’ll only work for you if you’re still invested in it. No amount of closeness or accessibility will ever overpower the desire to still want to be in touch with someone; a message might take two seconds to reach someone rather than two weeks in the age of the internet, but one still has to decide whether a person is worthy of a message.
Is Lobel the agent of a relationship purge, or was he the subject of one? By conducting this very public experiment with his remaining contacts, was he acting out his re-evaluation of the people he’s chosen to surround himself with online, or is he trying to make sense of the process that led him to being culled by someone he once held very close to his heart?
Would you take steps to explore the worth of your friends, and your worth to them – or would you rather just purge yourself?
#Senifix: PURGE was held at the Kakiseni Freespace. For more information on Kakiseni initiatives and projects, head over to www.kakiseni.com.