This morning, at 7AM, after I’ve walked the dog, checked and rechecked that I have my lecture notes and student critiques for my 10 a.m. class, I sit at my desk with my second mug of coffee and open my laptop for my final morning ritual: Facebook.After I accept a few friend requests from persons once removed, and post a link to a news story about a woman who drowned in a giant vat of chocolate, I get to my final reason for being there: checking on Jessica Morrow’s profile.

It has been a couple of days, actually, since my last visit, and in the interim, she has written on a friend’s wall that she will be on the Cape this weekend, and why don’t they plan a play-date for their babies, and for themselves. She has taken a quiz to find out “What Kind of Mommy” she is (laid-back), and another to discover her stripper name (Candy Stripe).And, oh! She has posted some new photos.These are what interest me.I wriggle my hips in my ergonomic chair, take a sit of coffee, and scoot a few inches closer to my desk.

The first few images are of her pudgy son, in one of those baby trailers that people hitch to the back of their bikes.There he is at the beach, gleefully raising a tiny plastic shovel.Cute, cute, cute, snooze. I click through the images with increasing speed, her baby shifting in awkward motion, animated by my impatience.But wait.I go back.There is Jessica, in a blue bikini, the baby in her lap.Her arms are thin and tanned, belly smooth as when she was fourteen.I know, because I remember.

My girlhood was punctuated by friendships like ours: a collapsing of two worlds into one, the vacuum of total intimacy.As I grew older, entered my teenage years, this slipped into sex.Jessica Morrow was the first.

A few shots later, there she is again, squinting at the camera, one hand spooning mush into her son’s mouth. And there is her husband, a man of ordinary looks, though her beauty renders him homely by comparison.She smiles big for the photographer, surely her mother or brother, both of whom I remember well. They were the sort of wounded people whose pain makes them dangerous.They carried broken hearts on tanned legs, shielded by a menacing preppiness, and money they weren’t born into.

We were both early bloomers—angry, scared, and funny.It was 8th grade, a kind of love at first awkward meeting.I had returned to public school after a year in private that was prompted by my parents’ panic at discovering my newfound adolescent facility for lying, and stashing liquor bottles in my underwear drawer.“There’s a girl here who reminds me of you,” a boy I’d known since elementary school told me on my first day back.Jessica reminded me of me, too.

We scavenged our basements for old pictures of our mothers, beautiful in bellbottoms (hippy, mine – disco, hers).We sewed the fronts of worn band t-shirts onto other t-shirts and pronounced loudly in the school cafeteria that if we weren’t best friends we’d surely be lovers.Before meeting Jessica, I had thought that I was the only bisexual adolescent on the planet, simply because I was the only admitted one at my junior high school.

We talked very much like lovers, in fact—whispering into the phone late every night, laughing until we choked, swearing our undying loyalty.“I would die without you,” she told me, and my heart glowed.In binary orbit, it seemed, one’s gravity doubled.She confided in me her troubled past, troubles that made mine seem insignificant: a father in prison, who had tried to kill her mother.Mine was just a stranger in a Floridian trailer.Her stepfather was a republican, rich, a face-slapper.Mine adopted me, and so successfully that I often forgot were weren’t biologically related. We both hailed from broken families, mine the more mended.

I was glad to be strong enough to hold all her secrets, and her sadness, along with mine.

I lived on a pond, in the woods, she in a McMansion on the west side of our town, whose population nearly tripled during the summer months.When I dyed my hair green, her mother announced that our friendship was over.When it faded, I slunk back in through her heavy front door and up the carpeted stairs to her room, where we cuddled beneath the glazed gaze of her Kurt Cobain poster.

“You look like a freak!” her mother screamed at her a week later, when I painted Jessica’s fingernails black and drew a sad firefly on her forearm below some Nirvana lyrics.She took Jessica’s clothes to the dump while Jessica was at school, all her hand-sewn jeans and t-shirts, and a favorite hooded sweatshirt of my own with thumb-holes chewed into the cuffs.

“She made me go to the Gap!” Jessica sobbed into the phone that night, and made me promise I’d still love her if she came to school in a Polo shirt. I would, I said, I would love her always.

I flip back to my own profile to see if anyone has commented on my post about the chocolate-vat death.I “like” a “friend’s” status update.I update my own status: “I’m writing an essay about how I never write essays anymore because I’m always on Facebook.”The following comments appear almost immediately:

Friend #1: Hell yes.

Friend #2: Ja. Uh-huh.

Friend #3: yep.

Friend #4: Great, Melissa! You just caused an infinite feedback loop singularity which will swallow the Earth and kill us all. Gyah!

Melissa Febos: I know! It’s like I’m holding a mirror and standing in front of a mirror, and falling into a virtual creative tunnel of my descending selves. This is the future people: meta-narcissism.

Friend #3: the above comment is the one that will go in giant bold print in the box between the columns, the one that sums up the section. and there can be an black & white mc escher style illustration of some suicide girl looking chick with droopy knee socks and big sad anime eyes spinning into a spiral that is reflected infinite times in endless mirrors.

Friend #4: Hahaha… Meta-narcissism. That’s awesome. Wait, isn’t that redundant? Oh great! Here we go again! AAAaaaahhhhhhh……

It’s true; I’m actually clicking back and forth between my browser window and a Word document in which I’ve begun this essay.I’m researching, I think, and consider adding to my status update comments, but don’t.I’m networking, I’ve been telling myself for the last year, in which my time spent on Facebook has been steadily increasing.This became true when I sold my first book, and actually had something to promote beyond an interest in what I had for breakfast, or what cute position my dog was licking himself in.But what am I doing when I check my former friend’s profile page? What am I looking for? Evidence of her younger self?More likely my own, preserved, as we often are, in the things we loved at a particular time.But objects don’t change.My old Pixies t-shirt is the same.Mix tapes don’t evolve.But people?People change.

Before Facebook, there was Myspace.Before Myspace, Friendster.I know people who don’t even remember Friendster, and its ancillary distraction, Dogster, where the presumption that anyone really cared was at its thinnest.Friendster is obselete.Myspace, Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, She Writes, and their kin have all gone the way of actual social groups: defined along divisions of race, class, gender, and politics.Myspace, I am told, is now primarily the province of people of color, and musicians.Facebook is overwhelmingly white.My mom is on Facebook.

Maybe Jessica and I would have been lovers faster if we weren’t best friends, but the logic behind that prohibition dissolved when she went to summer camp and kissed her first girl.

For all my sexy dreams about Ani DiFranco and Jeannette Winterson, I had never actually touched another girl with lustful intent. I fantasized as much as any teenager, but my only physical exchanges had taken place with men.While the high of seduction, and being seen sexually by men was an erotic experience, the actual sex acts had all found me surprisingly numb, disoriented, and ashamed, though I didn’t know, back then, what to call the oily feeling that slipped around me afterward.

Her mouth was so soft!I’d never touched a breast not my own.Hers were different, smaller, nipples the color of Band-Aids instead of dark like mine.My instincts told me that one of us had to lead.While she, with more experience, had initiated, even then I coped with uncertainty by assuming control.

“Softer,” she said, and a different sort of shame coursed through me.Even now, I cringe at my unknowing bearishness.I touched the way I wanted to be touched, I just didn’t know it yet.We usually do, don’t we?

I scroll back to revisit the bikini shot.She’s so thin, but especially for a new mother.I wonder if she eats, how much remains of the obsession we shared but never spoke of.I tug gently on the snarl of feelings her image agitates in me, wanting and not wanting to tease apart the braid of concern and curiosity, streaked with schadenfreude. Yes, a part of me hopes that she suffers still. Or, at least craves knowing whether she does or not.It’s ugly, and I don’t pull hard on the thought.Instead, I disappear her image and click over to the fan page for my new book, a memoir about my own past suffering. There are 20 new fans, none of whom I know personally.This prompts dual pangs of pride and embarrassment.I sigh deeply and get up to refresh my coffee.

It wasn’t long after that first tousle in my bed that things began to change between us in another capacity.We entered high school.I turned fifteen that September of our freshman year, my only year of high school.

A cruelty sprung up between Jessica and me, as if to counter the tenderness between our bodies.We were assigned different lunch periods, and she began eating (or not eating, as it were) with her soccer teammates.I smoked in the woods behind the cafeteria with juniors who sported nose rings and steel-toed boots.One day, we hitchhiked home from school—praying that no teachers, or friends of our parents would roll up, but giddy with the risk.Afterward, in my bed, she twirled a hank of my hair around her palm.

“If it weren’t for me you’d have a lot of friends,” she said softly.“You’re good with people.They like you.”

“I like you,” I said.

There was no fight, like the way she’d go cold and not speak to me if I flirted with a boy at school, no day when we broke apart in one motion.Like a seasonal change, it was slow, and altered everything: the smell of the air, the bend and hue of trees, light as it fell on things. I felt it like the smell of autumn, as a momentary piercing in my chest, sucking the breath out of me on the school bus, in the hallway between classes when I saw that her soccer teammates had decorated her locker with crepe paper and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

I think she tried to convince me that I was leaving, but looking back, I’m not so sure.Maybe that’s why I’m still looking for her.I sure don’t stalk the people I’ve hurt on Facebook, anyway.

The people whose profiles I regularly visit is prodding some wound, fingering a bruise no longer visible, but whose hurt I can still summon with touch.I don’t look at a certain ex-boyfriend’s profile (well, not much), but his ex before me?The one who is also a writer, and was always less than friendly? I check her profile monthly.That was six years ago.

I’m not proud of this.We rarely are of our obsessions.They are both self-indulgent and punishing, licking our wounds with a sharp tongue.God knows why I feel the need to air this one publicly—most such practices are intensely private, as shame tends to make us.But what is obsession but a symptom of something else, the desire to understand something, to self-soothe, which is also part of what drives me to write.I am looking for something.Not Jessica herself; I have no desire to see her in the flesh. It’s something else.

When you have loved, when I love, I give so much of myself.At least, it feels that way. I think we all make mirrors of the things we love, and take on that duty for them.It doesn’t mean we don’t see them, too, but part of the appeal of love is its assurance that we do, in fact, exist—are visible as someone who can be recognized from one day to the next.Narcissism is an integral part of love.The word narcissism has become synonymous with excessive self-love, but really, the story of Narcissus is a story of the inability to accept love, to recognize one’s own self in others, or in nature.

And the end of love?Well, breaking apart does not always coincide with the end of love, which makes it unavoidably an act of emotional violence.We keep things for one another in love: bits of knowledge, faith, memories, skills—there is even a neurological explanation for this divvying up of inventory, some very unromantic proof of love’s economy that explains why we feel in breakups as if we are “losing a part of ourselves.”Because we are.And while we often try to wrench back what we’ve given, something is always lost, and we can usually feel it long before we feel any gain.What people leave with us feels, initially, like a liability.We don’t want it.It hurts. All this is what makes love a spiritual experience, or a masochistic one, depending on your perspective: an experience born of desire, whose only guarantee is change. In the desire to feel more solid, we run toward something that promises a death of some kind, because even if the love doesn’t end, it changes us.It’s stupid, and hopeful, and sometimes very brave.

When I was a kid, I used to think that when I closed my eyes, I became invisible.I couldn’t wrap my head around the logic of being seen when I couldn’t see.I remember standing in my family’s gravel driveway, confounded, as my mother chuckled at me, and insisted that I was still there, even with my eyes squeezed shut. It made sense that blindness would erase me, and that didn’t scare me until love did.

Facebook is also a mirror.I look at my own profile, too, more than I’d like to admit.How am I seen, if I am?It’s not only ego, but plain humanity; we want to be accounted for, and accurately.We want to account for one another.In response to the oft-made argument against Facebook—that it replaces actual human interaction with virtual interaction—a friend recently argued that Facebook has not alienated us; a great many other forces had already been doing that long since the advent of Friendster, even.Way back when, she argued (more specifically than I can here), we all lived in villages, as many people still do, where pretty much everyone knew what everyone else was doing at any given time of day.As communal animals, we are meant to be accounted for.Just like, as animals who love, we know it is somehow linked to our survival.

As for the argument that Facebook breeds narcissism and the obsessive checking of exes’ profiles (I’m not alone in this, I know), well, I thought of Jessica and wondered how she turned out long before Facebook offered accompanying images and factual confirmation of my suspicions. My point being that the obsession is what it is.It’s cowardly to assign the parts of ourselves we find ugly to the light that reveals them.But it’s not really the obsession, is it? It’s the wound we feel ashamed of.What is that, the instinct of shame in our wounds?Perhaps not everyone has this, but some of us do. And we love to assign responsibility to things we can name, see, define.What’s inside of us is known only by feeling and instinct; it requires faith. We have to close our eyes and still believe that we exist, even when we can’t see.We have to accept that others might see us first. And that they might still change, moved by forces that are beyond us.Or, they might simply stop loving us.Sometimes that seems like the worst thing that could happen, but it’s not. Death is also known for being the worst thing that can happen, but how can we make such a presumption about a thing we don’t understand at all?

Jessica came the closest anyone ever has to breaking up with me.It wasn’t the first time my heart got hurt, but it might have been the last time that I didn’t see it coming.My Facebook stalking is embarrassing, but it doesn’t scare me.What scares me is that, since then, I might have loved less than I could. This is not a new revelation. What, “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”?Is that really what I’m getting at?The Facebook stalking is not some perversion of social dynamics; I’m just chasing my own broken heart so that I can make some more room in it. The only new thing here is the technology.

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MELISSA FEBOS is the author of the memoir, WHIP SMART (St. Martin’s Press, 2010). Her writing has been published in Hunger Mountain, Salon, Dissent, Glamour, The Southeast Review, ReDivider, Storyscape Journal, The New York Times, Bitch Magazine, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, among other places, and she has been profiled in venues ranging from the cover of the New York Post to NPR’s Fresh Air. A 2010 & 2011 MacDowell Colony fellow, she has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, The New School, and NYU, and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. Currently Assistant Professor of English at Utica College, Melissa splits her time between Brooklyn and Clinton, NY. She is currently at work on a novel. More info at melissafebos.com.

18 responses to “What Kind of Webstalker are You?”

  1. Tom Hansen says:

    “Like a seasonal change, it was slow, and altered everything: the smell of the air, the bend and hue of trees, light as it fell on things.”

    That is a freaking beautiful line. And I know that feeling. I also, have not really ever had anyone break up with me, it’s always just sort of slowly dissolved over time like a slo-motion Alka-Seltzer or something, tiny pieces flying off in some chemical reaction. Bubbles. I’m also adopted. There’s probably some deep psychological reason–leaving before they can leave me,…or something.

    I like your writing very much

  2. Amanda says:

    I ask myself many of those same questions, but probably in less-graceful words.

  3. Thanks, Amanda – that’s the hope; that I’m not the only one.

  4. zoe zolbrod says:

    This beautifully-written piece hits me where I live–too often, on FB! And picking apart various shames.

    I love the conclusion: “The Facebook stalking is not some perversion of social dynamics; I’m just chasing my own broken heart so that I can make some more room in it. The only new thing here is the technology.” But man, the technology makes the obsession so much easier to feed. And gives up such red meat.

  5. dwoz says:

    And then there’s the unspoken “other shoe to drop…”

    how many are facebook Stalking ME? I mean, I have a clear conscience, but…

  6. Matt says:

    Wonderfully written piece, Melissa.

    I confess that I cannot look at someone’s FB photo galleries (even ones that shots of me happen to be in) without automatically feeling like a cyberstalker. This doesn’t happen with Flickr, Instagram or any of the photo apps for Twitter. It’s an FB-specific response cultivated by the knowledge that FB is such a useful tool for cyberstalking, akin to feeling like a potential murder just by picking up a hand gun.

    Of course, that doesn’t stop me from posting photos onto my own FB page, but that’s a study in an entirely different sort of obession right there.

  7. Mary Richert says:

    I do it, too. I obsessively click through the photo galleries of old friends wondering what they’re like, if they still have that quirky sense of humor or the annoying attention-seeking habits. It does make me wonder — if all of us are doing this, maybe some old friends are quietly looking through our photos and nursing some old wounds… It might actually make me feel better if that were true.

  8. Brittany says:

    Beautifully composed-I have felt the same things. I love what you said about some people are ashamed of their wounds-it certainly os instinctive and I certainly identify.

  9. “It’s cowardly to assign the parts of ourselves we find ugly to the light that reveals them.”

    Honest and beautifully-written, Melissa. The Internet-stalking age has opened up a whole new forum for self-examination which, as you’ve demonstrated in this piece, presents opportunities for cultural criticism and meditation. The reflection in your essay does an excellent job of revealing the not-so-new human compulsions and behaviors that new technology simply invites us to indulge and, when we’re as smart as you are, explore.

  10. damn

    damn fine

    oh

    yes

  11. Joe Daly says:

    >>My point being that the obsession is what it is. It’s cowardly to assign the parts of ourselves we find ugly to the light that reveals them. << Well said, Febos. So true. The simple truth is that assigning responsibility to people, places, and situations too often relieves us of the need to look within and see how we contributed to our own angst. Uncomfortably good read. Always a pleasure to see you on here.

  12. […] What Kind of Webstalker Are You? an essay by Melissa Febos […]

  13. Jo says:

    I love this. It works for just-friends who broke up with you too. That girl friendship thing is so strong, and so fragile.

  14. Steven says:

    Thank you. I have an ex that I still obsess over sometimes, much to the chagrin of most of my current loved ones and friends. I feel a bit more understood after reading this.

    My breakup, though, was one that happened fairly recently, in the grand scheme of things, well into the facebook era. And my ex’s reaction in the months after the breakup was this: that she would not let anyone webstalk her. Her facebook profile went away, a blog she’d had for years was deleted, profiles on any number of other websites were expunged or locked down or abandoned. She chose to leave the internet, essentially, as far as I can tell.

    And I hear people all the time who are at least thinking about getting off facebook altogether; not enough privacy, they feel too exposed. I wonder if we’re coming to the end of a period of opening up to one another and reconnecting, and the beginning of a backlash, a closing in? A shutting down of lines of communication, and of the means of seeking one another out?

  15. This was beautiful, and haunting. As someone who does a fair bit of webstalking myself, and semi regrets defriending certain people because now my webstalking is incomplete, I totally relate.

  16. Melissa says:

    I know!! I totally regret de-friending people I still want to stalk. Thanks, Rachel.

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