I’m doing something different this weekend: I’m at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time since I moved to England. “What?” you may ask. “How have you not been before?” Well, to be honest, it was a cost thing. Hotel rooms seemed four times the normal cost and they’re not that cheap in the UK under the best of circumstances. And many places that were a little less unaffordable seemed to expect you were going to rent for an entire week. So: really, really expensive prices to watch shows of questionable quality? And it looked to me like the best came down to London anyway. So I sat it out.
But it happened that thanks to Air B&B I’d found a tip on a really cheap place to stay, and thanks to Lyn Gardner I’d heard about the Forest Fringe which is entirely free and had a really interesting slate of shows, many of them hitting a particular area of interest of mine: how new forms of communication (cellphones, social media) are affecting how we live our lives. Thus, it was obvious that one of the shows I had to see was Brian Lobel’s Purge, “a live performance that recounts Brian’s emotionally-disastrous installation in which he, over 25 hours, deleted his Facebook friends via public vote.” I arranged my arrival time in Edinburgh carefully, and VOILA, I was there!
I wasn’t expecting him to be American. And I wasn’t expecting him to be a monologuist (I was reminded of Mike Daisey a bit). But what did meet my expectations is that I got to hear of lots and lots of drama, in a way that allowed for substantial audience participation (which was both simultaneously gratifying and emotional). Lobel has been doing performances for quite a while – this one is part of a series on his experience of dealing with the death of his first boyfriend – and you’d expect his friends to have been somewhat immune to the trauma of having their relationships with him be potential fodder for his work. But no: from the very beginning, alerting people to his upcoming experiment caused people to IMMEDIATELY cut their Facebook ties with him. Waiting for a public judgment on the quality of their relationship with him wasn’t good enough; they wanted to avoid the whole circus.
I can sympathize with people who didn’t like the thought of having their relationship details revealed to a roomful of strangers (a situation made more intense by the fact the presentation, vote, and possible defriending was all taking place via a live video feed); but I expected a bit more sportsmanship, a desire to play, knowing that the reconnection could easily happen after the event was over. But no: in addition to the pre-removers, other people wrote so hostilely of their expectations that it was inevitable that they would be voted “out” – and, sadly, the things they revealed in their angry responses had the effect of permanently severing their ties with him.
Lobel’s experiment touched both on the Big Brother/Apprentice “who’s in/who’s out” gameshow trend but, more tellingly, on the construct of “friends” and “friending” created by using Facebook, and on the passive aggressive culture social media seems to have fostered. What makes a friend? Is it meaningful to have a thousand of them? (We were invited to live un-friend someone during the show; the degree of hostility manifested by the man who volunteered for this was quite surprising to me.) Is someone who is on your Facebook “friends” list or Twitter followed feed someone you’re actually close to? How does it affect you to see so much trivial information about people on a daily basis? How is it that this can seem like community but also be confused with community? As he discussed the complex stories of the people who became a part of this project, I found myself emotionally swept up into it, both the Roman Coliseum drama of thumbs up/thumbs down but also the horrible hurting sadness at how petty people can be when they’re not dealing with each other face to face, with voices and expressions to help soften their messages. And I thought about what it means to construct a community deliberately, and what kind of people you really want to have as part of your life, and the illusions you build up based upon a silly naming convention some Harvard kids thought up years ago that doesn’t really capture relationships.
At an hour in length, this show was a perfect afternoon snack, and the one I engaged with the most out of the eight shows I caught over the weekend. It also gave me a lot to think about afterwards – both about the people he’d made come to life, and about how “social media” has changed how we deal with each other. It also inspired me to do some writing. All that and it was free? Now, there was a BIG win! Thank you Forest Fringe!
(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, August 24th, 2013. It closed August 25th but may be revived again.)