The Wall Street Journal’s Elizabeth Bernstein weighed in on the touchy subject of Facebook and the “ex-factor” if you want to call it that. You know what I’m talking about, here: the ease with which we can now stay in touch with folks from different periods in our lives using social networks…including some folks who were more than just “friends.”
The article, from yesterday’s Journal, “When Old Flames beckon on Facebook,” is just the latest from Bernstein, who seems to have a love-hate relationship with everybody’s favorite social network. That is: she hates Facebook and everything it represents, but loves all the great and click-happy story ideas that are flowing from it, like August’s “How Facebook Ruins Friendships,” or September’s “The Helicopter Parents are hovering on Facebook.”
As with those pieces, the “old flames” piece follows a familiar logic: social networks like Facebook and MySpace have empowered individuals in ways that are causing all kinds of social dissonance — nuisance status posts, intrusive parenting and, now, unsolicited queries from ex lovers. The thesis here is the same, also: all this stuff is healthy and even constructive, up to an ill defined point, after which its unhealthy and destructive. Good luck out there!
In the meantime, Bernstein points out, Facebooking old flames carries a host of risks: your ex may be “transformed” by the intervening years in ways that are unsettling. Even worse: they may still harbor hurt feelings or just be uninterested in mixing up their past (aka “you”) with their present. The illustration accompanying her article depicts the spectre of a tux clad beau, prom ready, floating out of a computer monitor as a startled looking mom dishes out mashed potatoes to her adoring husband and kids. I think that just about captures it.
Even before MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn came about, I went out of my way to stay in touch with friends from my childhood, from high school and other periods of my life: college, graduate school, work. Snail mail, then e-mails usually sufficed to keep tabs on what everyone was up to – friends and exes alike. Facebooking just makes all that much easier. As to the ethics of it, I think this is the kind of thing about which reasonable spouses..err…people can disagree. My wife of 13 years (and Facebook buddy) has a big network of friends from her home town, college, grad school and work on Facebook. When I ask whether she has any ex boyfriends in the mix, she adopts a kind of repulsed, gagging expression that might involuntarily wash across your face when you pick a moldy, semi-liquidified piece of organic matter out of the bottom of the vegetable bin. But I think connecting with exes as a product of the same impulse that prompts us to reach out to other friends, rather than Bernstein’s chief culprits: morbid curiosity, a desire for forgiveness (or vindication) or lonely dissatisfaction with our current lot. I have around 400 Facebook friends. I’ve “dated” (loosely defined) just over 3 percent of them, by my calculation. In some cases, they reached out to friend me, in others I reached out to friend them. In a few cases, the Facebook relationship is just a companion to a healthy real-world relationship that managed to survive the intervening years before Mr. Zuckerberg’s Marvelous Network came along. Facebook has provided a wonderful means of keeping in touch, and I certainly don’t see it as a lurking threat to my marriage. Bernstein’s disapproving words aside, grown-ups know that “you can’t go home again,” to borrow a phrase from Thomas Wolfe — or, at least, that “you can’t go out again.” Nor is it clear that we’d want to even if we could.
As for the WSJ’s suggestion for ground rules when contacting exes –they strike me as rather batty. Look but don’t touch drive bys of ex flames profiles? Seems like proto-stalker behavior to me. Limiting online “friends” to people of the same sex? Please. Then there’s Bernstein’s idea of sharing your social networking password with your spouse. (“You share your online banking password, so what’s the difference?”) Beyond the fact that there may be information you don’t want to share with your spouse that isn’t prurient. (Facebook was invaluable when I was planning a surprise 40th birthday party for my wife.), I’m not really sure how inviting one’s spouse to be an editor of your social network helps either party. If the level of trust is really that low in your marriage, shouldn’t you be having a talk — face to face, rather than crawling over each others Facebook account looking for evidence of betrayal? If your partner is really bent on having an affair, would your having access to their social network account really be much of an obstacle to them carrying it out? After all, married people have managed to carry them off for thousands of years before Facebook came along, right? My 2c.