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Love in the Time of Technology

Stalking our exes, I imagine, is as old as exes themselves and this latest iteration just allows us to use quicker and better and smarter technology to create a virtual map of our ex's life without us.
06/20/2007 02:12pm ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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Dave Gorman dumped me during fifth period of sixth-grade math, in a pencil-scrawled note his friend passed me when the teacher wasn't looking. I went to the bathroom and cried, but by seventh period, I was fine.

When Steve and I finally said goodbye in late August of my junior year in college, I drove my car to an overlook on the George Washington Parkway and cried until a police officer came by, made me walk in a straight line, and told me to move on. So I did.

In fact, until recently, I'd never really had a problem breaking up and moving on.

Sam and I broke up this past fall -- amicably and mutually -- and I was more or less doing fine. Then Sam sent me an email that said: "Just wanted to let you know that I changed my Facebook profile to incorporate our current status."

He was referring to Facebook.com, an online social network for college kids. He was actually being a good guy, too, letting me know that the personal information part of his profile no longer read "in a relationship with Ashley Parker," and I should probably change my profile too. But for the first time, I felt oddly crushed. Sam was no longer "in a relationship with Ashley Parker," and I was no longer "in a relationship with Samuel Reeves." Innocently enough, Sam had cemented our break-up for the entire world -- well, online world -- to see. In the click of a button, everything suddenly seemed more permanent, more tragic somehow.

Finally I admitted to my best friend that breaking up on Facebook was almost harder than breaking up in real life, expecting her to laugh.

"Oh, changing your online status is the most devastating part of a break-up," she said. "Absolutely."

Then a friend of mine from college confessed that he'd cringed when he saw that his old girlfriend -- who he had dumped -- had changed her Facebook profile from "in a relationship" to "looking for whatever I can get." Whatever she could get? Really?

Of course, this phenomenon is not totally new. Stalking our exes, I imagine, is as old as exes themselves -- steaming open letters in the days of Jane Austen, and calling in to check his voice mail in the early 90s of Bridget Jones -- and this latest itieration just allows us to use quicker and better and smarter technology to create a virtual map of our ex's life without us.

But for me, the obsession started innocently enough on Facebook. Did Sam change his relationship status to "single," I wondered, or did he generously leave that slot blank? (He left it blank.) Had he added any new female friends? And were they cute? You could even browse through digital pictures of these girls and, if especially desperate, have your friends browse through them too, for a reassuring second opinion.

"See," I would explain, "If you look in the back corner... yeah, very closely...and squint, maybe... you can see a girl in a black tank top..."

"You mean the girl reading a book? Who's barely even in the picture?" came my friend's incredulous reply. "I'm hanging up now."

But I was hooked. And Sam's Facebook "wall" -- an interactive space where his friends could post messages -- offered yet another outlet for my probing neuroses. I scoured his wall, reading and rereading his messages in my search for clues about any interloping suitors. Just who was that bikini-clad girl, writing "I had fun with you!" Oh, that was his younger sister. But what about the cute blond from Texas, wishing him a happy birthday. I repeated the message aloud, trying to gauge tone: Did she mean happy-birthday-we-went-to-elementary-school-together-and-I-just-want-to- say-hi-happy-birthday, or did she mean happy-birthday-Mr.-President-happy- birthday?

MySpace.com was even worse. This networking site forces you to choose a relationship status -- single, swinger, in a relationship, married, or divorced, but you have to choose one -- making that "on a break but not quite broken up" stage particularly awkward.

You could also check the last time someone had logged on to their own MySpace account, and I checked to see if Sam had been on recently. Had he been on too recently? Or too frequently? What if he also was tracking someone else? I realized I was cyber-stalking someone to see if he, too, was cyber-stalking someone. I'd reached an all-time low, I thought. Things could only improve from here.

But things, of course, did not improve. In stalking Sam, I had realized how utterly stalkable I was -- and, in looking at my own profiles, what a dull and un-stalk-worthy stalkee I would make. Suddenly, the instant message I put up when I was away from my computer took on grave importance. Sam might see it, after all, and I needed to affect that perfect combination of nonchalant fun or carefree casual. My actual activities now seemed horribly mundane -- "Reading the Sunday Times" or "Just beat the roomies in a marathon Scrabble session" would no longer suffice -- but I couldn't skew to the other extreme, either. "Wine with the new guy across the hall," and even "Dinner and a movie" both fell into the trying-too-hard camp. Not to mention they were more than a little dishonest. I generally opted for cryptic song lyrics, and am forever indebted to the Grateful Dead's assorted musings ("Every silver lining has got a touch of gray.")

As it turned out, the MySpace stalking was just a minor blip in my actual all-time low, which occurred a few days later, when my boss called me one Saturday afternoon with a quick question. She was horrified to find me sitting at home, flipping between newspapers and Instant Message Stalking Sam.

"Instant message stalking?!" she asked, still sounding worried, but now equal parts intrigued, as if I'd just discovered a novel way of keeping tabs on the confounding men in our lives. "What's that?"

I didn't have the heart to tell her that it wasn't that cool, that I was beholden to a machine, perched and waiting for the cling of a new instant message. Nor did I want her to realize that her dutiful researcher and fact-checker had also become a wee bit unhinged. But against my better judgment, I tried to explain.

"Well, let's say Sam-- er, I mean, Someone -- put up an away message at 9 p.m. on Friday night, saying he was going out," I began. "Instant messaging lets you tell when that person is back using their computer again. So let's say he put up an away message on Friday night, and now it's, oh..."

I checked my watch.

"...and now it's 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, and he's still not back at his computer. That clearly means he went out and met an amazing girl and stayed over at her house and then to make matters worse he probably liked her enough to go get brunch with her the next day which is the only possible reason he's not back at his computer yet and they're probably right now running through a park while 'Brown Eyed Girl' plays in the background."

"Hypothetically," I added.

My boss cut me off. "Maybe he slept late," she said. "Maybe he's just not using his computer. It is 75 degrees and sunny -- he might just be outside."

I could tell she was really worried when she offered to go to some wonky soiree she would never have considered just hours before.

"Look, on Wednesday we'll go to that book party," she said. "I bet there will be lots of guys your type there -- smart, dorky, awkward."

That was the moment I realized I needed to make a change. I declared a technological moratorium on Sam. I stopped checking Facebook and MySpace, and I deleted his number from my phone so I could no longer text him, just to see what he was up to. I also took him off my Buddy List, so I could no longer tell when he was or was not instant messaging, or how long he'd been away from his computer. A friend even offered to rig my Gmail account so that all of Sam's emails landed directly in my junk folder.

At some point, finally, I began to recover, and was able to laugh at the other hapless souls, bound to their computer screens by a person distinctly not on the other end. I spent a day outside, wandering through Dupont Circle with a friend. I used the time I would have been stalking to reread Katha Pollit's piece in The New Yorker, an homage to "Webstalking" from early 2004. I still understood her pain, but I no longer felt it.

Moreover, her essay wasn't relevant anymore -- neither to myself nor to any other would-be stalkers. Not yet three years old, her essay is, in the hyper-speed of technology, a bit like binary code -- ground-breaking for its time, but almost painfully simple at second glance. After all, Pollitt was just Googling her former lover, albeit frantically, and in every available search engine. But still -- how simple! How philistine! How utterly cyber-stalking 1.0! I wanted to shake her. Didn't she know this addicting pastime had progressed to version 2.0, if not higher. Didn't she know about SingleStat.us?

SingleStat.us is a now-defunct service that, for a mere $3.95, would email you the very instant any of your crushes changed their MySpace status to single. (I imagine that first flirty email would require an icebreaker like, "Now that you've been single for, oh, three hours, 39 minutes, and 22 seconds or so...") The website, however, struck me as a bit silly, and reflected depths I was no longer willing to plunge. Besides, I had better things to do with my time.

A few days later, I happily accompanied my boss to a book party at a storied D.C. haunt. The guys weren't quite my type, but there were books and wine and friends. And, thankfully, no wireless internet.