I lost all my friends nine years ago.
It was my own fault. I hooked up with a friend’s boyfriend and instantly regretted it. I betrayed a friend I really cared about and nothing I could say or do would erase what I’d done. When our entire friendship group eventually found out, one by one, friends began dropping like flies. Some sent messages to tell me they knew what I’d done, and others simply faded away. This moment is, to date, the most shameful of my life.
Nearly a decade later, I still have an unconquerable urge to know how these former friends of mine are doing. So, I look them up on Google, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to try and gain a sense of how their lives are unfolding. The profound sadness I felt back then has dissipated, the tears have stopped, and new friends have come into my life (and stayed, thank goodness), but I can’t shake this desire to just know how their lives are playing out.
I know it’s probably a bit of a weird thing to do — maybe even slightly unhealthy — but this practice doesn’t come from a place of malice — just curiosity.
I hesitated sharing this particular story from my past as it’s a moment in time that I am not proud of. But I also wanted to answer a question that’s been lurking in my own mind for some time now — why do I keep looking at the profiles of the friends I’ve lost? Am I trying to recreate the physical proximity I once felt with their digital presence? Is it a guilty conscience? Nostalgia? Something I should stop doing immediately? All of the above?
Once I’d got over my am-I-a-freak-for-doing-this qualms, I put it to the people of Twitter to see if other people do this too. Turns out, a lot of people indulge in the occasional spot of internet-searching for former friends — and many have very interesting reasons for doing so.
“I like knowing just how they’re doing — are they alive? Are they healthy? Are they happy?”
Journalist Eric Francisco says he Googles old friends that he’s lost touch with and people he once thought he’d never fall out of touch with. “One close friend unfriended me mysteriously and to this day I don’t know why,” Francisco tells me. He thinks his occasional internet searches of former friends stems from sentimentality. “I’m a sentimental person,” he says. “I like knowing just how they’re doing — are they alive? Are they healthy? Are they happy?”
Francisco has also used the opportunity of his idle internet searching to get in touch with those friends. “I’ve actually messaged a few people on occasion, and you always make that lofty promise to catch up,” he says. “I try to follow up but life always gets in the way. Still, it’s enough for me to know that the people who mattered to me years ago are still doing okay.”
In this era of chasmic political divides, Francisco says he is trying to “look for the bits of positivity” wherever he can. “Knowing that former friends are also doing okay for themselves, that gives me comfort,” he adds. “Life is short, man. We can’t hold these grudges forever.”
This behaviour isn’t limited to search engines. Fashion blogger Urszula Makowska uses Instagram to check in on her former best friend who she’s no longer in contact with. “I do this to see how they are doing,” says Makowska. “I have a specific friend I do this to because I miss her, but we went our own separate ways and do not talk at all.” She says she looks at her former friend’s Insta when they randomly pop into her mind, and when she misses them. “I do it because I miss that person in my life and I hope to see they are doing well,” she adds.
Student engineer Will, who gave his first name only, says he looks up the people he’s fallen out with around one or two times a month. “I do it to see what they are doing and to gauge how their life has changed without me being around,” says Will. “It makes me feel jealous and sad sometimes, to be honest, when I see them being around other people and/or doing interesting things.”
As for the reasons we do this, we should look not just to human nature, but also the nature of the internet.
“There is an inherent curiosity in human condition, and the digital economy teases this out”
Dr Yasmin Ibrahim — reader in international business and communications at Queen Mary University of London — says “there is an inherent curiosity in human condition, and the digital economy teases this out.”
“The internet and social media constitute a new mode of ‘sociality’ where people offer details of their lives and status,” says Ibrahim, adding that the internet now exists as a new medium of “sociality” which renders humans “trackable entities who can be followed and in some ways surveilled through their visual presence online.” Ibrahim says the logic of social networking sites rests on “sharing our lives and its minutiae” with our circle — our friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. But sharing those details can “invite the gaze of others who are no longer in contact with you.”
Per Ibrahim, this “trackable economy aligned to searching, tagging and following” means we recreate our IRL relationships through “the internet architecture.” The digital economy combines our curiosity about other people — including those we’ve known in the past — with the ability to search for them. “We are increasingly embedded in networks where past contacts and present lists of acquaintances can be consumed through this search economy where people exhibit themselves through social networks offering details and insights into their lives,” she continues.
So, do our feelings of remorse or nostalgia have anything to do with this kind of internet activity? Well, kind of.
“The internet environment immerses us in different affective states where validation, endorsement, guilt, social shaming, humiliation, vitriol, and rituals of bullying can provide a motivation to gaze at others and follow them through their everyday life journeys,” says Ibrahim. “When we remediate relationships through a screen culture and digital platforms, human beings can create new rituals online without relinquishing existing social norms or behaviours offline.”
Our propensity to compare ourselves to others also plays into this activity. According to Ibrahim, the internet enables “a comparison economy,” which allows people to see “how their peers are journeying through life” and the choices they’ve made “even when they fall out with people.” So, even once you’ve cut ties with friends in real life, they may still be comparing themselves and their lives to yours based on what you’re posting online.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, people who mean a lot to us leave our lives. And sometimes that curiosity about how they’re doing in life doesn’t go away.
Friendships have been fizzling out or ending abruptly for millennia. But in the internet era, there’s the added complication of having digital ways to see what people are up to. The internet can create a false sense of proximity to people, and in my case, I’ve been using it to artificially feel close to the people I’ve lost in life.
Maybe I’ll never stop wondering how those lost friends of mine are doing. But I’m certainly going to keep my internet searches to a minimum.