In the past few weeks, I have devoted countless painstaking hours to deleting and “untagging” hundreds of Facebook photos. I must admit: the information powerhouse plays its game well, automatically tagging boatloads of obscure faces while forcing dissatisfied users to dig deep into creviced menus to manually remove them with needles and fingernails. Is it Hide from Timeline or found somewhere under Options? Perfect: Report/Remove Tag. Why, yes, thank you, I want to remove the tag of myself. Continue? Now I can finally click Okay and progress to the next photo. These hours spent surgically removing the embarrassing side effects of my three-year relationship were tedious, mind-numbing, and excruciating, but, most importantly, eye-opening.
One night as I procrastinated with some healthy back-stalking of several recently added friends—that is, looking at their photos beginning with the oldest, working my way up to present-day—the idea dawned on me. Crap. What will anonymous potential friends discover hidden in the depths of my online albums? Will they avoid the judgmental presentism that so often blinds us to the simple fact that when we were younger, flirting on someone’s profile picture was completely socially acceptable? To find out, I would have to back-stalk myself, suck up the pangs of embarrassment which all screamed: did I really do that?
These were my findings: hundreds of non-differentiable selfies of me and my ex-girlfriend. Tongue-sticking-out pics. Fake prom poses. Real prom poses—on stairs, in her room, at prom. Sitting in the bed. Lying in the bed. Lying in the grass. Kissing a stuffed animal. Kissing her cheek. We had abused Facebook and it became painfully obvious, now approaching a year and a half since breaking up, how absurdly, annoyingly immature we were.
This naturally isn’t the first time my younger self’s immaturity has come back to slap me across the cheek. Eighth-grade Josh hated seventh-grade Josh and my eleventh-grade self looked back on both with the disapproving nods they deserve. Part of life is blocking out the memories of these awkward stages of braces, cooties, Bar Mitzvah parties, and myriads of uncomfortable interactions. But Facebook puts these memories in cages—now I can only walk around in the zoo of my own embarrassing memories as a visitor, staring at them behind iron bars. Sure, I can alter the floor plan, misdirect, make navigating the maze so difficult that no sane individual would go such lengths to find them. I can erase all connections to myself by deleting comments and untagging, but my face will remain there as long as my ex’s albums remain online. (And let’s be honest, am I really going to call post-emotionally-traumatic-break-up to casually appeal to her sense of reason: “Would you mind please deleting all public records of our relationship?”)
Our Photo Booth binges are etched with permanent pixels in ways my pubescent voice-cracks will never be. Which is terrifying. So I exhausted hours upon hours to bury three years of my life in Mark Zuckerberg’s treasure chest of secrets, but only after staring down each, one by one, and casting it into the dark anonymity of “untagged.” Unlike seventh grade, which you can tie into a tidy knot and flush in its entirety down the toilet, each photo, every weekend together, every slightly different angle of the same picture is just one more tiny ax-chip necessary to bring the whole tree down. Because of Facebook, you must now look yourself in the virtual eye one-by-one-by-one-by-one to truly dismiss the memory.
It’s important for me to note that I don’t regret my whole relationship or feel a sudden rush of hate when her name surfaces on my News Feed. I feel no sense of desperation to block out three-quarters of high school, but time grants perspective and I can finally see the past few years without the clouded glasses of emotional investment. It’s not the relationship I regret, it’s the immaturity caused by it. The immaturity which is preserved so concretely in Facebook’s storehouses, which I feel so strongly about removing from the public eye. The heart of this issue isn’t how I feel about my relationship after reliving it one picture at a time—it’s how I feel about myself. Facebook now provides us with the blessing and the curse of forced retrospection.
My ex-girlfriend and I first hooked up at sleep-away camp, where each bunk tallies its collective belt notches on The Plaque. In the technology-devoid reclusion of camp, this plaque evolved into the Facebook we were craving and the need-to-preserve from which we were suffering withdrawal. As campers, we were unabashedly obsessed with documenting, thereby authenticating, these “relationships,” much the same as it becoming “Facebook Official.” Meaning as a counselor last summer for boys in that same bunk, I woke up every morning with my failed relationship staring right back at me. When plaque-making night arrived for my campers, I explained that while they might now proudly bear this deified trophy of a “zoog” (hook-up; literally: a couple), what tastes so sweet can quickly turn sour. They heeded my advice and included no “zoog” section, but still abuse Facebook to make the world their third wheel. And I just stand by, judging from my perch of brazen insecurity, convincing myself that I’m truly more mature than that now—so mature that I expended hours untagging myself from embarrassing photos I’m just not mature enough to handle friends seeing.