Purge Brian LobelHow important are our Facebook friends to us? Do you actually ever have a real connection with most of those 500 people, or take time to sit and think about them properly? Brian Lobel asks where online friendships stop and real ones begin: can there really be a distinction any more between virtual and real? And when we click that notorious ‘unfriend’ button, are we completely severing any future contact with that former Facebook friend?

After Lobel discovered in 2010 that his deceased ex-boyfriend and best friend had deleted him from Friendster (a pre-Facebook networking site), which he had not checked since they stopped dating in 2006, he realised that it was impossible to reconnect with Grant now he was gone. Inspired by his feelings about this online disconnection, he wanted to address what virtual friendship really does mean, and therefore created The Purge.

The Purge was a harsh game that assessed whether all his contacts were really worthy of their ‘friendship’. Over five days Lobel sat with strangers in cafés in London and Kupio, giving them one minute to decide which of his 1,300 Facebook friends he should keep or delete, after hearing his defence of why he should keep each one. Now Purge the stage show has become an inclusive performance and lecture about how we socially and emotionally use this online media, and how much it actually matters to people.

Lobel talks about the first ever emails that he and his ex-boyfriend Grant sent to each other through Friendster, assessing how minimal that connection seemed at first; now the archive that he has kept of them and the memories they hold seem like gold. He also tells us of a time when he and Grant shared a connection in a different way, with only a minute on the timer for him to do so. In fact, he times himself on a few occasion when talking about Grant: of course, he does not get to finish as he disconnects himself from the monologue as soon as the timer reaches zero, leaving the whole audience anxiously waiting to know the rest of Lobel’s memory.

He asks what type of friends on Facebook we want to delete: many suggestions were given by the audience including family members, people who have their children as their profile pictures, friends who rant about trivial things and that person who posts about everything they do – for example, a picture of their perfectly buttered toast. However, once we were asked to go onto Lobel’s laptop and freely delete any of those people, nearly everyone who spoke was hesitant, except for one man, who still struggled to make his mind up and then hesitantly deleted one of his prior suggestions. What is it that makes us have this strange attachment to having a tick next to the ‘friend’ button on someone’s profile, even with the people whose use of Facebook allegedly grates on our every nerve? Lobel insists to us, “just do it”.

What about someone you want to reconnect with? Can you click ‘Add Friend’ or is there something attached to that friend request that insinuates not only a connection, but a strange commitment, that would be too hard to ask of someone we once disconnected from them.

We are then served with a selection of funny, sad, extremely weird and aggressive emails that Lobel received from many of his Facebook friends after he informed them of the purge that was going to happen, and we got to guess whether they were kept or deleted. This audience made up a jury full of differing opinions: for example, we could not agree on whether the girl who told him she should be kept as a friend because she had a “great rack” would have been deleted or not. We also heard an email from one of Grant’s best friends who begged Lobel to not be put into the purge, as having him on Facebook held memories of Grant for her; without a doubt she was kept – no-one had a say in that one.  The reading of this particular email was significant to Lobel’s message: social media keeps memories alive for us, so we feel like we still have a part of someone in our lives, even if we have truly been ‘unfriended’ by each other a long time ago.

This is an unconventional show, with little acting in it, but it is so relevant: is it pointless and odd the way we use the internet, or is there a deeper psychological reason for it all. Seriously, are you still friends with that smelly boy from primary school? And is your ex still in your life purely because you can look at their profile picture and where they attended school?  Forget about photographs and love letters, this is how the twenty-first century keeps heartache going.

Purge played at the Canada Water Culture Space on 8 November. For more information, see the Brian Lobel website