This is a story I haven’t told anyone.
I’m a member of Last.fm, a social network that allows users to discover new music by keeping track of what they already listen to. As a passionate music fan, I routinely get lost in exploring the website.
Through Last.fm, I’ve found plenty of artists and local concerts, as well as a couple of like-minded individuals who enjoy the same music I do, which is a rarity in real life. Few people introduce themselves to me as a fan of the band Talk Talk, but on Feb. 6, 2010, someone did.
“Hi Tyler. It’s really nice that there are other people out there who like Talk Talk, especially in America. How did you discover them?”
A 228-word private message waited in my Last.fm inbox for a reply. A complete anomaly. Somebody wanted to discuss music — Talk Talk! — with me. Who wrote this?
I’ll call her Mary. “Please don’t mention my name on my profile,” she wrote after signing her name. “I’m trying to protect my privacy.”
After a lengthy paragraph detailing how she got into a band, the frankness of Mary’s request seemed reasonable but oddly preemptive. Ultimately, the reality that someone wanted to seriously talk about music captivated me.
I spent some time crafting a thoughtful response and asked a few follow-up questions, partly out of courtesy but mostly curiosity.
She had asked me if I had bought tickets to the then-upcoming Pavement reunion and thanked me for reminding her of the band through my recent plays.
“I’ve neglected listening to Pavement for a long time,” she wrote in her second message. “I started listening to them back when I was 13 (about 12 years ago!).”
The numbers swelled on the screen. Mary was 25. Somewhere, there was a 25-year-old who liked Talk Talk and Pavement? For two weeks, the mutual artists we uncovered spiraled into absurdity. Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins, Roxy Music, Florence and the Machine, M83, The Blue Nile, Beach House, Pere Ubu!
And then: “Your last name, according to Twitter, is Sorensen, right? Would you mind if I friended you on Facebook?”
She reeled off four other chat clients and her corresponding screen names. I had linked to my Twitter page on my Last.fm profile, but had never mentioned it to Mary. Her deduction threw me. How often did she check my Twitter account?
“Just make sure not to mention Last.fm on my Facebook wall,” she urged. “I don’t want my family to know … it’s complicated.”
I rifled through a thousand questions. It’s complicated? What makes a family object to a 25-year-old woman using a social network? What previous incident warranted this secrecy?
I didn’t ask. I accepted the friend request.
Immediately, my spirit capsized in regret. I had confirmed a virtual pillage, not a friendship. Somewhere, a stranger sat, peering and scouring through my life. I felt ill.
“If it’s too uncomfortable for you, please say so,” she had said. “If you’re not comfortable, I understand.”
The phrases threaded themselves tightly through my mind. It was too late to back out; I couldn’t say no. On Feb. 28, I found myself in a chat session on Skype.
“I was on Facebook, talking to two people, one a friend of a friend who I barely know,” she typed. “I was also waiting to talk to another person from Last.fm on Skype, but he went AWOL.”
Chatting with strangers never appealed to me. The conversation seemed hopelessly hollow. Every minute pained me.
“Do you have a webcam?” she asked. “I’m totally comfortable talking to you on Skype. I already know what you look like, and vice versa.”
My heart shuddered. “I already know what you look like.” The fact unnerved me. It was too weird. I desperately wanted to remove her from Skype, Facebook, Last.fm and my life.
“I have a MacBook Pro,” I typed. “There’s a webcam built in but I’m a bit too self-conscious to use it.” I explained that I rarely used Skype and had hardly bothered to add anyone to my contact list.
“Yeah, I don’t have too many real life friends,” Mary typed. “The vast majority of my friends on Facebook are acquaintances.”
I didn’t respond.
She continued: “I guess it’s easier for you, given that you seem to live on campus. I commute, and I’m in grad school, going part-time at Buffalo.”
The conversation uneasily subsided along with all contact. Sometime in early March, I sent Mary a final message on Last.fm. “I’m going on an indefinite hiatus,” I wrote. “Good luck with your studies.”
Months after unfriending Mary, I noticed that my blog received a regular amount of traffic from Lancaster, New York. I entered the town into Google Maps and felt a twinge in my chest. It was a relatively small suburb upstate, about 20 minutes away from SUNY Buffalo.
In the flurry of our first few messages, Mary and I had bonded over our mutual love of the musician Kate Bush. “I have all eight albums on CD,” she had said. “Kate Bush has meant a lot to me over the years.”
In “Deeper Understanding” — a song Mary would undoubtedly recognize — Bush sings: “As the people here grow colder / I turn to my computer / And spend my evenings with it / Like a friend.”
I know those people: the lonely who settle for a semblance of human interaction on a webcam; the outsiders who visit the library simply because they can surround themselves with other living beings. I know those people, and yet I’m snarled up by superficial inhibitions. What hope is there for the terminally friendless?
Mary deleted her Last.fm account sometime last year, but before she did I continued to occasionally check her profile. In the months since I had stopped messaging her, she had changed her About Me section to a single line, a lyric from the Joy Division song, “Atmosphere.”
“Don’t walk away in silence.”