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Blog - Nina Muehlemann

Brian Lobel’s Purge at the Southbank: Social Media, Friendship and Love

Purple silhouette of a figure raising an arm

Purge Logo by Mamoru Iriguchi, (c) Brian Lobel

At first glance, Brian Lobel’s ‘Purge’ is a game show about social media. The project started in 2011, when he gave strangers the opportunity to decide which ones of his 1300 facebook friends to keep and which ones to delete, having only a 60-second window to introduce each friend to his audience.

The performance at the Royal Festival Hall, however, five years later, is a reflection on five years of Purge where we get to see some of the reactions of Brian’s Facebook friends and we experience what it feels like to decide over the facebook fate of Brian and a few of his friends. But first and foremost, we get to understand how Purge is a performance about much more than just social media.

This performance of Purge was part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival Of Love, and as Brian starts talking about the reasons why he started working on Purge, it becomes clear why this festival is a perfect fit: The inspiration behind the performance is Brian’s first love, Grant, and their relationship, which unfolded over social media website Friendster.

Brian and Grant had an intense few years, then broke up and were close friends until Grant passed away. Trying to look at Grant’s profile on the long-forgotten social media platform of Friendster, Brian discovered that at some point during the break up, Grant ‘unfriended’ him. They had reconnected in real life, but not on social media. This made Brian think about the difference between online friendship and real life friendship, and whether this difference is always as clear-cut as we think it is.

Judging from my personal experience, social media has a deeper impact on our lives than we think it has: in 2014, facebook denied me access to my profile because I had used a ‘fake name’, never mind that this was the name I had performed under, written under and that people knew me under. To regain access to my profile, facebook wanted to see a copy of my ID. Of course, I did not oblige and instead created a new profile with pared down content and a pared down friends list.

What was gone, however, were messages and photos that were deeply personal to me. While they still might float around somewhere on the world wide web, I will never have the opportunity again to access my own social media history: The comments and messages my husband wrote when we first met, the banter on my wall left by friends, the likes underneath the elaborately decorated birthday cake I made for a friend to distract myself from the pain of miscarriage. While I still have these memories, social media provided a memory that was slightly more tangible.

As Brian reads out Grant’s messages on Friendster to him, his presence becomes more tangible, too. We see a screen shot of his profile and think about they way our online presence is still there after we are gone – is this a frightening thought or a comforting one? Can it be both? ‘Purge’ makes us think about which people annoy us on social media (in my case, I hate nothing more than ‘smug mums’) and with which people we would like to connect. Being one of Brian’s currently over 3000 facebook friends (3000?? maybe time for another purge, Brian?), I can attest to the fact that with him, it is just as easy to connect in real life as it is on social media.

While we certainly do not need social media to maintain friendships, social media is often part of the fabric of friendships evolving, friendships rediscovered and budding romances. It has an impact on us, whether we like it or not, and often that impact might be deeper and more positive than we think.

There are no further performances of Purge scheduled at the moment, but a book about the performance, also entitled Purge, has just been released by Oberon books. Find out more at

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