That a former TV reality star wants to remake herself as a culture critic is perhaps not the most surprising transformation in 21st-century America. But that’s exactly what’s supposedly happened to Kim Stolz, whose book, “Unfriending My Ex and Other Things I’ll Never Do,” attempts to dissect the way “our brains have been rewired” as “all of us are spending more and more time in the digital world.” For her, that “digiverse” means being tethered to a device, incessantly surfing, texting, and posting to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Tumblr, and all the rest.
But wait. Who is/was Kim Stolz? You might recall her as a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model.” This fame led to stints as MTV News correspondent, TV host, restaurateur, and model. No longer as famous — sometimes “weeks” go by “between occasions when someone spots me,” she complains — now she’s a VP at Citigroup. “I went to Brearley, widely considered one of the top high schools in the nation,” Stolz writes, persuading us of her impressive pedigree. (She also graduated from Wesleyan. Her father was a Goldman Sachs stockbroker and her mother modeled for Ralph Lauren and Givenchy.) Rather, the awkward statement suggests just how insecure she seems to feel in her new role as social scientist.
Her scant, conversationally composed “Unfriending My Ex” may be billed as memoir-cum-criticism. Unfortunately, these loosely linked personal essays read more like a collection of Facebook status updates and Snapchat conversations. Digital addicts probably don’t have the attention spans to write books. In this latest career move as author, Stolz is in over her head. In chapter one, “The Experiment,” she gives up her iPhone and iPad, her e-mail, and her social networks, for, brace yourself, one week. “Suddenly I had time on my hands,” she reports. She decides to read “Walden” by Thoreau, in her mind, “the ultimate transcendentalist.” Later after contemplation, she concludes that “[b]eing alone could bring you a deeper appreciation of friends and society.” And that, friends, is her gloss on Emerson.
From there, Stolz tosses off eight other chapters organized around such topics as “Facebook Is Ruining My Life” or the perils of relationships in the age of the text. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be among her circle of cutthroat “friends,” who passive-aggressively stalk each others’ exes on social media and get their baby-doll dresses in a twist any time photos from a party they weren’t invited to get posted on Instagram.
The antics of her self-obsessed social circle could have been hilarious had Stolz honed her skills as a storyteller. Sadly, “Unfriending My Ex” is mired in an awkward nether-land somewhere between random musings and amateur scholarship. “My Facebook feed is cluttered with too much information that is not improving my life in any way” is one such college term-paper-worthy pearl of analysis. “[W]e probably shouldn’t be accepting people as ‘friends’ if we don’t want to know anything about them!” is another.
This is not to say that “Unfriending My Ex” is entirely dismissible. Some will find it a passable overview of the problems of attention, empathy, and distraction that our digital devices have wrought. More than one reader will see themselves in Stolz’s sometimes charming and disarming self-awareness of her own addictions. She’s also not immune to the occasional clever turn of phrase. “[T]he feelings that you felt four years ago for a person still exist in some dimension,” she writes about the unique way the Internet preserves our memories. “Life online has its own properties, its own immortality, its own weight or weightlessness.”
But most of what Stolz offers feels like the rehashed territory of more qualified experts, such as Elias Aboujaoude, author of “Virtually You,” and William Powers, author of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” whose books she cites frequently. Perhaps it’s appropriate that “Unfriending My Ex” feels both scattered and nonchalant, given Stolz’s own self-diagnosis as “one of the most digitally obsessed and addicted people of my generation.” Hopefully, Stolz also realizes that she’s fallen victim to the blind narcissism of social media mavens necessary to claim that title.