I can pinpoint the exact moment I realised that social media snooping had become the single largest problem in my relationship. Five years ago I was sitting in an apartment I shared with my then-boyfriend, a bottle of wine and four episodes of Gossip Girl deep into a solo Friday night while he partied with his friends. I smoked anxiously as I scrolled through his tagged pictures, trying to see what the party was like, which women were there, if he had slept with any of them.
When I ran out of pictures of that night I just kept going, further back into the recesses of his past, the country he used to live in, the house he had shared with his girlfriend there. I had seen the pictures before, countless times, but I kept scrolling, eager to find the one that hurt the most. It was a sun-dappled photo a friend of theirs had taken in Montreal, both of them laughing at the camera, beautiful and cool. I pulled up a picture of he and I together, and flicked back and forth between the picture of them and the picture of us. Back and forth, back and forth, trying to decipher which picture looked better, which couple was happier, which face was objectively prettier – hers or mine?
I am, at 27, of that generation which was submerged for the first time in the muck of social media while still puzzling out puberty. I was 13 when I first posted on a music forum, when they were largely populated by boys incessantly demanding "Hu here is horny??" after paying perfunctory lip service to a Korn song.
When we were 14, my school was swept by MSN fever. We conducted entire torrid romantic trajectories without ever leaving our bedrooms. It suited me perfectly: a fat, not-quite-pretty, bookish nerd who nevertheless had pretensions of cool, mainly due to the fact I read the NME.
MSN, Bebo and MySpace all meant I could impress my selected targets by name-dropping bands and films, and gathering their admiration the old fashioned way – pretending to like exactly what they liked. A few years later, I lost my virginity to an electronic musician I met on MySpace. My teen romances were, all in all, Extremely Online.
I never had a relationship or even a crush before social media. It was second nature to me to stalk the objects of my affection until I knew every cultural product they liked, had seen every photograph of them. It all felt normal at the time, because I didn’t know anything else. It’s only now that I see how strange it was that we all entered this great unknown, no precedent or consideration for what it all might mean – no idea that simultaneously getting to know a real person and their other, online self could be so disquieting.
Where do you draw the line with snooping on your significant other's online life? Do you scroll through their Twitter (tweets AND replies, why is she responding to his jokes all the time)? How many times a week do you look at their Instagram? Do you check who's liked each selfie (that clapped bloke from her office who’s always commenting heart-eyes emojis)? What about pictures they’re tagged in? What about the friends who posted the pictures they’re tagged in? What about finding the hashtag for a wedding he and his ex-girlfriend may have attended seven years ago? What about following the NGO where she works because sometimes they post candids from the office? Totally fake, not-real, personal examples there, which I use only to illustrate how quickly innocently snooping on someone can descend into a shame spiral.
Deep-dive snooping, drawing hysterical conclusions about your lover’s arm being around a friend, obsessing over their exes – not only is this behaviour a form of psychic self-harm, it has the same seedy feel of reading someone’s diary without permission, the same dread of certainty that nothing good will come of it.
Of course, some innocent snooping is only natural. That beginning part of an immense crush is so powerful that it can literally knock thoughts out of your stupid head. When I have a full blown crush on someone I forget what they look like. The intensity of it is so potent that when I close my eyes and try to recall their face, the features shift around, Picasso-like, and my mind can’t put them back together. It can feel really romantic and fun to sit there with a dopey smile mooning at an album of over-exposed pictures of their Christmas work-do from three years ago, a little dopamine surge to see you through until your next date. It’s fine to want to admire and get to know them.
The problem is when we go from wanting to know a person, to wanting to know them entirely; for there to be no part of themselves they have not revealed; when we want to exhaust their private reserves; when we want to consume them. This is what we do when we insist on knowing those parts of a person’s life which they have not decided to share with us. A key part of desire is the other person’s mystery, but we are compelled to try to destroy the very thing which excites us, the unknowable in them.
Social media tends to distill us all into easily absorbed images, and it's only when we occasionally experience ourselves from the outside that we can see how uncanny it is, this self of yours that looks and speaks and behaves like you and yet does not live your life. I remember roaring with laughter after bumping into my ex a few months after moving to London. "I’ve been stalking your Instagram – you look so happy over there!" he said, and the idea that anyone could have thought this when I was almost dizzy with sadness seemed ludicrous to me. But of course he had – I had as good as told him so, even if I didn’t mean to.
I often experience profound disturbance when I unexpectedly see a picture of an ex on Instagram; I think because it’s so jarringly intimate and so alienating at the same time. Here I am, the images say, and you don’t know me at all. I keep wondering when I will get used to it, when it will all stop seeming so strange. I wonder if I will unlearn this way of seeing, and then I remember that I never knew a different one.
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