It was when I found out what her younger sister got in her GCSEs that I realised I’d gone too far. I’d wasted the last 45 minutes glued to my phone, hunting for information. Not just any information. I wanted information on my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend – and I wanted as much as I could get.
I wasn’t looking for surface-level stuff – her age, where she lived, what she did for a living – I needed to know who this woman was. What did she find funny? Did she order fries with her burgers, or a green salad? Was she the kind of person who would describe herself as a "boys' girl"? If she was on a night out, would she be the first or the last one to leave? And how did she spend her weekends? All of this intel, I thought, I could glean from her social media profiles. And it would tell me something very important about myself and my relationship. But I’ll get to that.
I started my quest that day on Instagram. Once I’d looked at every one of this woman’s posts and analysed the minutiae of each, taking note of where she shopped, ate and hung out, I delved deeper. Who did she follow? Who followed her? What kind of photos was she tagged in? Did she ever post selfies? How often had she posted about my boyfriend when she was with him? And how did this compare to how many posts he’d shared of her?
I repeated this process with her Twitter and Facebook pages. Still feeling unsatiated, I then moved on to the social media accounts of her friends and family members. That’s how I wound up scouring her sister’s LinkedIn page, on which I found not only her GCSE results but where she went to university, the nonprofit she volunteered with on her gap year and the fact that she had an "aptitude for critical thinking".
I realise this makes me sound a little extreme. But social media stalking is not extreme at all, nor is it rare. In fact, it’s so common that it’s been normalised to the degree that we never stop to question just how strange and, more importantly, unhealthy it actually is.
If the person you’re dating is on social media, you’ll have access to far more information about them than you could ever possibly acquire from a first meeting. Of course, some people might have zero interest in uncovering everything they can about their next Hinge date. But when you’re in the grip of infatuation, it’s hard not to fall down the rabbit hole of someone’s digital profile and use it to conjure up a fantasy of who they are that will inevitably lead to disappointment and downright delusion.
For me, though, it’s never really been the people I’m dating whose social media accounts I obsess over, clinging on to even the smallest bit of intel to make me feel better about myself and my prospects with the person in question.
I've always considered myself a feminist, someone who champions other women and stands alongside them. And yet I've been so quick to judge the women who've dated the same men as me online.
If I found out that one of the exes never wore colours, for example, I’d feel somehow superior because I did. If I discovered they were vegan, I’d sneer and think they must’ve been really "high maintenance" while I’m clearly not because I eat cheese (which is obviously absurd). And so on. The Taylor Swift song "You Belong With Me" articulates these feelings perfectly (though I suspect incidentally): "But she wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts. She's Cheer Captain, and I'm on the bleachers. Dreaming about the day when you wake up and find that what you're looking for has been here the whole time."
I know how unhealthy all of this is and it certainly doesn’t do me any favours when it comes to my self-esteem. But I can’t help myself. If I know that the information about these women is out there, I want to find it. I need to.
It probably doesn’t help that some of the men I’ve dated have explicitly compared me to their exes. The comments have always been subtle. Things like: "She always wore jeans; I know you don’t really like jeans." Or: "She didn’t really care about embarrassing herself in front of people, I know you’re more self-conscious." And the real corker that has stayed with me for years: "You’re the least hipster person I’ve ever dated." I still don’t know what that means.
It was only when I started writing my book, Millennial Love, in which there is an entire chapter dedicated to social media stalking, that I realised how toxic my habits had become. It wasn’t just a weird obsession fuelled by my insecurities and the addictiveness of social media. It was internalised misogyny.
I’ve always considered myself a feminist, someone who champions other women and stands alongside them. And yet I’ve been so quick to judge the women who’ve dated the same men as me and draw all sorts of conclusions about them as a result. Based on what? A few filtered selfies and a collection of hashtags?
Women have spent years being pigeonholed into neat little boxes, boxes that strip us of our autonomy and make us more socially palatable. It took me a long time to realise that was exactly what I’d been doing, too.
It has affected more than just my opinions of these women. Whenever a current partner talks badly of an ex, I’m very quick to sympathise with my partner as opposed to recognising that I’m only hearing one side of the story. I’ve even caught myself talking just as badly about those exes to friends, despite the fact I’ve never met these women and have only heard about them through the subjective lens of current partners. It’s textbook sexism, and the thought of other women doing it to me makes me wince.
I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process of writing the book. But one of the biggest revelations has been that I have a responsibility to the women my partners have loved before. Not just to respect and validate them. But to recognise that, though I may never come across them in real life, it’s not fair for me to form any kind of opinion on them or the relationship they had with my partner. They deserve just as much agency as I do; I know that now. That, and the fact that I should probably spend a little less time on Instagram.
Millennial Love is published by 4th Estate and is out now. Olivia is a senior lifestyle writer at The Independent.