Picture the scene: It is approximately 11.04am on a Sunday and you have, emphatically, Got A Hangover. Recently roused from sleep by the headache hammering at your temples, you roll over and look at your phone to inspect the damage of the night before. Nothing too weird, thankfully – a message from one friend that says "shots???" and an open Note into which you apparently typed "tOto africa – pls?" in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get the (terrible) DJ to play your karaoke song. So far, so bearable.
Then your attention turns to Instagram, and specifically, your Story, where you know you have posted at least one video of yourself lip-syncing to Britney Spears. You tap to see who’s viewed it and, inevitably, as always, the list is a veritable seance, haunted by the presence of Ghosts of Hookups Past.
I’ve found myself in this position quite a few times. You probably have, too: for millennials in the dating game, social media breadcrumbs (also known as "haunting" or "zombie-ing") are a growing and baffling phenomenon. It seems to be increasingly common for people you’ve dated who’ve later ghosted you or lost interest to continue engaging with your social media presence, whether that means unexpectedly reacting to a Facebook status now and then, or looking at a Snapchat soon after it’s posted. It’s a hot button issue that’s fuelling group chats far and wide – one very courageous journalist even contacted her past ghosters to ask why they still watched her Instagram Story – but it also highlights a uniquely stressful aspect of dating right now.
Because of the prevalence of dating apps, and all the different ways we have to chat to one another, our relationships can feel throwaway. When fates are decided with a swipe to the right or left, and we can turn down a date we don’t feel like simply by failing to respond to a direct message on Twitter, we’re no longer forced into the confrontations that daters of the past faced. Where once you might have had to tell a work colleague you’d gone for a drink with that you weren’t interested in pursuing anything more, the internet has widened our dating pools exponentially. This means that if you’re no longer interested in Sara, 25, from Tinder, you could break it off with her simply by ignoring her messages, because it’s unlikely you’ll bump into her any time soon.
We’re in a hyper casual era, and though in many ways that’s great – it’s never been easier to sample as much as you like from life’s tasty and varied buffet of humans, if that’s what you want to do – in others, it means that knowing where you stand in your dating relationships can be more difficult than University Challenge. Being ghosted leaves you with no sense of resolution, and if you’ve felt particularly emotionally invested in a person, it can be hurtful and confusing if, a few months later, they return to leave you a long, winding, Hansel and Gretel-style trail of social media breadcrumbs, but no actual explanation or apology.
I spoke to a number of people who, due to their firsthand experience, agree. Amy*, 28, tells me that in her experience, breadcrumbs are mostly left by "people that I’ve had a casual thing with, maybe for a couple of months or so." These relationships have, she says, invariably ended with a halt in communication rather than being actively broken off, and she thinks that the motivation behind leaving breadcrumbs – particularly likes and speedy Story views – is that "there’s a loss of what you’ve been giving them that they’ve been taking for granted, and then they feel the need to get it somehow, just by absorbing you in other ways." Sadie*, 24, adds: "It can actually be quite upsetting if someone who’s ghosted you starts liking photos or statuses, because it’s as if they don’t realise that they hurt your feelings with the ghosting."
I think it’s pretty natural for us to maintain interest in people we’ve dated, or even just had sexual encounters with, but social media has made our doing so much more visible and obvious, and the continued, silent engagement can be frustrating to those who’ve been ignored. As Amy puts it: "If you’re not speaking to me, why are you looking at my social media at all? For someone to completely ice you... and then all of a sudden, their interest is piqued again, that’s weird, especially if I’m not looking at their stuff."
Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings confirms that leaving breadcrumbs is "associated with the 'loose ends' nature of ghosting, especially after a casual relationship," stating that some ghosters might ease their own consciences by "continuing to show you a social media presence for a while." She also notes that with modern dating, "it’s simple to become transitory moments in someone’s life, much harder and more awkward to spell out that we want something more or admit that the end of a brief or passing relationship has hurt us." Certainly, it’s true that dating while millennial can be aggressively casual, and puts pressure on us to act as though we didn’t really care ("Cool Girl", anyone?), rather than stating our actual feelings.
Though for some, breadcrumbs (which, at the very least, show that a ghoster is still paying attention) provide an oddly satisfying confidence boost, for others they can be pretty upsetting. Jo suggests that if a ghosting and subsequent breadcrumbs have left you feeling particularly tender, it’s best to avoid ambiguity simply by going cold turkey: "If you’ve been really hurt then I think it’s better to delete or block numbers and social media relationships. If you don’t then perhaps it leaves the impression that you weren’t really hurt and it was all quite casual, so it’s okay to keep a degree of contact," she tells me. "I always suggest sweeping up those breadcrumbs to those clients that have been hurt and blocking or unfriending them to help them get over it without reminders."
It’s easy to accept ghosting and breadcrumbs as facts of modern dating, as simple collateral caused by the way we navigate the world right now – that’s what most of us do when we’re largely not bothered by how a relationship has met its end. But if we’ve been especially emotionally impacted, by tolerating breadcrumbs we can end up suffocating our real feelings and prolonging toxicity in our lives. I guess the moral here is that seeming "chill" is much less important than your own peace of mind; if breadcrumbs are making you genuinely sad, just hoover them up. It’s a much better option than seeing a name you’d rather avoid every time you post a world-class Britney lip sync, that’s for sure.
*Names have been changed
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