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Ghosting - Social Media's Unsettling Breakup Mutation

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We've all dumped, and we've all been dumped. Both are wholly unpleasant ordeals for different, but equally valid, reasons. The unspoken but consistent rule used to be that if you were the one pulling the plug, you did it in person. It would be horrible, but making sure to do it face-to-face was a sign of respect and some measure of empathy. More recently, the lines have shifted and breaking up with someone over the phone has become admissible, to some degree, getting out of a 5 year relationship that way probably violates the human rights act.

I have a confession to make, I once broke up with a girlfriend over MSN messenger. I'm not proud of it, and neither the short length of the relationship nor the fact that I was only a teenager make up for doing it in such an unpleasant, impersonal way. The thing is though, even that looks almost kind when you compare it to the latest, ungodly trend in breakups - ghosting. What's ghosting? It's the practise of, rather than explaining to someone why you don't want to see them any more, or even just that you don't without elaborating, completely freezing them out.

Victims of ghosting will find that, usually out of completely nowhere, their significant other has stopped replying to texts, picking up the phone, acknowledging Facebook messages, everything. It's as close as you can get to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This has of course been around for a long time, people have always shut other people out when they've felt it to be necessary, but now, with the advent of social media, it's that much easier to tell that rather than dropping out of communication entirely for some larger reason, this person is actively ignoring you, and only you. And the worst part is they probably wanted you to figure that out.

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Since Tinder took off, almost single-handedly launching an app-based dating revolution, the entire nature of dating was forever changed. Online communication is now the first bastion of it and meeting someone tends to only happen once a lot of the 'getting to know you' chatter has already elapsed. That period of online back-and-forth serves a bigger purpose than that though, for many people it's a vetting phase, a time to figure out if this person is worthy of a face-to-face encounter. If they aren't, the options are to either let them down easy or ghost them.

At that stage, it's almost acceptable, it's still pretty uncool, but at least if you haven't met the person it's less of a blow to your self-esteem. The problem is that a kind of presiding realisation seems to have surfaced about ghosting - it's easier than breaking up with someone. Breaking up with someone isn't meant to be easy, but more often than not it's the right thing to do, ghosting them releases you from any unpleasant memories of their rage/tears/the lamp they threw at you, but your 'peace of mind' is coming at the expense of days, maybe even weeks of crushing uncertainty and self-questioning on their part, and what sort of person would want to put somebody else through that kind of turmoil?

There are times when wilfully avoiding an ex-partner is not only necessary, but also safe. Those are the exceptions that prove the rule, since the partner in question would have to have done something fairly atrocious to justify such a response, like burning their flat down or leaving the fridge open overnight. But once again this isn't just avoiding someone, this is avoiding them as an actual means of communication.

A while back, Facebook installed a disgusting add-on to the messaging function which enables people to see when the other person has read their last message, WhatsApp has it too. This function means that you are always inescapably aware when someone has read what you've written, but elected not to respond. Now, there could be any number of reasons why this might happen other than wilful avoidance, but it's a recipe for social anxiety nonetheless. It's a proven, surveyed fact that people who are more insecure tend to log more time on social media, but the contradictory effect of reaching out more when you get nothing back will only make those insecurities deepen.

Tinder in particular has come under a lot of fire recently, particularly in a scathing Vanity Fair piece which admonished the app for creating a more competitive culture within dating, and perpetuating the mindset behind appalling terms like 'sexual conquests'. Basically Barney Stinson without the irony. Or basically any iteration of the 'Handsome Lech' or 'Cassanova' trope. Every TV show has one. Tinder did not react favourably to the piece, going on a furious Twitter rant which pointedly denied the accuracy of the article, among other things.

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It's understandable that they would react in such a way, but there's no getting around the fact that since it took off, the dating world has blended with the hookup world and a judgemental 'win-or-lose' aspect has surfaced. Because you almost unilaterally fall into the mindset of either deciding whether or not you're interested in someone, or whether you yourself have done enough to make them interested in you, a date now seems to have more in common with a job interview than the trysts of old. Ghosting is the equivalent of not getting called back for the second round of interviews, but imagine spending 6 months in the office and coming in one day to find your desk has been cleared, and nobody will even look at you.

Hookup culture is its own entity, it's not as universally appalling as some might lead you to believe. There's nothing wrong with two consenting adults looking for a brief encounter, so long as they're both on the same page, but dating apps have done little to improve that side of it. Turn the clock back far enough and the idea of dating becoming impersonal would seem utterly preposterous, an oxymoron even, and yet here we are.

This is only a small aspect of a far wider debate about the way cultural development has warped the very core concepts of both sex and relationships, neither Tinder nor social media at large are directly to blame for this, they're just sailing with a tailwind. For a long time now we've been living in an age where it's entirely possible to be in a meaningful relationship with someone you almost never see in person, it's a good thing in some ways, but it makes the emotional context more blurred, to the point at which the act of ignoring someone you've been seeing until they take the hint and stop contacting you is somehow admissible, just because you don't have to see it. There's no direct solution to an issue like this, but if you ever do find yourself needing to cut someone loose, show them enough respect to actually speak to them about it, it could be the difference between an amicable break-up and long-term emotional damage.


Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Ghosting - Social Media's Unsettling Breakup Mutation Reviewed by Callum Davies on Thursday, August 27, 2015 Rating: 5
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