Heartache 2.0: Digital Breakups and Cyber STD’s
[This post was previously published in City Press, in my column – On My Radar. It has resonated with many people so I thought it worth re-blogging, for those who don’t read City Press.]
A friend put on a brave face when she announced that she had broken up with *Simphiwe. It was that sensitive, post-break up period when the emotional scars were still deep and raw. My first reaction took me by surprise. “Well, I’m going to immediately unfollow him on Instagram”, I said: partly in jest but as an instinctive show of support. Turns out, my response was quite normal. “Thanks”, she said, “all my girlfriends did the same. We had an emergency get together and did a simultaneous ‘unfollowing’ ritual across all our social media platforms”.
My, how things have changed. Not so long ago most people were outraged when the trend of breaking up via sms surfaced. Men, (usually the culprits) who broke up via sms were accused of being spineless cowards who didn’t have the common decency to stand face-to-face with their soon-to-be ex girlfriend, and inform her that the relationship was ending. There was no longer the need for an emotional confrontation: the shock, horror and pleading that comes with these situations, nor the need for any of the usual platitudes and promises that “we can always stay friends”. Like ripping off a plaster, breaking up via sms is just so much quicker, cleaner, and relatively painless – depending of course which side of the sms you stood.
However, since technology is the fastest driver of change, this seemingly quick and painless method of breaking up is now, no longer as simple as it seems and the new curve ball of modern day relationships is the tangled web of social media networks. While a sms might provide the cleanest cut, our extended social media networks now prove to be the digital equivalent of a cyber STD that just won’t go away.
My friend did not receive a curt sms ending the relationship. He instead – I suppose – made a bit more effort, but nothing that you could still call, gallant. He sent her a pdf.
So while it was not a cruel, 140 character break up message, he at least took the time to pen (or type) his thoughts in an approximation of an old-school letter. But a digital break up is more complex than an eloquent pdf. My friend’s reaction to the pdf, besides the shock, was to note that a pdf format cannot be changed or altered: it was just another subtle layer of ending it, in no uncertain terms.
Her circle of friends, who supported her with a group ‘unfollowing’ ritual was just as merciless. Her friends gathered round and, with devices at the ready, pressed “unfollow” or “unfriend” simultaneously, one social media platform after another. I guess to be on the receiving end of watching the number of your followers dip significantly in the space of a few seconds, is the real life equivalent of having your clothes and possessions dumped on the sidewalk.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, via pdf.
But while this would be the traditional parting of ways in a relationship, social media adds another complex element. There is no such thing as a clean break in a digital era. While you and your support group may have “unfriended” and “unfollowed” to your heart’s content, there are always other friends and acquaintances outside your trusted, inner circle who will retweet or share messages and content, which brings the ex, right back onto your radar. In so doing it not only prolongs the heartache but also encourages an irrepressible urge to cyber stalk.
Social media platforms have easy loopholes that allow for casual voyeurism or cyber stalking. People are surprisingly lax, or possibly too trusting, to change their security settings, so it’s very easy to observe what your ex is up to. Like an incessant itch you can’t stop scratching, you watch for tell-tale signs that your ex is feeling as miserable as you are about the break up. You monitor the relationship status on FaceBook to see how quickly it is updated, or check a twitter feed for any tweets that might hint of remorse or depression, and if there aren’t, it just kick-starts the angst all over again.
A recent report on how the internet had changed the world, claimed that our cyber connections had reduced the traditional notion of 6 degrees of separation (that we are all interconnected by a chain of 6 mutual friends or acquaintances), down to 3.74. The world, especially in cyber space, is getting smaller and our social media networks are acting like black holes sucking us ever closer together, and if you know anything about black holes, they’re impossible to escape from. So next time you haver to break up with someone, just bear in mind the ripple effect on your social networks. Oh, and have the decency to break up using an open format document. PDF’s are just a tad too malicious.
[*names have been changed to prevent and discourage further cyber stalking]