And what happens, once physical contact is cut but digital ties are not, in the meantime?
I’m pretty good at hiding myself online. I rarely check-in anywhere. I hardly ever use geolocation on my tweets. I primarily use Facebook to like people’s selfies and baby photos. I can lay low if I want to. But when others put themselves out there, it’s harder to hide from them. Facebook’s search bar gives you suggestions on who you’re looking for—mine is full of exes, brief relationships, and one-night stands. Some good times, sure, but disappointments in the end, all of them. These people are retweeted by friends and strangers and show up in my timeline. They show up in other people’s Facebook photos.
This must help explain part of the popularity of online dating apps like Tinder. People praise it for its ease of use and its simplicity, but for me, it's the anonymity that makes it especially useful. Sure, you maybe have a few friends in common on Facebook. But you meet someone in a bar and you friend each other on Facebook, you trade phone numbers, you check out their tweets. Tinder reverses that. You see some photos, you maybe see some common Facebook likes, and then you start messaging. Maybe you trade a number, but maybe not. And if the date’s bad, you un-match the person. It’s like she never existed. Poof. All better. I’ve gone out several times with people and haven’t even learned their last names. I know what they do, I know a little bit about them, but they are easy to disappear.
Because it can be really hard seeing people you’ve dated in the past, even if it’s only for a few seconds. Encountering someone you don’t really want to—even just in passing, even just online—brings up old memories. If you see someone in public you might have had an inkling that they'd be there. In many cases, in-person run-ins can be anticipated. There are Venn diagrams of social possibility and contextual clues about where an ex might turn up. You can avoid a party. Or you can prepare yourself. But online, the filters are unpredictable. Unless you block, mute, or unfriend someone altogether, you never know when the algorithm might reveal that person. You’re browsing your Facebook feed and then—wham—there’s your ex, dancing at a concert, smiling from ear to ear. This doesn’t make me jealous, it just makes me sad. Or I get curious. Maybe I should send her a note. She was nice and I enjoyed her company a lot. And she was really pretty. And she had a cute dog!
There are alternatives. I have muted. I have blocked. I have set Twitter filters to weed out certain names. I don’t like to do this. Most of my Twitter filters are to avoid things like “hot take” or “¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” (I just counted—I still have a whopping 13 Charlie Sheen joke filters, which I can probably take down by now.) But I don’t want to block anyone. I cope by pretending I don’t care.
Besides, it’s impossible to fully avoid one thing online these days. Facebook pages of deceased friends and relatives stay up indefinitely, reminding you of their birthdays. Old friends you’ve had a falling out with show up all the time online. Google is a blessing if you want to know about someone you’re interested in. It’s a terror when you just want to forget.