She was everywhere I went.
I saw her at bars and coffeeshops. I saw her walking down the street, waiting at traffic lights, smiling at me in the familiar way she had for months. I saw her on the El, riding in cabs, sitting in the backseat of friends’ cars. When we were dating, we went to the Sixers season opener. Now I saw her every time I watched a game. I even saw her in my own bathroom.
There was no reason for me to see her. We didn’t run in the same circles. The only people we knew in common were the friends we’d introduced each other to. She lived in the suburbs, I lived downtown. The only bar we both frequented was my favorite bar in the city, and—in the unwritten rule of breakups—you stay out of your ex’s favorite bar. There’s a great sports bar in South Philly I’d feel awkward going into now. It’s been almost two years.
I didn’t see her in my favorite bar, but only because it has notoriously bad cell phone service. Of course you’ve figured it out by now: I was seeing her on social media. Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. These sites became constant reminders of my ex. We didn’t have a particularly long relationship, just a few months, but our breakup was stupid—over text message, the day after Christmas, just a few days before I was supposed to take her to the Kanye West show where he ended up announcing Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy—and I dwelled on it. (Okay, this was partially because I ended up selling the Kanye tickets and missed the biggest pregnancy announcement since the one from the angel Gabriel.)
Technology makes it easier to find each other. But it also makes it harder to avoid people. Status updates, location-based check-ins, scrolling feeds that alert you whenever someone has liked a photo—these things have all made breakups harder. (And there are, it turns out, several apps aimed at helping you avoid people: Split, Cloak, and Avoidr, to name a few.)
So what? The answer is not to put down the phone or flee the internet. For the most part, I have a healthy relationship with technology. Sure, my phone or laptop is on me pretty much at all times—I’m essentially a cyborg—but I can ignore my gadgets pretty much at will. Okay, occasionally I check my phone too often at the bar. Otherwise, I’m good. I don’t even carry any electronics with me on runs!
But, still. The constant connectedness weighs at times. I got the Internet before I kissed a girl, so perhaps it’s always been this way for me. A girlfriend and I split up when we left for college in 2000. If we hadn’t been emailing each other constantly our freshman year, we wouldn’t have gotten back together for another year and a half. Sure, any technology that promises easier connectedness can make losing someone harder. I’m 31. I date a lot. I’m picky. Sometimes I’m not a very good boyfriend. Some of my relationships are short and painful, even when I’m the one deciding to break things off. It is my world of modern dating: On and off, thanks for the memories.
I don’t spend months or even weeks pining after breakups. One of my closest friends is a woman I dated for two-plus years in my mid-20s. I’m over the woman who broke up with me before the Kanye show. I’m already over the woman I met on Memorial Day weekend. (I managed to screw things up before the next patriotic holiday—Independence Day, that is. I was competent enough to make it past Flag Day.) But there’s always an adjustment period. A day, a week, a month?
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.