Ghosts in the digital age: the online baggage we carry into our relationships

More of our relationships are conducted online than we realise, says Sian Lawson. From jealous ghosts to misogynist threats, our behaviour towards each other is not just over-familiar, it has become proprietorial.

We’re online all the time, omnipresent. A host of people “see us” every day, and the illusion of intimacy is a dangerous thing. We no longer need to feel threatened by our partner’s ex-spouse. We should be grateful for those that have already had enough. Our lovers now come with a whole host of ghosts who haven’t had the opportunity to get it out of their system, for whom they are the one that never really got away. My fiancé is in his late thirties, he’s had significant relationships, they’ve ended, everyone moved on. I’m grateful to the women who house-trained him. His “less-significant” relationships are more of a burden. A girl he saw over a decade ago emailed abuse when she heard of our engagement through Facebook. A one night stand he’d met through Twitter now stalks us both, despite him deleting his account. I’ve heard from the flings, the messed around, the flirted from afars, and the petered out without ever getting serious. A bewildering number of these believe that they alone are the One Woman who Truly Understands Him and all of whom get in touch with either of us any time that they want, thanks to the wonders of the internet. Celebrities, journalists, our exes and our crushes are more in reach than ever before, but now that we can feel involved in the lives of people we don’t even know, we need to redefine our boundaries.

When I went to university I hadn’t even discovered email. As many pointed out, we spent the first week as grinning parodies of ourselves, just trying to be liked, and the next few years trying to lose the friends we made in the first week. Universities are meant to be where you learn, but here we are, a decade later, still grinning parodies. We are self-packaged, commodified, presented - we tweet, instagram, tumblr, we facebook. Images of ourselves float online and those that want to feel they know us, simply do. I have Googled myself, you have Googled yourself too. You may even have Googled me. I found out a lot of things I already knew, but perhaps you did not. I feel validated by my online presence and the pages that I have created, trying to impress with cultivated wit and misanthropy in turn. You on the other hand, have only encountered an approved aspect of my personality, laid out for your amusement, although you may have also just learned my address.

Before my schooling was finished I’d made a lot of real-world friends. One man I knew only for a night, but 13 years later he tracked me down and it is to him that I am now engaged. He brought with him the history of decades online, and I was somewhat wary of it. His online persona is charismatic, people feel that they have got to know him, old flames feel that they have kept in touch. We went public with our engagement and three different friends voiced disappointment that they were not the first to know. Three may not sound a lot but let me put it this way: that’s three distinct adults, all in touch only virtually, none of whom he’d addressed directly in months, yet all sufficiently confident of their singular position to actively complain. This is our brave new digital age, our presence online has not just transformed dating, it has transformed not dating. Where we used to be only consumers, now we are content providers and the thing about making people into commodities is that it brings feelings of ownership and objectification. From jealous ghosts to misogynist threats, our behaviour towards each other becomes not just over-familiar, it has become proprietorial.

My partner doesn’t do social media any more, although I sometimes search his old Twitter handle and marvel to see that people still address him. When he first arrived here I missed him too. There he was stood right in what is now our kitchen, and I missed the thrill of seeing him online, the rewarding buzz as my phone told me of a reply, a message or a mention. I missed being able to read him as carefully thought-out words in a tone of my choosing, and fill in the gaps in my ideal way. I missed the thrill that permeated the days that I didn’t know that I was chasing him, and mourned the loss of a fantasy of him that I honestly thought existed. I wish that I could keep them both, this incredible real lover and him as much-loved ghost. But he has already grown tired of people who can’t realise that what is online is just an illusion, and I have accepted that this real man with little time to tweet is so much more interesting. I am not as principled as him, I can’t imagine deleting my accounts just yet, but at least I am now a little more careful how I talk to people on Twitter. I’m lucky to have a partner who indulges me both my performance and my ghosts.

These days, it's the “less-significant” relationships that are more of a burden. Photo: Getty
Sian Lawson is a scientist who writes about our Brave New World and being a woman in it, in the hope that with enough analysis it will start making sense.
LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times