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.
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit