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.
kerim44 at Wikimedia Commons
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The rise in hate crime reports is a dark sign of post-Brexit Britain

Xenophobic graffiti at a London Polish centre is one of many incidents being investigated by police following the referendum result.

Early on Sunday morning, staff arriving at the Polish Social and Cultural (POSK) centre in west London's leafy Ravenscourt Park were met with a nasty shock: a xenophobic obscenity smeared across the front of the building in bright yellow paint. 

“It was a standard, unpleasant way of saying ‘go away’ – I'll leave that to your interpretation,” Joanna Mludzinska, chairwoman of the centre, says the next morning as news crews buzz around the centre’s foyer. The message was cleaned off as soon as the staff took photo evidence – “we didn’t want people to walk down and be confronted by it” – but the sting of an unprecedented attack on the centre hasn’t abated.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Mludzinska tells me, shaking her head. “Never.”

The news comes as part of a wash of social media posts and police reports of xenophobic and racist attacks since Friday’s referendum result. It’s of course difficult to pin down the motivation for specific acts, but many of these reports feature Brits telling others to “leave” or “get out” – which strongly implies that they are linked to the public's decision on Friday to leave the European Union. 

Hammersmith and Fulham, the voting area where the centre is based, voted by a 40-point margin to remain in the UK, which meant the attack was particularly unexpected. “The police are treating this as a one-off, which we hope it is,” Mludzinska tells me. They are currently investigating the incident as a hate crime. 

“But we have anecdotal evidence of more personal things happening outside London. They’ve received messages calling them vermin, scum [in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire]. It’s very frightening.” As one local Polish woman told the Mirror, there are fears that the referendum has “let an evil genie out of a bottle”. 

For those unsure whether they will even be able to stay in Britain post-referendum, the attacks are particularly distressing, as they imply that the decision to leave was, in part, motivated by hatred of non-British citizens. 

Ironically, it is looking more and more likely that we might preserve free movement within the EU even if we leave it; Brexit campaigners including Boris Johnson are now claiming immigration and anti-European feeling were not a central part of the campaign. For those perpetrating the attacks, though, it's obvious that they were: “Clearly, these kind of people think all the foreigners should go tomorrow, end of,” Mludzinska says.

She believes politicians must make clear quickly that Europeans and other groups are welcome in the UK: “We need reassurance to the EU communities that they’re not going to be thrown out and they are welcome. That’s certainly my message to the Polish community – don’t feel that all English people are against you, it’s not the case.” 

When I note that the attack must have been very depressing, Mludzinska corrects me, gesturing at the vases of flowers dotted around the foyer: “It’s depressing, but also heartening. We’ve received lots and lots of messages and flowers from English people who are not afraid to say I’m sorry, I apologise that people are saying things like that. It’s a very British, very wonderful thing.”

Beyond Hammersmith

Labour MP Jess Phillips has submitted a parliamentary question on how many racist and xenophobic attacks took place this weekend, compared to the weekends preceding the result. Until this is answered, though, we only have anecdotal evidence of the rise of hate crime over the past few days. From social media and police reports, it seems clear that the abuse has been directed at Europeans and other minorities alike. 

Twitter users are sending out reports of incidents like those listed below under the hashtag #PostBrexitRacism:

Facebook users have also collated reports in an album titled Worrying Signs:

Police are currently investigating mutiple hate crime reports. If you see or experience anything like this yourself, you should report it to police (including the British Transport Police, who have a direct text number to report abuse, 61016) or the charity Stop Hate UK.

HOPE not hate, an advocacy group that campaigns against racism in elections, has released a statement on the upsurge of hatred” post-referendum, calling on the government to give reassurance to these communities and on police to bring the full force of the law” to bear against perpetrators.

The group notes that the referendum, cannot be a green light for racism and xenophobic attacks. Such an outpouring of hate is both despicable and wrong.

Update 28/6/16: 

The National Police Chief's council has now released figures on the spike in hate crime reports following the referendum. Between Thursday and Sunday, 85 reports were sent to True Vision, a police-funded crime reporting service. During the same period four weeks ago, only 54 were sent - which constitutes a rise of 57 per cent. 

In a statement, Mark Hamilton, Assistant Chief Constable for the National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Hate Crime, said police are "monitoring the situation closely". 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.