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.
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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot