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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times