“Ghosting” – a term so ubiquitous in 2018 that it has engendered its own Halloween costume – is a word whose coinage seems woefully overdue. What did we do before we had a blanket term to encompass varying degrees of digital rejection (soft ghosting) “haha yeah”, (medium ghosting) “You can come if you want” and (hard ghosting) – unopened messages, social media blocking?
The practice of ending a personal relationship by withdrawing communication without explanation is nothing new – bad manners and disappearing acts predate millennial terminology. But since the advent of the 21st century, where detached digital communication has replaced the intimacy of untethering a carrier pigeon, or receiving a phone call, ghosting has become a regular and even expected occurrence. Social media licenses us to ignore others in ways considered socially unacceptable in the real world, and as our networks constantly expand, it’s easy to find yourself unintentionally ghosting – disregarding that lingering email, or forgetting to text back. More deliberate forms of ghosting include those which are more pernicious, such as the intention to cut someone out of your life.
Unlike outright rejection, ghosting is characterised by a sense of ambiguity, where the ghostee is kept in the dark as to the cause of the severed communication. In small doses this can be frustrating, but in extreme cases ghosting can be deeply hurtful or even traumatic.
These relatively infant stages of online communication that we currently occupy are ripe for ghosting to fester, because standards of online civility vary from person to person. Numerous think-pieces have been written describing ghosting as an explicitly gendered phenomenon, yet few can agree on whether men or women are more likely to ghost. In the world of online dating, ghosting is particularly pervasive because a lack of mutual contacts enables individuals to treat each other disrespectfully without fearing the disapproval of peers. Yet crucially, it can also occur when two people lack a mutual understanding of the authenticity of their online relationship – while a daily text correspondence might for one person amount to something fairly casual, for another it could indicate the start of a fully-fledged relationship.
Ghosting feeds on miscommunication; or at least, the illusion of miscommunication. I was recently in a long-distance relationship, which meant that most of our regular communication took place online. As neither myself nor my ex-partner were particularly good at articulating ourselves via messenger, we agreed in person that we would treat the two versions of ourselves that conversed online as separate from those in real life. When that same partner unexpectedly broke up with me via text, I was initially unsure whether to process this information as an expression of his true feelings, or those of his distorted, digital counterpart whose coldness I didn’t recognise as an honest reflection of his character.
It is the ambiguity and uncertainty facilitated online that gives ghosting a specific flavour half way between rejection and commitment.
But while there remains a disjunction between who we are and the selves we project online as a result of the limitations of technology, our online personas are becoming increasingly true to life and harder to disassociate from. Not only are our individual profiles more nuanced, they are increasingly connected across a social media infosphere, giving greater coherence and therefore accountability to our online selves.
And as our online personas converge with our real lives, both our expectations and the technology that manages them are making it harder to carry out digital disappearing acts. Constant updates to online features are making it increasingly obvious when somebody is ignoring you. Once favoured excuses like “I didn’t see your message”, or “there must have been a glitch with my emails” are becoming redundant as the internet provides increasing clarity, dispelling the mystery that is integral to ghosting. Read receipts and location updates are paraphernalia of online accountability that makes ghosting both more explicit, but also harder to execute successfully.
The direction of travel is pretty clear. Although we’re accustomed to the notion that we can be held to account for illegal activity or hate speech posted online, the idea that our social behaviour can be similarly regulated is assumed to belong to the realm of dystopian future narratives, such as Black Mirror’s episode “Nosedive’, where a five-star system that rates people on their human interaction influences their socioeconomic status. But this is not just the stuff of fantasy; China has already implemented a social credit system, first announced in 2014, and due to be fully operational by 2020, where social infractions such as bad driving could affect one’s ability to use public services or buy a house. Closer to home, a recently developed dating app Do I Date, uncomfortably dubbed “the trip advisor for people’, aims to increase online transparency by allowing you to rate your dates retrospectively.
Social media made it easier to run away, but it is also making it harder to hide.
It is of course impossible to entirely predict the effects of our increased reliance on technology on our future social interactions. Our sense of decency could diminish as we become more detached from one another, or as we become more accountable for our actions online, we may be forced to become more civil. Nevertheless, either way I expect the eventual disappearance of this corrosive climate of uncertainty. As the internet reflects our true selves with an ever-increasing clarity, those phantom agents of obscurity caused by online ghosting will be made transparent. As Halloween is fast approaching, the old days of professed tech-illiteracy are close to expiry, and ghosting is reaching its sell-by-date.