Two weeks ago I joined Twitter, which this month announced its 500 millionth user. To put the figure in context, Tumblr reports 150 million users, Skype 280 million, LinkedIn 200 million and Facebook – wait for it –1.06 billion. If you care to mess around on the Beeb’s rather snazzy calculator, you can find out where you fit on this grand old scale. In a world, as it will tell you, where there are now over 7 billion people 1 in 7 of us has some sort of social media presence. The implications of this are vast, and have been much discussed: we are easier to locate, easier to understand, easier to have instant judgements made upon us, than we have ever been before.
Where, then, does this leave us with regards to relationships? As little as twenty years ago, a failed romance or broken marriage might see us disposing of previously adored possessions with a frenzied, manic abandon. We might have dreaded chance encounters in the street, or unannounced arrivals at the parties of mutual friends. September 2011 saw the opening in Covent Garden of Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships, a collection of sentimental relics and reminders donated by hundreds of ordinary heartbreakers/ees. Rings and teddy bears nestled beside more random objects, all of them sitting heavy in significance. A rusty coat-hanger dangled the faded postcards sent between students as they travelled separately; the abrupt finality of the last missive hung as pendulously as the letters themselves. Most artefacts were accompanied by short descriptions: a pair of old suspenders was labelled simply “I never put them on. The relationship might have lasted longer if I had”. The catharsis of such mental and literal de-cluttering was evident. Of course, we still do the bin-liners, the choked compartmentalising of favourite objects and previously adored possessions: the books, jewellery or clothing we can never read or wear again. However, increasingly we find we have a new contender, a new nemesis in the break-up arena.
Even the most minute changes we make to our internet selves are recorded, catalogued, imprinted. Nothing is ever truly lost online, in this vast, linking, tangled beauty we call the web. Despite taking out my social sledgehammer and conducting the occasional Facebook friend cull I have made a Twitter page. Do I want more connections, really? It’s all too easy to forget how loudly our voices echo across those labyrinthine passages.
Where sex is concerned, social media remembers. Our previous relationships are ongoing and irrevocable. Instead of the quiet, tired contemplation which must accompany any serious break-up, we are forced to act quickly. Instead of being allowed to settle slowly, all manner of potential problems must be taken into consideration. We must sever ties with the click of a button to avoid all those unnecessary updates that will hurt us. We must unfriend, block, disconnect. Love and sex must be uprooted violently and often publicly, rather than wilting gently. We must trawl through email correspondence to shift the layers of intimacy built up across the ether. But how many hours can this take, if each re-opened thread, each re-examined string of instant messages splits the old sores and leaves us gasping?
Increasingly, we find ourselves constantly wary, not just in the street or at a party but in front of the flashing screen. Friends still shared, similar tastes and advertisements on social media sites can alert us to old flames, and all so innocuously. Sex, history, love: none are easily forgotten in the ways they might once have been. The whole code of ended relationships has shifted. Like a butterfly effect, the tiniest beat of social wings can have enormous impact, revealing too much, too quickly. A one-night-stand can never truly equal anonymity, not for people raised in the Facebook / Twitter generations.
When you ‘add’ or ‘follow’ someone, how much do you actually know of that person? Did you know them, months ago, for one glorious night? And what, now, can they discern about you from the jaunty, colourful Facebook photos you upload? We can find people with several clicks of a button, just as we can try so hard to ignore them. A face and a name is all you need. Break-ups: past loves, past passions. They are all thrown back in our faces, time and again, and through the great sprawling digital connections we make we are not conditioned to leave but to return to these memories.
And if we tried to go offline, would that work? Almost everything is managed through the internet: anything anyone wants to learn can be found here. All the world’s information – opinions, facts and figures, prices and hours and dates – can be set down and recorded. It’s a life-force that enables this very publication. The sheer wonder of it is undeniable, until we come to this most specific of its human sides. We ask ourselves whether such a public image helps or hinders us, whether such exposure is good for our sex lives, for our romantic lives. How many internet dates have gone awry from their first minutes, when the identity projected onto a keyboard proves all too different from the reality? Were social media rendered obsolete, we might spend our lives actively searching outside rather than passively clicking inside. Would we want that? I don’t know: I’m starting to think I might.