GIVE UP THE GHOST:
HOW 2020 HAS CHANGED ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS

In the time of corona, have we managed to collectively move past the temptation of going AWOL?

For anyone with any sort of online presence, the thought of being ghosted is likely to give you that stomach-churning feeling of missing the last step. No screen protector or industrial phone case can prevent your phone from sometimes being a source of pure evil, and right up there with late-night work emails, social media stress and is getting straight-up ignored.

If anyone’s managed to stalk past the term until now, it refers to the phenomenon of a friendship, or relationship, suddenly ending due to one party ending contact without a word. It’s as if, well, they just died. No explanation, no justification and no closure – just blueticking you (or, shock horror, single tick!) for eternity.

Tracing back the history of ghosting, like some sort of poundshop Yvette Fielding, it’s hard to see how it hasn’t always existed in one way or another. Like how social distancing was a certified thing during Victorian times, it’s easy to imagine pieing someone off by letting a stack of letters go unresponded too (see original fuckboy Willoughby in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility).

The emergence of dating apps in the early noughties, though, took it to a new, insidious level. While more traditional forms of media feel a little more personal, it’s so deliciously simple to ignore messages. It’s not like your house is reverberating with the flap of a letterbox, the knock of a door or the squeal of a landline – it’s just a tiny little notification to swipe away and forget about, a carte blanche to blank the heck out of somebody.

Why, though? For language expert Dr. Freedman, talking to the New York Times, it’s prevalent in people who subscribe to a kind of destiny of finding ‘the one’. ‘Individuals who have stronger destiny beliefs are more likely to ghost,’ she said. ‘If you’re with someone and you realize they’re not the one for me, you’re going to think it’s not much of a point to put in the effort, so you ghost. These people believe relationships are either going to work out or not.’

Aside from ghosting being caused by this fear of leading someone on pointlessly, it’s also really, really easy to do. Unlike telling someone you’re not keen anymore, which, as we all know, is really, really hard to do. The age-old adage ‘ignorance is bliss’ comes to mind, but rather than making an active choice to know less, ghosting is about intentionally talking less.

The message that ghosting sends – or lack of, should we say – is crystal clear. It’s so prevalent, that, fittingly, it’s entirely see-through. Yet, it always leaves you with a lingering feeling that maybe, just maybe, you’ve got it wrong. Maybe their phone packed up? Or your messages didn’t go through? Or have they become seriously ill?

That last one might resonate particularly strongly right now. For the first time in our lives, it became a real possibility that someone we only know in the digital world, could suddenly be forced to quarantine, lose their job or face personal tragedy in the real world. 

Online dating, then, took on a new turn. Without being able to meet up as easily as before in our usual haunts, it became even more viable to cut communication and move on. Mashable alone documented half-a-dozen stories of ghosting at the start of the UK’s lockdown, including one where an interviewee named Kimberly was so worried about her chirpse’s potential health complications that she went over to his, only to find him good-as-gold (though, also threatening police charges). As Stylist noted, the novelty of lockdown (hindsight is a cruel mistress, eh?) become a one-size-fits-all excuse for going cold on someone. Though, using any sort of excuse moves you nearer to ‘caspering’, a kind of ghosting lite that involves some sort of message back. Pop culture, eh?

The threat of being ghosted, then, was scarily real at the start of the pandemic, and a cause of toxic anxiety if you were blanked. Something weird happened, though. It didn’t continue, or increase like one of those horrible exponential curves we see everyday – it actually seemed to become a little less prevalent. Of course, it’s hard to measure such a complex qualitative sociological action in one sweeping statement. But, if we’re giving free reign to an industry voice that could, it’s Hinge.

The booming app’s latest data suggests that, in the last couple of months, people are actually ghosting less than before the pandemic. 27% of people questioned answered that they were doing just this, kicking the habit of ignoring people they were talking to. On top of that, video-to-video chats were up and ‘turbo relationships’ that progress more quickly have increased.

In wider periods of societal unrest, couples often pull together,’ therapist Peter Saddington opined in a June eHarmony report on dating during lockdown. Rather than cause us to ignore more, then, the increasing normality of social restrictions has caused us to crave more stable connections, and, if we’re truly optimistic about human nature, understand better how it feels to be suddenly left alone.

Of course, this year to end all years, this undisputed annus horribilis, this ghoulish thing we call 2020 has served-us all a smorgasbord of anxiety. There are far more scary things than dating, from health issues to economic worries, job losses to pervading mental health problems. Right now, though, we’ll take anything we can get. And if, as an online society, we’re moving towards giving up the ghost, then count ourselves in very good spirits indeed.

Ghoul in Bloom shoot is taken from tmrw volume #37 – shop here.

Words by Kyle MacNeill / photography by Dillon Matthew / creative direction by Kendall Mayo & Dillon Matthew / styling and production assisting by Lauren Cassiano

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