Like most people on social media, I have blinked and seen five years or more suddenly go by. Have I really known all these people that long, despite never meeting? I’ve seen their dogs and listened to tales of the mums and dads and Christmas dinners for year upon year, yet never laid eyes on them in the flesh and, aside from a few shaky videos or Vines, have never heard them speak.
Our social media connections rumble on and on like endless novels, with shock twists and new characters but always the same face and typing fingers at its heart. You become used to them, they are scenery, until one day, out of nowhere, something happens and everything you knew is gone.
I remember my first Twitter death. A guy I was following, who was bright and funny and kind of related to someone I actually knew in real life, one day turned his patter from well-observed snark to real-life scares. He had cancer, and it killed him. His story ended. Our conversation finished. Dialogue into echo.
It’s easy to feel detached from rolling news’s horror show of refugee deaths and wars and bombs and all that, but when a voice you’ve never even heard out loud goes quiet, it feels very close to home. I still miss his humour.
There have been a few demises since, both actual and virtual. As well as the mercifully rare sad passings, there have been huge flounces off-grid, and people being hounded away, along with quiet departures from those simply unable to face another day of mansplaining.
While I’ve become desensitised to most of this loss, I felt sad when I noticed a couple I’ve been following – note, following, not stalking – seemed to have broken up without me noticing. It seemed odd in a world where every minute detail of our lives – from what we had for dinner to our partner cheating on us – is shared, that these two had managed to keep it offline.
When did they come into my life, this delightful example of bright, hopeful heterosexual perfection? I can’t even remember.
I’ve followed one of them for years, from their days at uni to their first job to this, their first relationship. We didn’t interact much, the odd @ about nothing in particular and a RT here and there, but we followed each other so long it became something of an understanding that we always would. When the other half came along, I’d peek every now and again at their beautifully composed pics, with nary a filter between them and me – people in their 20s don’t need as many – and it was nice to have such familiarity in an app that can sometimes feel like a roomful of strangers.
Weekends away, petting the family dog, making heart signs with their hands on beaches, pretending to have apples or satsumas for eyes, gin and tonics with interlocking straws – no photo was mundane. Sure, it was a very deliberate curation of their time together, but nothing felt posed or fake; they had that millennials’ natural aptitude for self-promotion.
One day, an alarm bell. A tweet from one half of the couple saying it had been a hard year but they couldn’t wait for the next one and whatever was coming next. Fridge-magnet optimism. It’s the kind of tweet you write after your third drink, when you’ve spent 20 minutes browsing old photos and closing your eyes to try to remember what someone smells like. A post-split reminisce. Something had happened.
I realised I hadn’t seen a pic of them together for a while. There’d been fewer mentions of the other in tweets. So because it is Christmas, and I am bored, and there’s some pretty dreadful localised flooding between me and the nearest decent pub, I went onto their Instagrams and looked for signs. Our digital footprints tell us what 140 characters or a tight smile cannot, so I knew if they’d really broken up, I’d find the answer there.
It’s amazing how forensic boredom can make you. I opened both their Instagram accounts side by side on my desktop, cursing the ‘rustic’ internet speed of my mum’s house, and began to browse.
At the top of their grids, the usual Christmas fodder: trees, candy canes, festive jumpers, mince pies. But not each other. Both were smiling. Separately. Scrolling back, photos of them alone. And then, the confirmation, 23 days ago: him, with another girl. Around the same time, over on the former girlfriend’s feed, a picture of her alone, but looking happy. The pics before it were scarce: a few street signs, a hillside, a heart on top of a latte. But no selfies or couple shots. Until, finally, a whole 93 days earlier, the last picture of them together, sipping milkshakes in the sun. #nofilter.
I darted back to the guy’s timeline and found the couple shots dried up much earlier than hers. He’d stopped wanting to document their relationship, perhaps, knowing it was coming to an end. Or maybe he’d already started the process of deleting them, either too pained at the reminder or trying to appease his new girlfriend.
So it had been over for months. I hadn’t even noticed. Sure, I didn’t interact with them that much – I’m a fast scroller and a scant liker on Instagram – but I was surprised by how much I’d missed when all the signs had been available to me. We see so much, but don’t really take it in. What else are we missing?
We only notice the moments of high drama, the grand gestures and the public meltdowns. But away from the furious “u know who u r” statements and shaming and hasty deletions, hearts are being broken almost silently, without being shared.
What had happened? Was he fucking someone else? Was she? They’d looked so happy. Milkshakes! Summer! Loved-up skin turning red on Brighton beach. And now it was done, and I’d never know why. I was in mourning for a random couple I followed on Instagram who had both very likely moved on without need for my sympathy. I was at peak social media.
I felt really bad about it. Not that I could’ve done anything, but it was sad to see something end when it had seemed so perfect. Social media is often portrayed as a hotbed of cynicism, filled with hate-follows, trolls and negging – and I’ve never been shy in piling on and/or exposing it – but sometimes it’s a window into someone else’s soap opera, and it’s nice to be along for the ride. So I was sorry to be getting off this one.
I clicked through to their Twitter profiles again, to have a look at how they were getting on without each other and finally a smile came to my face. No visible sign of how they were coping not being in each other’s lives, but they were certainly getting on OK without me – they’d both unfollowed me. Amazing. I deserved that one.
Serves me right for not paying close enough attention until it was too late, I guess, and not making sure my own soap opera was to their tastes. Bastards.