At 15, I had a friend who'd take the sharp end of a paper clip to her wrist whenever a boy broke her heart. I tried this once, but it didn’t really do it for me. I preferred a digital form of cutting: watching my ex get over me online.
I kept visiting my first love's MySpace page because I craved the pain of learning another girl had replaced me in his "Top 8.” And when he went off to college before me, I tracked down his new girlfriend’s blogspot, which would cause me to cry into my keyboard like it was a pint of ice cream, especially when she blogged about losing her virginity.
I learned that when I was overwhelmed by feelings of pain, seeking out more online would give me some kind of relief. In the early aughts, this was a little bad habit. But now that we live in The Era of Social Networks, “digital cutting” is easier and extremely destructive. Gone are the days when clinically unchecking the “in a relationship” box on Facebook was the ultimate devastation. Now, we experience the full spectrum of our entanglements—from falling in and out of love to everything in between—constantly, and within the palm of our sweaty, emotional hands.
Online habits, like checking someone’s profile, die hard. And in 2016, the lovesick don’t just live among land mines; many of us “digitally cut” and purposefully seek out our own misery.
The social web is no longer just a gallery for your life, it’s where you actually live. That's not all bad, of course! We have Snapchat, the thrilling social network that captures reality better than any other. At the beginning of a relationship, it is hedonistic heaven for lust-crazed new lovers. With the promise that messages will disappear after being viewed, you can drunkenly send that fire nude at 2 am and say that thing you really want to say, but probably shouldn’t. When you wake up the next morning, you can’t review your embarrassing, naive praise of the way they smell or think or talk. Like the digital version of a bender in Vegas, what happens in Snapchat stays in Snapchat (at least ideally).
But the sexiness of the social network goes beyond safe sexting; it lies in the thrill of watching your crush, and being watched in return. When I first met my ex, I'd send snaps out into the universe for everyone but really only for him. Intimacy grew faster than it would have otherwise because we saw each other in ways usually reserved for later in a relationship. A couple days after we met he’d see me puttering around my apartment and getting ready for work. I’d meet his dog long before I’d take a walk with him. And less than an hour after posting, my views would reveal he’d almost always seen them first. If I was lucky, I even got a "😍😍😍" in return.
Snapchat allows you to see who has viewed your snaps, but that’s the only feature that provides insight into how a post performs, and this information is private. There are no likes, no ways to share other people’s content or even comment on it publicly. The only value ascribed to a Snapchat user is a seemingly arbitrary “score,” which is based on how much you use the platform and “other factors” mysteriously decided on by the company. You add people based on a phone number or username, meaning most of the people in your orbit are actually friends. Unlike every other social network I’m on, I know who follows me on Snapchat, but I have no idea my exact follower count.
The network’s private ecosystem fosters a kind of intimacy that’s rare online, the flip side being that it becomes a miserable hellscape the second things go romantically sour. Towards the end of my relationship, I realized he no longer featured me in his tiny dispatches or even looked at mine. When I asked him about it, he’d shrug, saying he just doesn’t go on Snapchat that much anymore. I didn’t want to accept it yet, but soon I’d face the reality that to him, my “show” was no longer worth watching.
After we broke up, viewing his mundane snaps made the full weight of my loss hit me. The day after we called it quits he headed to the country with his family. We weren't speaking but I had imagined him on a train headed south, maybe looking out the window and thinking of me. But when I opened my Snapchat, I saw he was fine, excited even! I saw him arrive at the cabin just in time for a flash flood, the same one I tried to wait out under some New York scaffolding, my phone nearly slipping out of my shaking hand. I saw a tour of the house's interior, his family. I'd never had the chance to meet these people but the commonplace nature of this moment told me exactly who they were.
If I'd been better or different or less demanding, I thought, I’d probably had been invited—I'd probably be right there.
Snapchat intensifies this kind of guttural pain by putting you in someone else's present. And then, mimicking reality, converts the moment from something you can experience to a memory. Different from networks of the past and even its contemporaries, Snapchat’s organizing principle is ephemerality. As Snapchat consultant Nathan Jurgenson explored in a 2014 blog post, most social media is organized around a permanent media object—like a photo of block of words—and communication happens only in service of it. The media object is a kind of precious trophy that leads people to do things like stand on a chair above their dinner just to get the perfect shot.
“Social photography should be understood not as a remove from the moment or conversation but a deeply social immersion,” wrote Jurgenson on Snapchat's uniqueness. “By diminishing the importance of the media object, by making it disposable, the emphasis is placed on communication itself.”
You’d think that during a breakup, the fact that everything disappears would make Snapchat a less hurtful place to hang out. There aren’t “ussies” and vacation pics under punny instagram hashtags beckoning you to creep. After all, some have to contend with the horror of seeing an ex’s engagement photos or a “we’re pregnant!” status update. So is it really that bad to see a snap of my ex’s niece running towards him for a hug?
Yes, it is. The authenticity and often unrehearsed nature of snaps are exactly what makes them so unnerving. Unlike with Facebook, I can’t reassure myself that the content is largely performative; there’s no remove that comes with a posed family photo in front of a sunset. Snaps capture someone’s IRL essence, not the person they perform for likes. “Snapchat isn’t the place where you go to be pretty,” Jenna Wortham wrote in the New York Times Magazine. “It’s the place where you go to be yourself.” Snapchat is also where—and perhaps the only place—people choose to share the meaningless moments of their lives.
In a world where everything online feels calculated and fake, the banal is the opposite of boring. If you’re not careful, it will break your fucking heart.
A love interest consuming your content is now as perfunctory as opening a door for a woman once was. In the early days, I interpreted my then-boyfriend’s views and emoji responses as genuine offerings of affection. They were like tiny lego pieces, ones I hoped would someday amount to something more profound and well, real. Something like love.
Though I didn’t want to admit it, continuing to engage with him online—even just viewing his snaps—was a way of holding on, of staying close. When you lose someone completely, there’s a kind of sick comfort in still knowing some things about their life, even if it hurts like hell. So we often don’t unfriend or unfollow, choosing instead to keep the lifeline open, just in case.
But for a digital cutter staying friendly is not an option. I scroll to his name in my friends' list and notice his name is still misspelled, something I refused to change because I always liked the reminder of when we just met, when we were still strangers.
This makes me smile before I hesitantly press “block.” Immediately, Snapchat wants to know why, so it asks you to disclose a reason: “I don’t know them.” “Inappropriate snaps.” “Annoying.” “Harassing me.” Unfortunately, “Dumped” is not an option. So instead I have to sum up my heartbreak, inadequately, as “Other.”👻
Deputy editor of Real Future.