The XX Factor

Exes Never Go Away in the Age of Social Media

Ghosts of girlfriends past, present, and future

Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

You should all read Maureen O’Connor’s essay in New York magazine about how we can never really X out exes in the social media age. They wink at us from Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter streams, or leap into our pockets via text message vibrations, or appear in Gchat alongside a glowing green orb that means (in a manner of speaking) “I’m available!” Good or bad—and it’s probably both—this is the new normal, the ephemera flowing through our devices adding up to something far more permanent.

At stake, O’Connor writes, is “the lightness of being”—a phrase from a Milan Kundera novel that moonlights in Snapchat’s slogan (“Enjoy the lightness of being!”) and means something like “freedom from the past.” The opposite of the “lightness of being” is “the world of eternal return,” where every choice comes back to haunt you. In that world, an old fling’s occasional texts and IMs keep him from receding into the rearview. Hence, a host of new apps designed to wipe away evidence that our exes exist. Killswitch, Ex Lover Blocker, Eternal Sunshine. They sound like herbal antidotes to a curious strain of poison.

Anyway, I had an insight about all of this, but I lost it somewhere between skimming through a college hookup’s photos on Facebook and wondering about an unidentified “Dan” in my iPhone contact list. I don’t have many exes, but I do have friends with whom I’ve lost touch, with whom it would be nice (but maybe awkward?) to reconnect. I wonder if they sometimes sift through the online fragments of my life, feeling nostalgic, kind of embarrassed, a tiny bit bored. Did such a mix of anomie and apathy even exist before Facebook? What about that feeling that comes after spiral-clicking through the timelines of people you used to know, when you can’t quite determine whether you actually care or whether your brain is just simulating caring?

We (the three women of O’Connor’s generation who I polled—via Gchat!—plus me) seem to welcome the presence of casual romantic connections in our social media feeds. It’s surprising—in a nice way—to remember that these people exist, and there aren’t enough unresolved feelings to make the association fraught. The “exes” who arrive in our Twitter streams trailed by baggage, though, smelling of curdled intimacy, are another story. These are the best friends we fought with or who saw us at our worst. Knowing that they are out there, lurking, can make it hard to start over and move on.

Obsessing over fresh starts, though, may just be another way of arm wrestling the past. (Does anything scream “I’m not over you” like unfriending someone on Facebook?)  Perhaps that’s why O’Connor writes that her “platonic ideal for ex relationships” involves “a little amusement, some catching up, and a small reminder that, yes, my personal history did happen.” Sure, for dire cases, there’s always the nuclear option—blocking—but I agree with O’Connor that a digital landscape purged of exes would ultimately be boring. Sad, even. Given a choice between the lightness of being and an ex’s baby pictures, I choose baby pictures.