Taylor Swift, Calvin Harris and the fine art of the digital breakup

The former couple’s lack of social media decorum following the tabloid reveal of Swift’s new relationship with Tom Hiddleston raises the question: what are we actually doing when we untag or delete photos of our exes?

When I think of the pain of Calvin Harris, I flinch hardest at the Met Gala video. Carlos Souza, a “Valentino brand ambassador”, posted it on Instagram six weeks ago. It shows Taylor Swift, Calvin’s then girlfriend, leading prospective James Bond and confirmed current make-out partner Tom Hiddleston on to the floor. As the opening whistles of TI’s Bring Em Out get the crowd revved up, Taylor shakes her slim hips and bleached bob, casting look-at-me-don’t-look-at-me glances Tom’s way. Calvin is nowhere to be seen. At the time of writing, the video has now been watched nearly 26,000 times.

It was my college Shakespeare professor who first taught me how perverse an emotion sexual jealousy is. In Shakespeare’s Othello, she pointed out, when the bad guy Iago first hints that Othello’s wife Desdemona is cheating on him, he is furious. “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore, be sure of it; give me the ocular proof,” Othello thunders. Or else. The thing is, Iago has already won the mind game. Othello has already started longing for what he fears.

“There is no proof of fidelity, only infidelity,” was how my professor put it. I thought about it the next time I found myself visiting and revisiting a boyfriend’s Facebook profile, creating a lurker account to check out his ex-girlfriend. How recently had she been standing near him in photos at parties? Why had she liked his last post? Why had that other woman he appeared to have hooked up with in Paris just wished him an “HBD”?

A truly jealous person will not be satisfied until he knows he has been betrayed. Until then jealousy remains an engine for obsession. In an age when every one of us carries a digital tracking device for most of our waking hours, the ephemera that a partner can rifle through are potentially endless. And the pleasure-pain of having your worst suspicions confirmed is especially keen. Because when it comes, it comes in public.

The ocular proof only came out today. You have probably seen the tabloid photos of Swift and Hiddleston – whom the press has already, not quite convincingly, dubbed “Swiddleston”– kissing on some rocks in Rhode Island. And you have probably read that Calvin – who only two weeks ago tweeted that “what remains is a huge amount of love and respect” between him and Taylor – went digitally ballistic. He deleted said tweet, unfollowed his ex on social media, blocked her followers, and then proceeded to delete all the images of them together. Taylor responded by deleting her photos, too, though she outclassed him by not actually unfollowing.

The Carlos Souza video stayed up, showing all that Calvin had not seen in what he saw.

For me, watching these two extremely famous people engage in this extremely petty behavior made me think about the rationale behind social media breakup etiquette in general. What is it we are actually doing when we untag or delete photos of our exes?

I had always thought that it was a matter of scrubbing the slate clean for the future: not wanting umpteen photos of an old partner to show up when a potential new one searched for you. As a practical matter, now that so many dating apps (Tinder, Hinge, Bumble) are powered by Facebook and pull photos from there, it made sense. As a secondary benefit, it meant you did not have to constantly be reminded of your heartbreak.

But Calvin and Taylor demonstrate that it’s not just about that. Everyone in the world knows they were dating; literally millions of people have seen the photos that they used to document their relationship over the 15 months it lasted. The breakup tweet – which Taylor retweeted – was an attempt to perform amicability. Deleting it, and everything else, was a specific and novel kind of hurtful gesture. In its purest form, because those images cannot actually be erased: they have already been seen everywhere.

We often speak of social media as if they are simply a means to document things that would have been happening anyway. Because it didn’t happen if it’s not on Facebook, they say. Then again, in an age when couples have IRL fights about when to become “Facebook official”, we also know that social media documentation is not simply passive. It creates new kinds of relationships and rituals in real life. It gives each of us the same kind of weird relationship that celebrities have long had with paparazzi: trying to manage the production of images that define us.

Calculating how to create an image of spontaneity. Untagging photos is not just the equivalent of tearing down photos from your locker door. It is the equivalent of a small-scale press release. And part of why we are all so addicted to these media is that we have infused them with erotic energy, by contact.

I was thinking about this earlier this month, thanks to the release of the new documentary about Anthony Weiner – who famously blew up his political career with a single click: that crotch-shot. At the time people said they couldn’t believe how stupid he’d been, how much he had risked for a photo. This always seemed beside the point: it wasn’t that he wanted to feel sexy, despite the risk. What is sexy is the risk.

Our thrill, at sharing parts of our life that would have previously been confined to private settings, comes from our sense of exposure. By a kind of contact high, social media themselves have been invested with a kind of erotic energy. Just think how exciting it can feel when a ping from your pocket tells you that a post or tweet has been liked.

Just remember: relationships may end, but Facebook owns your data forever.

Moira Weigel’s book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating is out now


Moira Weigel

The GuardianTramp

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