Are you also in the grip of pre-pandemic nostalgia? Missing things you never thought you would miss? I won’t bore you with my list but while we are all talking about the little things we took for granted, I want to confess that I miss a nice, enjoyable hate-follow.
In life before social media, hate-follows were so hard. You had to walk 5km in the rain and take a boat and two buses and still risk humiliation when you tried to work the conversation towards the horrible person oh-so-casually and find out how he was doing. If the person was doing fabulously well, you had to work so hard to keep your face straight. If the horrible person had something horrible happen to them, you had to work so hard to keep your face free of glee. If it was someone you had mixed feelings about and the news you heard made your insides churn, you still had to keep the exterior opaque. So much hard work.
The great thing about social media is that you can choose not to have witnesses for your anti-social behaviour. You can wake up from a dream of a forgotten enemy from high school which involved swords, towelling robes and pineapple juice, claw your phone from under your pillow and quickly find out everything about the enemy. You can find out everything without asking a single human being or revealing yourself to anyone. You can read between the lines and look past the excellent image composition to confirm that he is still as pseudo as ever, she is still as half-baked as ever, they are still as self-congratulatory as ever.
On a rare night when the dream destabilises you and in that midnight hour where a hole has been rent in the cosy space-time blanket, hate-scrolling her Instagram might have given you unpredictable feelings of sadness. But usually a good hate-follow is robust and predictable. Chicken soup for the hole in your afternoon. Five minutes of scrolling and you could curl your lip in scorn at the object of your disaffection and get on with your life.
Now, my friends, it’s all over. A hate-follow no longer sparks joy. The pandemic has normalised many of our nemeses. Okay, maybe that is too much. Nothing can normalise that one, I hear you say. But certainly it has humanised her, you would agree. Grief and loss has come to all of us, for one thing. For another, something about these times has displaced us a little from our regular social networks. Whom we lean on, whom we talk to regularly, whom we call and check in on has changed. So what would once have been news insulated from you, has leaked and left dark streaks in the air. You have seen those streaks and heard the news that he has lost his sister, she has lost her job, their child is depressed. You have heard the news even without social media. That annoying photo caption about lost hope no longer feels pretentious and precious. You have been given the gift of taking her at face value, that thing that felt impossible, leading to your friendship break-up three years ago. Not that you can or want to do anything about it. There are no truth and reconciliation committees in your future. It’s all over.
Perhaps you have had the other kind of hate-follow. Someone you don’t know much, someone you perhaps only know on social media, and it is their social media bad behaviour which has kept you hooked in sick fascination.
Self-praise, vanity, ignorance, the made-up quotes about children, it used to all add up to such a tasty, light snack. Now it has turned to whole-wheat ashes in your mouth. She may have bounced back to her usual nonsense online but now you are unable to forget that just a few months ago her landlord evicted her without a moment’s thought for where she would go in this pandemic. Now the hate-follow might actually become a sad unfollow soon.
A friend told me he was playing some who-will-blink-first games with a rude client. “I had just had it. I didn’t want to respond to his demands. I thought, let him sweat a bit.” To his shock, his client called and responded to his answering the phone with audible relief. “He said, when you didn’t answer I was worried. Nowadays you don’t know what could have happened to people.” My friend had become human to his client. At least momentarily. My friend was also sad that he had lost the game, amateur that he is at passive aggression. “Foiled again. Why do I even try?” he said.
A line in the Amanda Palmer-Neil Gaiman song, I Google You, begins, I Google You/ Late at night when I don’t know what to do. Towards the end, it says, And each shred of information that I gather/ Says you’ve found somebody new/And it really shouldn’t matter.... Damn pandemic. Each new shred of information has turned the object of our objections into somebody new instead. Foiled.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.