A meme of 33-year old comedian Aziz Ansari waving his arms around with the words “Someone likes you, you don’t like them back? Just pretend to be busy… forever,” has been plastered all over the internet.
We have all been there: Pining for the individual who stopped calling, stopped texting, stopped showing up at the door and started avoiding the usual neighborhood coffee shop, until months later when—finally—they slip your mind until their name abruptly appears. They “like” your Instagram post. Or, worse, add you as a "connection" on LinkedIn as if the months of icy silence had never been inflicted on your relationship.
Forget ghosting, this is called zombieing. To be zombied is to have someone you care about disappear from your life altogether only to have them bring a relationship back from the dead with an out-of-the-blue text or interaction on social media.
In Ansari’s 2014 book "Modern Romance," he teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg to coordinate a massive research project exploring today’s technology-fueled relationships, which included hundreds of interviews and focus groups conducted in places as various as Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and Wichita. The research team also pored over romantic text messages from both sexes. Their findings? That everyone experiences what Ansari calls the “same nonsense” when it comes to dating, and that people need to be nicer to one another.
This is an idea that’s not new to New York-based artist Allison Wade, 37, who turns her terrible text message exchanges with exes into artwork. Examples include, “What the FUCK happened to you?” and “This is my last attempt to get in touch with you before I feel like a stalker.”
Her text-message paintings, which have been on display in galleries and art fairs throughout the East Coast, are samples from Wade’s post-divorce digital dating life. Wade admits that she been a victim of zombieing. She says she’ll be waiting for days to get a text back from a romantic interest when they suddenly “like” something on her Instagram. “When this happens it’s like they are connecting with you but not really." Wade explains. "It's exasperating."
There are two types of zombies: the standard zombie and the zombie ex. The “standard zombie,” is someone you were romantically involved with who deleted himself or herself out of your life altogether —not returning calls, not answering texts—only to blink back into your life with an alien “like” on social media, leaving your heart feeling like it’s playing hopscotch as it skips and jumps in your chest. You were moving on, you were flirting with someone new, only to be thrown back into the raw emotions of feelings for that person: Are they thinking of you? Was it a mistake? Are they simply messing with you?
Then there’s a different creature altogether, but a similar species: the zombie ex. The zombie ex can be someone you consciously decided was better to not communicate online and off-line with until the hurt of a break up had finally, mostly, passed. But just when you think you have successfully cut off communication, the zombie ex weasels into corners of the internet you thought were impossible “liking,” “commenting” or “connecting”—on obscure social networks you had forgotten about. And then, in pours a surge of uninvited emotions. Do they not care about what they’re doing to you when they toy with your emotions? They might be sociopathic, but, more likely they’re just not thinking about the consequences of their actions. It’s easier to behave unconsciously from behind a screen, quickly turning from a reasonably disciplined ex into a mindless click fiend.
Philosophers have longed used the concept of the “zombie” to debate what it means to have consciousness. The only difference from a human, they say, is that a human thinks and a zombie does not. But is social media blurring the line between these age-old categories?
Your romantic interest disappears from your life only to—bam!—return months later on social media with a casual comment as if they haven’t been ignoring you for weeks on endIf so, Ellen Huerta is determined to help. The 29-year-old is the founder of Mend, an online app for the broken hearted who are seeking to find community and healing. The app is also the home of her recently launched podcast "Love is like a plant". Huerta says she is a big proponent of taking a social media break when you go through a breakup. “I think if you don’t it just prolongs the mending process,” Huerta explains. She points to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Neurology where researchers at Rutgers University found that looking at your ex triggered the same part of the brain as a cocaine addiction creating an obsession with romantic rejection.
In fall 2015, Facebook announced a new plan to help ease the post break-up blues. Now, when Facebook users change their relationship status they will be prompted to decide if they want to limit exposure to their ex’s social media activity without having to block or ‘unfriend’ them.
Sarah Kettles, a 24-year-old former Facebook employee, has had much more than her fair share of slippery online communication with her ex. She recalls ending all communication with him last year when they split: she stopped calling and blocked him on Facebook. However, he would consistently show up on her Instagram feed, “liking” her photos.
“My mom used to say this to me all the time: If you shiver randomly and you’re not cold, then it is like somebody is walking over your grave. And that’s what I feel like when I get an Instagram ‘like’ from my ex,” Kettles explains. “It’s this meta-movement where you get drawn into this other place that you’re not a part of.”
But what if you were never officially together? This is the standard zombie curse. You were going on multiple dates, spending days at one another’s places. It seemed like the relationship was moving forward, and then, poof! Your romantic interest disappeared from your life only to—bam!—return months later on social media with a casual comment as if they hadn’t been ignoring you for weeks on end.
Daniel Jones, 53, has become a near-authority on love and dating as the longtime editor for the New York Times’ Modern Love column, which features a confessional-style personal essay written by new writers from all over the country each week. For the past 11-and-a-half years, Jones has combed through tens of thousands of submissions that are centered on relationships, or the longing for them, giving him a panoramic view of anecdotal stories on online romances and hooking up. “The overwhelming theme I get from young people—young being teens up to your 20s—is this aversion to labeling the relationship. Because if you don’t label the relationship then there’s no set of expectations to go along with it,” Jones says. “Nobody knows what to expect then when you break up. What is permissible? ... Is it best to be a little bit in touch online where the stakes are so low?” He adds that this kind of communication can also be a way of minimizing the importance of what the relationship meant, because, if you don’t fully stop communicating with someone, it can be a way of saying: "What we had wasn’t enough to be hurtful so why should we act that way?"
But ignoring someone for months on end and then reappearing casually can be hurtful, or at least confusing. A way to minimize the vulnerability that comes from being in and out of touch, whether online or not is to give it a name. Simply announcing to your friends “I’ve been zombie’d,” offers some relief—not only by turning the ghoulish noun into a verb to make your friends laugh, but also by giving this dating practice a label so you can regain a sense of a control.
This is not a new idea. According to Loren Graham, a history of science professor at MIT, naming something to feel ownership over it dates beyond the Book of Genesis to nearly every religion and culture. He writes in the Philoctetes Center newsletter Dialog: “A common concept in history is that knowing the name of something or someone gives one power over that thing or person.” He notes that in mathematics naming something is sometimes considered a path toward a solution. “Mathematicians often observe that, on the basis of intuition, they sometimes develop concepts that are at first ineffable and resist definition. These concepts must be named before they can be brought under control.”
By labeling the sudden reappearance of old flames as zombieing, you may be able to confront your distress.
And, when you find yourself unconsciously lurking on Instagram, pause before you click. As funnyman Aziz Ansari reminds us, “When you look at your phone and see a text from a potential partner, you don’t always see another person—you often see a little bubble with text in it.”
Remember that behind those little bubbles is a human, just like you.
Sophia Kercher is PrimeMind's editorial director.