It was late spring in Manhattan. An old, minor Tinder fling replied to one of my tweets while I was sitting on the C train, drinking vodka from a seltzer bottle, heading to a birthday party I didn’t feel like attending.
I hit the tiny heart under the reply and thought, “I’m gonna make him show up later, just to prove that I can.” (I was honestly kind of a dick that year!) And so we kissed for like, 11 seconds in the street after the birthday girl had gone home and after the friend who was crashing at my apartment turned her back to us, saying first, “I’m going to turn my back to you.” The “romance” started with a hangover and a box of cupcakes and proceeded through tens of thousands of iMessages and absolutely zero kisses that didn’t taste like tequila. It was nothing at all and it was everything I thought about: my first big crush as an adult.
I was being paid to keep my eyes on the internet for 10 hours a day, so between every humdrum task or boring Slack conversation, I would pull up his Twitter profile, click on the Likes tab, see what he had been agreeing with or laughing along to. It didn’t feel unhealthy. It was like a sip of seltzer or the crisp reward of deleting an email. It was usually nice, and sometimes it wasn’t — if one of my texts had gone unanswered for several long hours, a string of new liked tweets from him was like a tiny taunt. Most of the time, it just felt like something to do.
I called it a compulsion and thought that I was joking.
Months later, I downloaded, with mild interest, a study run by Helen Fisher of the Kinsey Institute in 2005. It’s the rare type of scientific paper that reads like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy — juicy, dreamy, and full of hard science to justify my bizarre behavior. Fisher’s team analyzed 2,500 brain scans of college students who were first shown photos of various acquaintances and then of their romantic interests. The scientists watched the students’ dopamine-rich “reward system” regions light up like a pinball machine. Looking closer, they identified the affected dopamine pathways as those related to “energy, focus, motivation, ecstasy, and craving, including primary regions associated with addiction.” In a self-reported questionnaire given to participants in Fisher’s first study of these sorts of brain activities, every participant admitted to spending at least 85 percent of their time thinking about their romantic interest.
When I saw Fisher speak at a debate about dating apps at Hunter College on a freezing night this February, she argued that technology “cannot change the basic brain structure of romance.” When you’re romantically obsessed with a person, everything they touch takes on “special meaning”— their street, their favorite song, their laundry detergent, maybe their, uh, Twitter likes — and this is a hardwired fact of the human brain, confirmed by fMRI studies. In 2014, Fisher termed this an addiction, yes, but a “natural” one.
Almost everyone I know will admit to looking up a date’s LinkedIn profile or tabbing over to their tagged photos on Instagram out of simple curiosity. Almost everyone I know will watch a crush’s Instagram Story before they watch anyone else’s, and almost everyone I know will say they’ve “Facebook stalked” at some point or another — probably in 2012. “But where’s the line?” I always want to ask. Where, in this collection of available social media behaviors, do we switch over from a fact of modern life to a modern pathological condition?