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11:17

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?


Sonja Utz is a professor of communication at the University of Tübingen in Germany. In 2011, she worked on a study examining the way Facebook played into feelings of happiness and jealousy in new relationships. The paper appealed to me — and what I wanted to believe about myself — because in it, Utz refers to social media as “a socially accepted way of monitoring [a] partner.” Socially accepted! Yes, thank you. Social media platforms, she wrote, “offer a way to monitor the partner without committing an obvious trust violation,” and 35 percent of Utz’s study participants readily admitted to doing so. For the most part, the study found, people experienced “more happiness than jealousy” once they were done looking. And what, may I ask, is wrong with doing things that make you happy?

But when I called Utz from bed one weekend morning and asked her to excuse my behavior, she was hesitant.

“I think it’s very difficult to say, ‘This is too far,’ because it’s really a very, very blurry line,” Utz told me. “People probably know that, no, it’s not okay to look at your partner’s smartphone or look through their bags, but if you’re talking about social media, you’re talking about public posts. You can easily justify, at least for yourself, ‘this is normal social media use.’”

She suggested that Twitter’s algorithm may have started serving me my crush’s posts more often, escalating the problem in a way that was not totally my fault. That was kind of her. Utz was also generous enough to point out that it’s human nature to want to “reduce uncertainty” by collecting as much data as possible. She added that—and this was perhaps a bit of a reach — because smartphones have enabled us to check social media platforms anywhere we are, at any time, as often as we want, it’s not really my fault that I chose to do so almost constantly.

I guess I just want to read a paper proving that other people act this way, I explained to her. “An interesting research question would be to see how people perceive [that behavior in others]. If they feel that it’s a bit bizarre,” Utz said. Had she heard of any studies like this? “No.” But she recently chatted with a man who wants to study the phenomenon of looking up the activity of dates on, as Utz put it, “this app, I forgot what it’s called, I think it’s something you have in the U.S. where you can split bills with people, and then you can see who paid whom what?” I plan to read it the day it comes out.

A little desperate, I called Fisher and asked her, more or less, to apply what she’d said about dating apps to my personal predicament. “Every single time a new technology comes into style, people are afraid,” Fisher almost shouted. “But humans have had exactly the same brain for 300,000 years. It’s not going to change.” It felt like I was being saved, last-millisecond, from falling down a sewer grate. Not everything I’ve done wrong is because of unfightable, unmovable brain chemistry — but some of it is. “This is all happening way below the cortex, way below the limbic regions. And that’s true for all addictions, including romantic addictions.” Love, Fisher told me, has mappable “escalation points” and “breaking points,” and they will never really change. “It’s the same old thing.”


We did not fall in love. Instead, I got a walk along the East River and a serious talk.

Oh well. The worst part of being dumped is that the person doing the dumping has had plenty of time to think about their phrasing. You have to improvise — come up with something poignant or cutting on the fly. On a bench outside a feminist bookstore, I could think of nothing at all to say in response other than, “I just don’t feel like being sad.” And then, “I don’t want to spend the next three weeks looking at your Twitter likes 40 times a day.” This was exceedingly malicious candor on my part — I thought it would make him self-conscious, poison his brain, get him addicted to the same clinically reprehensible behavior that I was doing.

And I was right! Three weeks later I was standing in the sun, buying a piece of street corn at a parade, drunk at midday, when the text I’d planted popped up on my phone: “Okay, I’ve read every tweet and every like.” Wow. Hell yeah. I thought briefly about pushing things further and liking only tweets in which anyone was saying anything bad about any person with his first name. Ultimately, a co-worker convinced me, that would be a little much. Ultimately, the victory did not make me feel any less dumped.

In Eve Babitz’s “Jealousy,” she proposes that we should deliberately and arduously train ourselves not to indulge in the compulsive behaviors of romantic obsession that drive us up the wall. “Maybe, if we don’t cave in to them,” she writes, “they’ll vanish sooner, and we’ll be able sooner to try to describe what happened with phrases that fall apart in our hands.” I looked at his “likes” tab 10 times a day, then three times a day, then once a week, and then stopped. I’ve made a point of not getting into the habit with new crushes, if only because it would feel too embarrassing to start over at 10.


But I don’t really regret any of it. I love to have a crush. I love the way having a crush, as Tiana Reid wrote for the New Inquiry earlier this year, “takes over the everyday.” Have you ever tried to sit through a bad movie or a middle school orchestra recital without a crush to think about? It should be illegal. They should ask you at the door.

Reid describes crushing as a “general singularity,” writing, “It is not the individual crush that provides its life-confirming force — it is the generality of crushing, its atmospheric quality, its circulation around many.” I like to think that having a crush helps everyone in my radius stay alive as well, functioning nearly as community service. And that my summer feelings, bubbling over with the help of Lorde and Brooklyn-backyard twinkle lights and the bizarrely sensual wax packaging of Babybel cheese, briefly turned a handful of idiotic tech platforms into buzzing, fantastic, secret worlds. Honestly, Jack Dorsey should be sending me a thank-you note.

Romantic obsession in the age of likes is unbearable — like a shimmery pop song about summer released during actual summer, or a shot of grain alcohol poured into the corner of an eye — but it is also extremely bearable, like a kiss at a subway entrance, or coming in from a rainstorm and being offered a sliver of pie. Only by crushing are the most banal data points of anyone’s existence — the things they absentmindedly double-tap in the never-ending feed, or the replies they politely “like” to bring an end to a conversation — imbued with magic. How boring it all is without whatever kind of romance you can find in it.

It’s lucky for me that my crush was some kind of modern artist or whatever (as well as addicted to the internet in his own way) and so was able to accept me for what I am. We became real friends—no stupid Twitter secrets. One night this winter, we sat in a nautical-themed bar in Midtown Manhattan, drinking $14 cocktails, after spending two hours in the basement of the Ace Hotel, drinking $14 cocktails. He looked up at a mounted TV playing Impractical Jokers, then looked back at me and said, “Our relationship feels really special to me.” I closed my mouth around a cocktail stirrer. “I don’t know why,” he said. I pretended I had no clue. I felt guilty for 20 minutes, and then I remembered I didn’t need to.