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Why Breadcrumbing Is The Lowest Form Of Digital Communication

The frustrating trail that leads to nowhere...

It used to happen several times a year. Sometimes at predictable moments (birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, late on a Sunday night) but mostly it was out of the blue. I’d check my phone, and butterflies would ensue. Their cause? A message that would simply say ‘how are you’, perhaps an invitation to ‘hang out soon’ or a string of like notifications which informed me that he’d been going through my Instagram archive. Fool that I am, I would reply.

He was someone I had almost dated on and off for years. Frustrating and flakey as he was, I would fall for it every time and respond to his provocations. In return to my response…tumbleweed. I now know that I was being ‘breadcrumbed’. Guy one, let’s call him ‘the academic’ was a serial breadcrumber. But he’s not the only one out there guilty of this unfathomable and unproductive behaviour.

What Is The Definition Of Breadcrumbing?

Breadcrumbing (verb), a recently coined term, has given a name to an age old digital dating dilemma. Being able to attach a label to the problem is satisfying and concisely cathartic. At the time when I was being breadcrumbed regularly I would send wordy rants to express my annoyance, now I could just say ‘oi, stop breadcrumbing me’.

For those who have never had the misfortune of being breadcrumbed this is how Urban Dictionary defines it:

‘The act of sending out flirtatious, but non-committal text messages (i.e. “breadcrumbs”) to members of the opposite sex in order to lure a sexual partner without expending much effort.’

See also ‘Hansel and Gretelling’ – ‘When a girl or guy gives someone just enough attention to keep their hope of a relationship alive.’

How Breadcrumbing Became The Most Relevant Dating Term Of All

There is, right now, a breadcrumbing epidemic. Take my friend Nalani (not her real name), 27. Nalani is currently single and being periodically breadcrumbed by a ghost from her past. She doesn’t really use Instagram, but when she checks it she finds multiple notifications from the ghost, someone she worked with five years ago but never actually spoke to one on one during their time in the confines of the same office.

The ghost followed Nalani on Instagram and has been liking her posts, old and new, ever since. When it first started happening she thought it was ‘weird’, two months on how does she feel about it? ‘He’s actually quite fit’ she says, ‘Charlie if you’re reading this I’m DTF’. So would she just rather he got on with it and made his intentions clear? ‘Yes!’ she says, ‘mostly I’d like him to just ask me out.’

For the breadcrumber, dropping tiny morsels of attention is a way of letting the object of their very divided attention know they’re moderately interested. It could be an effective way of opening up a dialogue or laying the foundations of a meaningful real life encounter. So why, so often, does the breadcrumb trail become little more than a road to nowhere?

Dr Emma Short is the Director of the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research. I figure if anyone can shed some light on this, it’s her. ‘Largely’ she tells me, ‘it’s part of the ‘shop window’ perception that we’re increasingly seeing created by apps like Tinder. You browse as a past time, rather than with the intent to communicate.’

We can hide behind our screens, between us pressing a button and someone receiving a notification here can be hundreds, if not millions, of miles and even entire continents. Does Dr Short think we’ve become detached from the impact of our digital actions? She explains that apps like Tinder and Instagram are ‘disinhibiting’, people using them ‘forget or filter out the fact that there are recipients and viewers to what they’re doing. You can be in your own home, in your pyjamas and interacting with someone’ she explains, ‘I think that’s where this comes from.’

The issue seems to be one of people acting on impulse without thinking it through or considering the fall out. 100 years ago if the one that got away popped into your mind you could sit down, write a heartfelt letter, put it on your sideboard and wait until you could get to the post office to send it.

Sure, the fact that we’re all a few clicks away from one another is a great thing, but does it somehow devalue our connections with one another? ‘if you look at how people use social media’ Dr Short says, ‘they’re just passing time. We see this issue, and more serious cases of harassment, arising for young women especially. They are reporting cases of being liked repeatedly or tagged in stuff for someone else’s gratification. That’s what this is, it’s an attempt to get a reaction, not an authentic effort to try and communicate with them.’ In the case of the academic, he certainly wasn’t thinking about anything other than his own needs. I doubt it ever occurred to him that I might have moved on, which I had, and this his messages might be disruptive. The again, perhaps that was part of the thrill of being able to pop back into my life with minimal effort on a regular basis.

Another friend of mine, let’s call her Rachel, in her 30s, has also been breadcrumbed, hard. ‘I saw this guy for ages’ she tells me, ‘he’d go quiet every time he was shagging someone else (he basically had three of us on rotation). There was a proper pattern to it, every time he and I fell out he’d go totally dead, because his mind would be on one of the others – then he’d want to move on again at which point he’d start liking my posts and randomly commenting on stuff out of nowhere.’ Why does she think he chose to play out his love life this way? ‘he didn’t have to go out on a limb, it was just enough to sew the seed before he made the big play and started texting me again.’ For this guy, let’s call him the dick, breadcrumbing was a useful way of ensuring he had a few options on the back burner at all times.

As part of her work on cyberstalking Dr Short has been working with the police on low level online harassment. One friend of mine, Janice, 28 (obviously and definitely not her real name), had a very worrying experience after breaking up with someone she met on Tinder. He would like pictures of her from 2004 one day and then go silent. A week or so later he would tag her in a group devoted to a particular breed of dog he knew she loved or on a thread talking about a book that he knew was a favourite. Does Dr Short think breadcrumbers think about the impact they might be having? Often ‘they might not be considering how what they’re doing will play out on your timeline’ she says, ‘that you will get notifications, for instance. And certainly they’re not thinking about what you will see, think and feel in real time.’

I often feel like a luddite for day dreaming about a return to limited contact, hand written letters and long periods of silence. I worry that all the noise we’re bombarded by makes it difficult to discern what’s important and what’s dross. Dr Short doesn’t think I’m being hyperbolic, ‘the Internet eradicates our natural sense of empathy’ she says. ‘We don’t think about the impact of our actions because the cues to social consideration are far less available. Online you have to actively consider them rather than respond to them intuitively as you do when another person is in front of you.’

There's a sliding scale of breadcrumbing, as Brenda, 27, (that's right, not her real name) says 'there are two main types'. The first is the 'pen pal'. Brenda explains that this is someone who is 'literally never going to meet up with you and basically only messaging you when they're bored at work or need a confidence boost. I went on a date with a guy two years ago and he's been breadcrumbing me since then.' The second type? 'These guys see you as a potential back up shag, they send "whats ups" with every intention of meeting up but only if you fit into their framework and you're never ever going to.'

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The True Meaning Of Breadcrumbing

One thing all breadcrumbers have in common is laziness. They like to remind you they exist, or rather enjoy the validation in checking that you haven’t forgotten them. They check in, but never convert likes and messages into actions. They are to digital communication what puns are on the scale of wit, the lowest possible form. What they are really saying, Dr Short says is ‘I’m still here! I’m still here!’ and that, for her, ‘is one of the things that is so troublesome about it’. The breadcrumber is required to make little or no effort while the recipient might be thinking ‘great this person wants to get back in touch with me when, in reality, they might just be bored and lonely’.

If you’ve ever been breadcrumbed you’ll know how frustrating it is, to be at the beck and call of someone else’s whims, strung along and then, unceremoniously ignored until they get bored and reach out to you again in a moment of ennui or after having been dumped.

The point of leaving a trail of crumbs, in the Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, is that it helps you to find your way back to where you’re supposed to be. It doesn’t just lead you somewhere, the fairy tale breadcrumb trail leads home. Modern digital breadcrumb trails, on the other hand, lead you up the garden path at best and completely off course at worst.

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.