"Omg babbbbbes I miss you! Let’s get dinner soon?" Hands up if anyone else gets that text at least once a week from various friends who they almost certainly aren’t going to get dinner with any time soon.
Yep, breadcrumbing, once limited to online dating, has insidiously worked its way into our friendships too.
"Breadcrumbing", for those lucky enough not to have come across 2017’s most grotesque buzzword yet, is the act of dropping enticing little digital "breadcrumbs" (read: texts, WhatsApps or comments on social media posts) in order to make sure that the breadcrumber remains on the radar of the breadcrumbee. It’s rude, a product of low self-esteem and, guess what, we all do it.
"I am a total breadcrumber with two girls," says Ally*, 28. "I do genuinely want to see them more but it’s tricky when I can’t even see my closest mates as often as I’d like. When I meet my close friends it doesn’t matter if I’m grumpy, tired or look like crap, but with non-proximity friends it needs an energetic version of me that just doesn't exist on the Monday night that we’ve booked plans."
Jodie Cook, a consultant from JC Social Media Marketing agrees with this and tells me that, thanks to social media and all the different WhatsApp groups you’re almost certainly participating in, it’s just not possible to keep up with every single person you’re connected to. "Some friendships fizzle out, while some stay strong, which is completely natural," she says. Now though, thanks to social media, we’re reminded that they’re fizzling out. "Those individuals pop up on your newsfeed, or Timehop reminds you of a holiday you took together – memories that would, pre-social media, have been forgotten, are brought up constantly. That friend might not be in your life anymore but the reminder… along with the perceived pressure to keep in touch, will still be there."
So sure, social media might have widened our social circles to unmanageable levels and means that we can’t always make time for others, but why do we feel the need to keep up the pretence that we will meet up with these people? Why do we need to remind them that we still exist with invitations we have no intention of following through on?
A few years back, comedian Aziz Ansari and Freakonomics did an episode about online dating and they found that those who were the most successful at getting messages back and, subsequently, IRL dates, were those who were the most specific when it came to suggesting days and times for potential meet-ups. With this in mind, I decided to try a little experiment and started responding to potential breadcrumb texts with this: "Sure, how’s next Thursday, 7pm, at such-and-such pub?"
Guess what? For the most part, it was radio silence. And I promise – I promise I’m not awful – well, maybe I am, because what I realised is how often I’ve done exactly the same thing to other people.
Dr Max Blumberg, a psychology researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, is sceptical. "It’s low self-esteem," he explains. "It’s 'I need my self-esteem stroked by people wanting to follow up and see me.'" The problem, he says, is that all this back and forth and false promises means someone’s going to end up hurt. "The one with the lower self-esteem is going to feel worse if the other person doesn’t come back to them because they need those 'strokes'’ from the other person to convince them that they are worthwhile."
Because this is 2017, and everything relates back to social media, I’ve got a theory about how our digital presences have changed the way we interact with our friends when we’re not with them in real life. Social media has given each of us a platform – a series of online soapboxes from which to 'promote' ourselves and our 'personal brand'. Perhaps, rather than 'people', we’re encouraged to see ourselves online as 'brands' while we have begun to see our extended friends less as 'friends' and more as networking opportunities. Hence the need to remind those people that we’re there, we’re doing stuff, we’re relevant.
Jodie agrees. "What if we, as social media addicts, see all our extended friendships and networks as routes to win likes?" she asks. "After all, if only our closest five friends liked every one of our Instagram posts it wouldn’t exactly go viral. We feel we need to keep stoking the fire, we need to keep breadcrumbing, offering false offers of friendships to secure a selfish goal."
Everyone okay after that bombshell?
So what do you do to fix this? Well, to be honest, I think we all know: it’s a bit less social media and a bit more IRL time with those who are near and dear to us. "Withdraw from posting and sharing information to everyone, and save it for when you see your friends and family face to face instead," says Jodie.
Max offers the same advice: "Start finding supplements to social media. Note I didn’t say 'alternatives'," he laughs, knowing that withdrawing altogether isn’t really an option for most of us. He recommends reaching out to people through sites like Meetup.com to find potential new friends with similar interests.
Most importantly, bring it back to yourself. The likelihood is, if you’re being breadcrumbed by someone, you would also breadcrumb them back. Ask yourself, do you actually have time to see these people? Or is it just going to be an added stress in your life?
Deep down, truly honestly, if you value your nights in with Netflix, the answer is probably "no". Don’t be offended by breadcrumbing; instead, see it as a positive – in a world where we’re asked to be in constant contact with everyone, someone has deemed you important enough to reach out and say "hey".