My first significant relationship started in 2008. My memory is extremely hazy, but I seem to remember that the morning after, the following things definitely happened: we sat in bed and speculated whether the collapse of Lehman Brothers might precipitate some kind of global financial crisis, while listening to The Ting Tings and Scouting for Girls. After discussing the solidity of Brangelina, and crazily wondering whether Tory leader David Cameron would one day be accused of having sex with a pig’s face, we kissed and I departed. Oh, and this part I actually remember really well: we became friends on Facebook that day, too.
It was a cute moment, at a time when Facebook could itself be legitimately described as cute. Back then, there was a delightful naivety to the way people used social media. We treated each other the way young lovers treat each other. People tried to see the other person’s point of view. We were all polite, optimistic, and generally kept things light, easy and breezy. Back then, there was a spate of weddings off the back of people meeting via these platforms. Not just young people but oldies, too – a phenomenon riffed on by BBC One’s Last Tango in Halifax, the Sally Wainwright drama about seventysomethings finding love online. Yet even though it only dates back to 2012, you couldn’t hang a show on that innocent premise today.
Nowadays seventysomething Facebook users would likely coalesce over a shared perception that Amber Heard was lying about domestic abuse, or throwing around racial epithets in the comments section of a local newspaper story about fly tipping. It’s fair to say that the romance has vanished from Facebook, and from social media in general.
Yet given how dramatically bleak and unromantic the whole thing has become, I’m shocked that convention still states that people in love are expected to follow each other online. It might seem dangerously aloof (and borderline rude) to say no, but I honestly think it’s not worth the risk. Social media has devolved from a bit of fun into something that’s actively driving up divorce rates. Though estimates are unclear, platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have been reported as a factor in anywhere from one in seven to a third of all divorce cases.
I find these statistics fascinating because they show that we are vastly more affected by social media than we outwardly acknowledge in our real lives. It is the proverbial elephant in the room, and many of us are in denial – we often don’t discuss it for fear of dignifying its presence. That’s until you get into a one-on-one with someone awkwardly stuck in a relationship with a social media fan.
I’ve heard complaints in the past about people being used as a warm-up audience for their partners’ opinions, or those who save their A-game chat for their online community whilst being fairly dull in real life. There’s the classic partner-as-photographer gripe, where every move (and meal) is documented and shared by an overzealous other half. Some also privately struggle to understand the incongruity of their partner’s social media output: the boasting, the relentless positivity, the “I had a great time with so-and-so”, despite knowing full well that they hate each other’s guts and secretly want to pour Dolmio sauce over each other. There’s also the exact inverse of these situations, where a partner may simply lurk, silently read all of your Insta stories religiously, yet never once engage with any of it, ever.
The truth is that social media exists in such a state of delirious fantasy that you’d both be healthier taking hallucinogenics at regular intervals than slavishly following each other online. It’s not the real world. It’s a selection of random people who mostly don’t matter to you. Barely remembered school friends whose politics now drive you mad. People you used to work with a decade ago, whom you don’t hugely care about any more. People you used to fancy, but never met. People you used to date, but no longer speak to. That sound person you met at a festival, who now mostly posts about his biscuit business. As an ecosystem, it doesn’t bear much resemblance to real life – not like the beautiful, warts ’n’ all intimacy of “real life” relationships. The ones where people cohabit. The ones where people take vows to be monogamous. The ones where you can “be yourself”.
By contrast, most of us by now know that the act of “being yourself” online is mostly a performative illusion. People thought that American comedian Eric Andre and model Emily Ratajkowski were being themselves on Valentine’s Day, for example, when Andre appeared to announce their coupledom by sharing an affectionately candid picture of the pair totally nude – a bottle of wine and a (possibly post-coital) bundle of clothes all in shot. All very charming, until Ratajkowski recently cleared up that the picture was shared online after they had stopped dating. The meaning of it all had been completely skewered, which isn’t surprising. Any place where emotions are turned into a commodity (either tangentially financial or through dopamine-releasing likes) will inevitably start to affect the legitimacy of human expression.
That’s why the only celebrity I really trust is TV presenter Lorraine Kelly, who in 2019 successfully claimed in a tax battle with HMRC that on screen, she wasn’t herself. In the words of the judge, she was merely “presenting a persona of herself”. At work, “Lorraine Kelly” has to be agreeable to her show’s guests, and be blithe and chirpy whilst telling people about ironing hacks or the telltale symptoms of bowel cancer. That’s not the kind of thing regular, sans-quote-marks Lorraine Kelly does, and so she rightly established a border line between the two personas that share the same name. We need to realise that the same duality exists with all of us on social media. The person that you’re in love with is very unlikely to be the same person who exists online. So why follow them?
I’m not a hater of social media. My relationship with Facebook, for example, has lasted longer than any romantic relationship I’ve been in. I use it a lot, but in a deliberately unserious way that says almost nothing about who I really am as a person. I’m trying to save that for human beings I’m physically and emotionally close to. I stopped dating someone recently, but we stayed close friends. Weeks later, we started following each other on Instagram. It felt really good.