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Social media’s new relationship milestones
Can you follow after a first date? And other questions, answered by real couples.
My boyfriend and I are “in a relationship” on Facebook, due to long term commitment to a bit. —Kate
I still have light trauma from the way Facebook’s “in a relationship with” feature meant my entire social and familial circle found out whenever I went through a breakup. Granted, this was in high school, when the relationships were never exactly destined for the long term. But unbeknownst to me, that feature was preparing me for a lifetime of navigating relationships in a way no previous generation has: online.
Questions about internet and social media expectations and norms would continue to define my relationships: the boyfriend who didn’t like me posting couple photos on Facebook and Instagram, the boyfriend who I met over Twitter DM, my current boyfriend who my phone always thinks is a stranger following me around.
While there’s no one way to do a relationship, we have the basics of “date, ‘I love you,’ move in together, get married” down, regardless of whether you choose to adhere to them. Now, social media has thrown a curveball that, according to replies to a recent series of Instagram Stories I posted, many of us are still figuring out. For instance, how long into dating is it appropriate to start following the other person on social media? The answers generally ranged from one week to four months, but some people had special circumstances.
“Right away!” one user replied (I granted everyone anonymity for optimum honesty). “When social media is part of your livelihood it comes up on the first date.”
Those who waited a month or two admitted to peeking at profiles before the big moment. For others, the length of the wait for them to get a request became a red flag. For the people who met on social media, it took as long as nine months after the initial follow before they actually started to date.
Then there’s the first time you post your partner publicly—which is maybe a bigger deal than the first date, if you’ve been as terminally online as I have. There are even two commonly-understood ways to do it: a soft launch, and a hard launch. A soft launch is gradually introducing them into your content over time—another plate at the table, a leg here and there, until a fully-formed human with a name starts regularly appearing in your pictures and anecdotes.
“We didn’t want to be an ‘internet couple’ so [we] launched to friends slowly,” one responder wrote.
The hard launch skips the clues, typically in favor of an unmistakable picture of the couple posted directly to the main feed. Some people who responded to my story said they made things even more official with a post actually announcing the relationship, and some waited pretty much up until the last possible moment. One said they “hard-launched with an engagement announcement because I love chaos.”
There are smaller but equally contentious facets of social media relationship etiquette, too. Take location-sharing. There was a stark divide between respondents who began sharing their locations a few months into their relationships for one reason or another (safety, usually), and people who vow they’ll never, ever, share their location with their partner.
“I find this to be a weird lack of trust,” one user replied. Another added, “I respect his independence and autonomy and he mine.”
Shared calendars were less divisive, but seemed to be more common when everyone was stuck at home. For example, in order to avoid walking into each other’s Zoom meetings, couples shared their work calendars so they knew when to stay out of the living room.
While navigating these social media norms feels like added pressure to relationships, a not insignificant number of respondents said being in a relationship reduced the pressure they experienced due to social media.
“I don’t know if it’s [my relationship] or age or COVID/general despair, but I care way less about seeming any sort of way online,” one user wrote. “I don’t care to seem cool/impressive or post play by play stories of my life.”
Similarly, one respondent said they “care less about looking hot.”
Another said both they and their partner have basically stopped posting all together: “[It] made me realize I really only used [social media] for validation and attention.” (See: Writer Emily Sundberg’s recent quote in the New York Times: “I think being hot online is sort of pure and, debatably, what social media was originally for.”)
My own social media use has fallen off recently, a decision I made more for my brain than anything else. But I do wonder if it was easier to make because I'm already cuffed up and don't feel like there’s a need to maintain an online billboard for myself. Then again, my boyfriend still refuses to share his location with me! In that sense, there are still a few more milestones to go.