If you love someone, don’t follow them on social media

My first significant relationship began in 2008. My memory is extremely hazy, but I seem to remember that the following things definitely happened the morning after: We sat in bed speculating that the collapse of Lehman Brothers was some kind of global financial crisis trigger while listening to The Ting Tings and Scouting for Girls. After debating the solidity of Brangelina and wondering madly if Tory leader David Cameron would one day be accused of having sex with a pig face, we kissed and I left. Oh, and I still remember that part: We also became friends on Facebook that day.

It was a sweet moment, at a time when Facebook itself could rightly be called sweet. Back then, the way people used social media was wonderfully naïve. We treated each other the way young lovers treat each other. People were trying to see the other person’s point of view. We were all polite, upbeat, and generally kept things light, simple, and breezy. Back then, there was a spate of marriages based on people meeting through these platforms. Not just young people, but oldies too – a phenomenon picked up by BBC One’s Last Tango in Halifax, the Sally Wainwright drama about seventy year olds finding love online. But even though it’s only from 2012, you couldn’t hang a show on that innocent premise today.

Today, Facebook users in their 70s would probably unite around a shared perception that Amber Heard lied about domestic violence or threw out racist epithets about bow tie tipping in a local newspaper’s comments. It’s fair to say that the romance of Facebook and social media in general is gone.

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Given how dramatically somber and unromantic it’s all gotten, I’m shocked that convention still says that people in love are expected to follow each other online. It might seem dangerously distant (and borderline rude) to say no, but I honestly don’t think it’s worth the risk. Social media has gone from being a little fun to something that is actively pumping up divorce rates. Although estimates are unclear, it has been reported that platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat play a role in between one in seven and one-third of all divorce cases.

I find these stats fascinating because they show that we are influenced by social media far more than we let on in real life. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room, and many of us deny it — we often don’t talk about it for fear of acknowledging its presence. Until you get into a one-on-one with someone awkwardly in a relationship with a social media fanatic.

I’ve heard complaints in the past about people being used as a warm-up audience for their partner’s opinions, or those saving their A-game chat for their online community while being pretty boring in real life. There’s the classic partner-as-photographer disorder, 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 bragging rights, the unrelenting positivity, the “I had a great time with so and so,” despite knowing full well they hate each other and secretly want to pour dolmio sauce on top of each other. There’s also the exact reverse of these situations, where a partner may just lurk, quietly reading all of your Insta Stories religiously, but never once engaging in any of it.

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The truth is, social media exists in such a state of insane fantasy that you’d both be healthier if you took hallucinogens on a regular basis than slavishly following each other online. It’s not the real world. It’s a random selection of people you mostly don’t care about. Hardly reminded of school friends whose politics now drives you insane. People you worked with ten years ago who are no longer important to you. People you used to like but never met. People you used to date but no longer speak to. That sane person you met at a festival who now mostly writes about her cookie business. As an ecosystem, it doesn’t bear much resemblance to real life — not like the beautiful, warty intimacy of “real life” relationships. The ones where people live together. The ones in which people take vows to be monogamous. Where you can “be yourself”.

It is very unlikely that the person you are in love with is the same person that exists online. So why follow them?

In contrast, most of us now know that the act of “being yourself” on the internet is mostly a performative illusion. For example, people thought American comedian Eric Andre and model Emily Ratajkowski were themselves on Valentine’s Day when Andre showed up to announce their couple relationship by sharing a lovingly candid image of the fully nude couple — holding a bottle of wine and a ( Possibly post (coital) bundles of clothes all in good shape. All very charming, until Ratajkowski recently clarified that the picture was shared online after they stopped dating. The meaning of everything was completely skewered, which is not surprising. Any place where emotions are commodified (either tangentially financially or through dopamine-releasing likes) will inevitably compromise the legitimacy of human expression.

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That’s why the only celebrity I really trust is TV presenter Lorraine Kelly, who successfully claimed in a tax dispute with HMRC in 2019 that she wasn’t herself on screen. According to the judge, she merely “represented a personality of herself”. At work, “Lorraine Kelly” has to be personable with her show’s guests and be upbeat and cheerful while telling people about ironing tricks or the telltale symptoms of colon cancer. That’s not what Lorraine Kelly regularly does without quotes, and so she rightly drew a line between the two people with the same name. We need to realize that the same duality exists with all of us on social media. It is very unlikely that the person you are in love with is the same person that exists online. So why follow them?

I’m not a social media hater. My relationship with Facebook, for example, has lasted longer than any romantic relationship I’ve ever been in. I use it a lot, but in a deliberately frivolous way that says almost nothing about who I really am as a person. I try to save that for people I’m physically and emotionally close to. I’ve recently stopped dating, but we’ve remained close friends. Weeks later we started following each other on Instagram. It felt really good.