In Sally Rooney’s masterful debut novel Conversations With Friends (2017), the 26-year-old Irish author manages what few of her contemporaries have attempted—to examine the subtle undertones of online conversation. In writing her young protagonist’s affair with a married man, Rooney seamlessly works in the minutiae of these digital interactions, like the implied insouciance of a lowercase email or the power dynamics contained in an Instant Messenger chat.
While Rooney excludes social media from her novel, any regular user will agree that a minor gaffe on one of these platforms can produce significant real-world consequences. For instance, the horrors of a “deep like”—when you scroll well into a profile and accidentally hit like—are no different from being found breaking and entering. In cases of unrequited love, the sitting, waiting, wishing and constant refreshing of feeds can feel as profound as Austenian yearning.
As screen time exceeds real-life interactions, our expressions of love, and expectations of lovers, are disrupting all manner of relationships. To avoid unwanted floundering, update your social media vocabulary with this quick guide to new online dating mores:
The lady’s/gentleman’s guide to sliding into DMs
In the halcyon days of romance, getting to know someone was a long-term commitment. It demanded well-scripted prank calls, strategic alliances with common friends and at least one visit to a music store to accurately gauge your subject’s taste in music. Now, first impressions are lost to social media; or, rather, are restricted to social media.
Multi-platform social media checks precede Tinder dates and business meetings, and it is not uncommon to catch yourself swooning over an attractive handle. While dating apps like Tinder and Grindr function on hurried swipes and awkward opening lines, social media allows for a more relaxed, slow-burn romance.
Take the case of Victoria O’Brien, who, in 2012, was just another British Twitter user crushing on @WstonesOxfordSt, a sharp-witted book-store account. She made her interest apparent by tweeting: “well I’m in love with whoever is manning the @WstonesOxfordSt account. Be still my actual beating heart.” Said handle replied with an unassuming: “Pff, he’s not that dreamy in real life.” Eventually, she “slid into his DMs”, and four years later, O’Brien tweeted a wedding photograph, featuring her as a beaming pink-haired bride alongside husband Jonathan, with an appropriately nerdy caption. “Dear reader, I married him.”
Unfortunately, open DMs (direct messages) won’t always land you the perfect catch. Some men barge in with offensive pictures and emojis, or choose to “Tindstagram”—pursue someone on Instagram despite being rejected by them on Tinder. Access to a person’s DMs is a privilege that can be revoked swiftly over a hackneyed pick-up line, overeager punctuation (!!??), or beginning a conversation with a solitary, uninspiring “hey”.
The news cycle routinely adds fresh buzzwords to the dating lexicon, and a large volume of these suggests a shifty, self-serving approach to casual dating. To consider only a few, there’s “breadcrumbing”, where hot and cold signals keep one party constantly engaged, with no promise of commitment; “benching”, when a prospective romance is kept on hold while other partners are courted; “cuffing season”, or a search for companionship in the particularly vulnerable holiday months, which leads to “clearing season”, when such hasty coupling is undone. When an Instagram official photo surfaces—a public announcement that’s supplanted the Facebook relationship status—it also sends out a mass message to those being breadcrumbed and benched.
While these flippant clickbait-inspired catchwords are hard to take seriously, they do spotlight a time of ambiguous beginnings and ends. I suspect most of us have known a couple, or been the couple, that struggles to clearly define its relationship. In this time of uncertain loves, social media comes through as a trusted ally with its promise of reliable mood-enhancers—a flurry of tweets, a “heart” from an ex, a casual flirtation made up entirely of GIFs—that allow for a new, multipronged approach to companionship, replete with its own complications.
Micro-cheating and Instagram surveillance
In 2018, mandatory expressions of love include diligently liking your partner’s posts, never skipping an Instagram story and supplementing physical intimacy with aesthetically pleasing sexts. Slacking off on these online gestures can be perceived as disinterest, like snoozing off mid-conversation, and, over time, plague a relationship with silent resentment.
For committed couples, there arises the additional, seemingly trivial question of social media fidelity. For instance, overliking a co-worker’s pictures, or watching a constant feed of their highs and lows, can breed intimacy in private nooks like Instagram stories, which might incite a romantic partner. On the surface, these concerns seem as trivial as a squabble over wet towels on beds, but what they signify for a relationship is worth considering.
I was once at an all-girls dinner table where a similar dilemma presented itself, and a friend opened the following question for debate: Was it an overreaction to resent your partner for following an attractive woman on Instagram? Was it petty to feel mild rage every time he double-tapped the young model’s beach boomerangs? Were you meant to good-humouredly tolerate his trail of likes on your activity feed? To some, this was as harmless as a celebrity crush. To others, it evinced a questionable digital intimacy. Last year, Martin Graff, a psychologist from the University of South Wales, identified this discomfort and coined the latest dating buzzword: micro-cheating.
Here are some examples of what micro-cheating looks like: using affectionate emojis (heart-eyes or a kiss) with an acquaintance, frequently visiting a particular friend/former lover’s profile (your Instagram search bar makes this quite apparent) or keeping Tinder installed on your phone well into a relationship. Online flirtations might not hold the immediate threat of offline ones, but that only makes social media boundaries more perplexing.
Mumbai-based psychotherapist and counselling psychologist Natasha Thomas finds that a person’s approach to “micro-cheating” makes evident their expectations from monogamy, something most couples unwisely take for granted. “It raises a much bigger question of ‘what is infidelity’? It’s important to have a conversation about what is mutually expected in terms of fidelity early on. If you haven’t done this, it’s not too late to have it now. Allow yourself to tap into your deepest desires—not just what is socially expected of you or what you think your partner wants,” she says. “Conflicts are never really about whom your partner is chatting with or following online. It is often about what you have projected into this idea. If this makes you uncomfortable, it may be worth thinking about why you don’t feel like you can trust your partner— is this about how they make you feel, your own difficulties with trust, or both?”
Thirst traps and ‘zombieing’
Social media makes it near impossible to firmly shut the door on a former romance—there’s always enough room to slip in through the cracks. You might assuage your suffering with a digital-detox retreat, only to find a suggestive message from an ex lurking in your DMs once you return. This “zombieing” (when an extinguished/non-committal romance resurfaces) is likely to draw you back into a familiar cycle of despair and disappointment.
Another temptation to resist is the “thirst trap”, or a call for attention from a former lover. This can take the form of a provocative selfie, or a self-deprecatory one in the case of a friend, in which case it is a prompt for a considerate ego boost. Thirst traps are so closely tied with the universal need for validation that if you scroll down your own Instagram, you would be guilty of one at the very least. Its function is similar to that of a revenge bod, i.e. to make clear to a former lover what they’ve lost, or tease an elusive breadcrumber towards commitment.
Last week, TV personality Raghu Ram (Roadies) and actor Sugandha Garg introduced #DivorceGoals to the dating lexicon with a loving Instagram announcement of their separation. While not all separations play out as such wistful celebrations, low-key, undramatic break-ups are finding more takers in the present age of chill. In this climate, to unfriend an ex or perform a thorough cross-platform cleanse can appear hysterical or overdramatic, especially when the liaison was short-lived.
Thomas argues that there’s no one-size-fits-all break-up etiquette, but prioritizing yourself over your online appearance is a good beginning. “There are as many ways of handling the end of a relationship as there are people. The image you create of your relationship online is simply an image, not the experience of the real thing. Give yourself time and space to process and work through your feelings before using social media to make any announcements,” she says.
Post-separation social media outbursts can also engender more serious after-effects. Lawyers in the US now caution clients against reckless oversharing after a husband used his ex-wife’s social media posts—partying on school nights and maligning him in statuses—as evidence of negligence in a custody battle.
Our steadily expanding online lives are sustained by very real, and very human emotions. It’s apparent that new, confounding social media obligations are here to stay, steadily reshaping our expectations of friends and lovers. The avalanche of dating terms, though infantilized in playful internet lingo, augurs marked changes in the way we love and walk away from love, with no promise of automatic updates.
A glossary of newly minted dating buzzwords
Cushioning: Propping an unstable relationship with multiple platonic partners for maximum comfort.
Kittenfishing: When an attractive social media profile presents itself in real life as an unfiltered disappointment.
Gatsbying: Posting a seemingly casual Snap or Instagram story and languishing all day until a special someone watches it.
R-bombing: When texts have been seen but not responded to—the longer the wait, the greater the agony.
Draking: Inspired by the rapper Drake’s achy lyrics, this includes sly tweeting or posting gloomy Instagram poetry to make your heartache apparent.