The Weird Instagram Side Effect That Comes From Online Dating

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
This President’s Day Weekend, I was in Nashville for my cousin’s bachelorette party and used the opportunity to really lean into some of the traditions this occasion calls for — traditions I’d usually scoff at. The pinnacle of the weekend was when I stood on the balcony of the Honky Tonk Central on Broadway and shot tequila out of a penis-shaped water gun onto pedestrians on the sidewalk, slurring at them that “now they know what straight women feel like.” (That got a lot of laughs.) Oh, and I posted the entire thing to my Instagram stories. Because what else are you supposed to do when you’re drunkenly wielding a penis water gun?
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The next morning, I checked my views on the story, and saw some familiar faces. Four men who I’d once spoken to on Bumble had viewed the story. Here’s what makes that funny, though: All four of these guys either never asked me out on an actual date or ghosted after our one and only meet-up. In fact, I have (at last count) seven men in my Instagram followers who fall into this category. And I know I’m not the only person this happens to — a handful of friends and coworkers have confirmed that this is normal behavior.
It makes sense that this happens. I, and many other people, put our Instagram handles in our profiles. The reason I do it is simple: I believe my life to be so fabulous that it can’t possibly be contained in six images. It also helps with the eventual social media stalking that happens. We all do it, so why not make it simple to find my ‘gram. (Side note: I am a MASTER at finding people who haven’t listed their Instagram profiles. Google image search is amazing for this — trust me.)
So once a guy and I start talking, it’s only natural that we’ll follow one another on Instagram and like one another’s photos. But once the talking dies down, or the eventual ghosting happens, I’ll always make a conscious decision to unfollow. It’s just common courtesy — I don’t really need photos of your weekend upstate or your grandmother blowing out her birthday candles clogging up my feed. Also, you suck at hashtags. Do better.
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But some of these guys stay engaged on Instagram — and I mean REALLY engaged. One of them would like my photo within seconds of me posting it. Another one, a guy I actually went out with, would routinely leave comments. It was insanity. Why did you like this picture of my mother’s Yorkie sticking its tongue out or the #shelfie I took of my medicine cabinet? What did this mean?

There was no way that a guy just wanted to Insta-stalk; it had to mean something.

In my younger and more desperate years, I took it as a sign that this bro wanted to date me again. He was just too nervous to actually ask, so he was sliding into my Instagram likes as some kind of digital smoke signal: “Hey! I still like you! But I’m a scaredy cat! Make the first move!” This was my M.O. about most things when it came to dating: There was no way that a guy just wanted to Insta-stalk; it had to mean something. He realizes how amazing my life is and couldn’t believe he’d just tossed me away after two glasses of wine and a kiss by the C train.
One day, I acted on it. Ned* was a hot-boy graphic designer with a penchant for knit beanies who I’d flirted with on Bumble but who’d never asked me out. So I slid into his DMs with a simple question: “Why did we never go out?” He answered in typical fuckboy fashion, “You never asked ;).”
I should have ended the conversation right there. But desperate Maria calls for desperate measures. “Well,” I wrote. “I COULD say the same to you. So instead, you wanna grab a drink sometime?” Radio silence — for TWO months. Between February and April, Ned liked a handful of my Instagram posts but never responded to my message. I was so confused. I had talked myself into the idea that he’d been in a longboarding accident and was paralyzed in his entire body except for his thumb, so he could only like my photos instead of answer a message. But that was okay, I told myself. I was fully willing to help nurse him back to health. We would survive this!
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And then, on April 3, my phone pinged. It was a message from Ned: “I’m really bad at social media.” Maria of today would have rolled her eyes Lucille Bluthe-style and never answered him back. But old Maria was desperately trying to be the cool girl. So I told him it was no problem, sent him my phone number, and told him to call me sometime.

They’re men who are interested in the idea of a person, but are wholly uninterested in digging deeper.

That, of course, never happened. And after flipping out to my friends about how insane this entire situation was, I realized something: This guy had told me exactly who he was. He was a flakey dude. In fact, all of the random guys who now occupy my Instagram followers are flakey dudes. They’re men who are interested in the idea of a person, but are wholly uninterested in digging deeper. Because that’s what my Instagram represents — the shiny, but shallow, parts of Maria. My life isn’t all poké bowls for lunch and trips to Paris. The majority of the time, I’m eating my plates of eggs benedict before I get a chance to take a photo of them or am watching The Golden Girls on a random Tuesday. These dudes aren’t interested in those parts of me. And that’s a shame, because those are the parts I like the most.
I’ve since stopped caring about the men who live in my Instagram followers. But that experience taught me something bigger. People who are into you will show you that they are into you in real ways — not with wayward Instagram likes or views. Those interactions exist in the world of the ‘gram, where everything is filtered and zits don’t exist. They aren’t real, so I needed to stop thinking that they were. Guys weren’t double tapping the pictures of my manicure from Paintbox because they wanted me to ask them out. If they actually wanted to date me, they’d just ask — not send an ambiguous DM.
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One of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou is, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” That’s a major lesson I’ve had to learn in my journey of being single, and I have the men in my Instagram followers to thank, in part, for that. So enjoy the penis gun videos, boys. And don’t be afraid to like that selfie of mine. Everyone needs a confidence boost once in a while.
*Name has been changed.
After being raised on a steady diet of Disney movies, I expected to meet someone and fall passionately in love — but wound up collapsing under the pressures of modern dating. Luckily, I eventually realized that there's no "right" way to date, and that I need to find happiness within myself, no partner needed. It’s Not You is where I write to calm the voices in my head — and hear from all of you. Follow me on Twitter, on Instagram, or email me at maria.delrusso@refinery29.com.
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