What’s The Cost Of Commodifying Love On Social Media?

In the summer of 1973, Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase decided to capture his wife every morning from the window of their fourth-floor apartment as she was leaving for work. In the black and white photos, Yoko Wanibe is the star of the one-woman show. Some mornings she’s goofy, others she’s sullen. She occasionally carries an umbrella and sometimes sticks out her tongue. 
The series has grown to be something larger than itself, and depending on where you stand, it’s an endearing ode to the mundanity of life and love, or it’s an obsessive and self-indulgent project that drove a marriage to the grave. Feeling like Fukase only valued her for what she contributed to his art, Wanibe filed for divorce in 1976. 
To have your relationship at the centrepiece of your partner’s work is tiresome. To turn your most intimate connection into one of public consumption changes its foundations entirely. To go from lovers to coworkers is an appalling fate. The photographic series From Window began 37 years before Instagram was invented, before phrases like ‘daily vlogs,’ ‘couple goals,’ and ‘shipping’ were first uttered.
Late capitalism has convinced us that commodifying our relationships is normal, and we’re seeing it more than ever. Relationship-based reality TV shows are Petri dishes for internet fame and lucrative sponsorships (reportedly, MAFS couples who stay together make more bank). Family bloggers feed the machine by sharing intimate milestones of children who cannot give informed consent, couples combine digital footprints into joint social media accounts, and TikTok couple trend videos turn relationships into quick-hit, consumable content pieces.
There is labour and pre-meditated thought involved in content created about a couple, no matter how off-the-cuff and candid it seems (especially if it appears off-the-cuff and candid). 
Kriti Gupta, a Sydney-based marketing and communications professional, tells Refinery29 Australia about the content she created from her previous relationship. She speaks about one video of her and her ex-boyfriend on a boat, seemingly caught in the moment, that was “fully staged” and rerecorded five times. 
“The whole point of that video was for it to be aesthetically appealing, there was no other value for it,” she says. "Those clearly staged moments? He hated [them], absolutely hated [them]."
There’s always a third party when it comes to couples’ content: you, the viewer. It’s hard not to picture the camera that’s been placed to capture a moment, the careful cuts of a video that have been edited in, or the deliberate selection of music playing in the background. 
Sydney-based fashion and beauty influencer Ashleigh Huynh has been creating content for around seven years and has been with her now-husband Jonathan for 11. On TikTok, over 17 million people have watched Jonathan propose to Ashleigh, and almost 40 million people have seen her first bridal look with Jonathan’s groomsmen.
@ashleighuynh these boys are some of my closest friends. i’m so glad we did a first look too because it ended up being one of my favourite moments of the morning 🥺 #weddingday #groomsmenfirstlook #bridalstyle #weddinginspo ♬ pluto projector - al
“I never want a relationship to come secondary to [content]… I try not to really monetise it because I think that makes me see the relationship in a different way,” she tells us. Despite the dependable engagement their content can pull, the pair have only done two brand collaborations together; one with a favourite fashion brand of Jonathan’s, and the other, a jewellery brand’s Valentine’s Day campaign shot during their honeymoon.
Ashleigh questions the focus on influencer couples by pointing out that regular couples also post similar content, say, anniversary photos or engagement stories. “I think everyone is kind of excited by sharing their partner or sharing their friends, it’s natural behaviour on social media, whether you're a content creator or not,” she adds. 
Public scrutiny — both positive and negative — is something Ashleigh takes with a grain of salt. From being told she’s “showing off” her partner to being branded as the “perfect couple,” she understands how parasocial relationships can project their own insecurities and aspirations onto her and her partner.

“Phrases like ‘soft launching’ and ‘hard launching’ [are] somewhat insane when you actually think about it.”

Harrison Kefford
Being swept up by love and feeling unconsciously compelled to share online is something both Ashleigh and Kriti have experienced. Even as someone who’s critical of social media relationship culture, Melbourne content creator Harrison Kefford flew overseas for love and documented some of the process online last year.  
"After it didn't work out, it certainly made me reflect on just how draining it is to give people that follow you this information, only for them to expect every bit of [detail], whether it works out or not,” he tells us. 
Harrison questions how social media has “changed the way we love,” sharing that “almost everyone [he] know[s] is somewhat conscious about how they present their relationships online”. As someone actively using dating apps, he notices how aesthetic-driven dating culture is. “Phrases [like] ‘soft launching’ and ‘hard launching’ [are] somewhat insane when you actually think about it.”
We now have a vocabulary that synthesises our relationship-based social media habits. Destiny dictates we become the ‘candid girlfriend’ in our boyfriend’s photo dumps or the ‘couch guy’ in our friends’ dating horror stories. When there’s an implicit handbook about how relationships are supposed to be portrayed online, it unwittingly trickles into our IRL relationships. 

“It's no longer just the wedding day that needs to be perfect. There needs to be so many other moments in your relationship to almost prove that level of compatibility and perfectionism in your relationship.”

Kriti Gupta
Kriti observes how the importance of capturing a happy couple used to be only reserved for life’s big moments. “It's no longer just the wedding day that needs to be perfect. There needs to be so many other moments in your relationship… to almost prove that level of compatibility and perfectionism in your relationship,” she says. 
Nuptials aside, it’s now about how your boyfriend brings you coffee in bed every morning, how he surprises you with flowers, and how you two frolic down the street hand-in-hand. When relationship content doesn’t look like what we’ve become conditioned to expect, we question a couple’s love for one another. 
Saying that social media is a breeding ground for performative content is nothing new. But content is shifting. A shaky camera capturing a laughing couple seemingly oblivious to said camera is harder to distinguish as curated content than a professionally shot, posed couple photo. To create content that feels genuine, spontaneous and unscripted is rarely achieved without some level of effort. To introduce monetary pressures and external validation to a romantic relationship warps its sanctity.
In an article scathingly titled “The Incurable Egoist,” Yoko Wanibe said her husband “only [saw her] through the lens”. Reduced to a muse, to a subject, their relationship was no longer about the partnership between two people. As Wanibe said: “I believe that all the photographs of me were unquestionably photographs of himself.”
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