One year ago, Isabella started messaging a man on Bumble. After getting through the routine chat-up lines and small talk phase she discovered that her newest match was driven, intelligent and, most importantly, funny. But nestled among all their similarities (music, history, the same village pub), there was one glaring difference: she was an influencer, and his digital footprint was nonexistent.
When soft launches on Instagram and profile changes from 'single' to 'in a relationship' on Facebook have become hallmarks of a person’s love life, Isabella had stumbled across a needle in a haystack — or that’s what it felt like, at least. "I spend most of my time online so my initial reaction was to have a bit of a stalk online to see who he was," says the 23-year-old from Kent. "At first I had a flurry of thoughts, panicking whether he was a catfish or if it was a huge red flag because this doesn’t usually happen."
After speaking some more, Isabella’s fears that he would turn out to be a secretly married father of 10 were quickly diminished and their relationship has since gone from strength to strength. In fact, their mixed attitudes to social media have only helped things blossom. "It made things more interesting at the start. There were no preconceived ideas or images," she says. "The only way we got to know each other was from what we said, so I think we got to develop a deeper connection."
Though initially sounding alarm bells, the quest to find an offline partner is, ironically, a popular discussion online. TikToks about creators thirsting over people with fewer than 1,000 followers prove popular, with Twitter users bonding over a mutual desire to find someone off-grid, too. Whether it’s the air of mystery that Isabella mentions, the illusion of having a 'real life' (whatever that is) or the security of knowing that they won’t be sending DMs on the sly, there seems to be something about a partner being AFK IRL.
For transformational psychotherapist and relationship expert Natalia Kobylkina, this interest in finding someone who is offline has a lot to do with the intrigue it creates. Given that there are 20.5 million social media users in Australia — almost 80% of the population — social media abstinence certainly is hard to come by. "Not having a social media presence is so unusual now that someone with no social media footprint piques our curiosity," she says. "It means that we can’t check their history so when we meet them, it’s a whole new adventure, we don’t have preconceived ideas about who they are."
Dating expert Hayley Quinn agrees, telling Refinery29 that a person’s use of social media is a double-edged sword. Though it increases security by verifying a potential date’s identity, it can reveal a lot about someone, meaning that avoidance removes the potential to be evaluated negatively by others. "People can end up forming an opinion of you based on your social media presence. Perhaps, then, what's more attractive than a badly represented profile (pictures of avo on toast, I'm looking at you) is no profile at all," she explains. "No profile is also undoubtedly more understated than a very active profile."
As someone who posts on Instagram every day, Twitter more than she should and who’s been known to overshare to the highest of heights on a blog hidden in the depths of the internet, self-confessed "very online" person Alice knows this feeling all too well. Alice met her ex-boyfriend at school and their social media habits were extremely different — and for good reason.
"Even though I post online a lot, it’s not necessarily something I like about myself. I even find some of my posts embarrassing. I feel like an online presence in general is a bit cringey," says the 22-year-old from Liverpool. "It’s very bad of me — that it gives me the ick when boys post on social media — but it definitely does." With Alice’s work requiring her to spend a lot of time on social media, growing her personal brand and forging connections with people in her industry, dating somebody offline is an extension of her desire to find someone very much unlike herself. "I really like dating people who are not similar to me at all. I date people who are opposite to me in their interests and their work," she adds.
Besides dating your opposite, there are other reasons for wanting an offline partner, says Natalia. For people who have been hurt in the past by a partner or who are particularly prone to jealousy, not having a social media presence takes away some of the anxieties associated with a relationship in the digital age. "We all know how easy it is to like a picture online and we’ve all come across the term 'slide into someone’s DMs'. Not having a social media presence takes this out of the equation," she tells me.
After dating someone who was obsessed with social media, Rebecca*, 26, from Sheffield, vowed she’d never date such an online person again. His fascination with likes and retweets blurred the line between genuine feelings and posting loved-up images and date-night Boomerangs simply for the 'gram. "One of the first things he did when we met was look at my profile and say 'Wow, you don’t have many followers'," she says. "Whenever I posted a picture on Instagram, he’d post at the same time and compare how many likes he had."
Now in a relationship with someone who only goes so far as Snapchat, Rebecca is a lot happier. Though she admits that there have been instances where the gaps in their digital culture knowledge have come to the fore, she wouldn’t change it for the world. "There’s been a few occasions where he’s not understood memes I’ve referenced – I remember having to explain why people were saying 'That’s going straight in my basket'," she explains. "Mainly though it’s been refreshing that he hardly spends any time on his phone and we can chill and enjoy each other’s company."
It’s no secret that social media can disrupt sleep, shrink attention spans and even increase symptoms of loneliness and depression. Isabella credits her boyfriend’s offline personality with unconsciously triggering a digital detox in her own life. Given the 24/7 nature of social media, before meeting her partner Isabella found herself unable to switch off, constantly worrying about whether she was posting the 'right' things. "He helps me to rationalise things when I get caught up with work. Him having nothing to do with the online world stops me from spiralling," she says.
For Alice however, the differences of opinion between her and her ex were too much to bridge the gap between being offline and being on, causing their relationship to be plagued by bickering. "I used to ask him to take pictures of me all the time, which he got so frustrated with and we had loads of arguments about it," she says. "It got to the point where he wouldn’t even let me post a selfie we’d taken, which would annoy me a bit." Nonetheless, Alice is still keen on finding her offline match.
And while the idea of social media abstinence may be enough to make hearts flutter, it doesn’t take a media magnate to declare that TikTok and co. are here to stay, meaning that social media will continue to sit alongside taste in movies and music as differences that don’t inherently equate to incompatibility. "Understanding is the first step to forming a relationship even if your social media habits are different," says Hayley, adding that "being open-minded, listening and communication will help two people at opposite ends of the social media spectrum meet."
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity