It’s 2011. You’ve been in a relationship for six hours. You log into Facebook, make a beeline for the 'edit profile' button and change your relationship status from 'single' to 'in a relationship', with your new beau tagged for all to see.
It’s 2021. You’ve been in a relationship for two and a half months. You’re looking through pictures you took on a walk with your partner. You pause to look at one you took of them: a shadowy side profile, their face obscured, silhouetted against the setting sun. You upload it to your Instagram Story, tagging the location but not their handle. This is the first time you have so much as hinted on social media at the existence of an S.O. in your life.
Posting a low-key photo like this for your partner’s Instagram debut is called a 'soft launch'. A soft launch can come in many forms — perhaps it’ll feature their elbow resting on a table or their shoes just in frame. It could be posted to your Instagram story or, for a 'harder' soft launch, to your grid. But in every instance, it’ll be an extremely subtle shot that leaves your relationship status (relatively) ambiguous. As described by digital marketing specialist Jenna Fisher in a viral TikTok: "For the girls: she will post a picture of him at a restaurant, his face will not be in it, she will tag the restaurant but not tag him. For the guys: it will only be a photo of himself and he will tag her as the photographer either in the description or the photo."
Dating and relationship expert Sarah Louise Ryan says that soft launches are great if you’re not totally ready to shout about your new romance from the rooftops. "They’re a subtle way to show the world that you are no longer single or that you’re currently immersed in the dating process with someone," she says. "It’s almost a way to test the waters with that person too, about how you both would like to manage the snapshot of your relationship that shows up on social media."
Iris, a 26-year-old from the UK, soft-launched her current boyfriend after they’d been dating for a month. She says that she began dropping hints on social media that she had someone new in her life by posting photos on her 'close friends' story of things in his flat or their two plates at a restaurant. "It was sort of strategic," she tells me. "My 'close friends' list includes some people who I'm good friends with but who I wouldn't have directly told about dating someone new at that stage." She adds that her boyfriend isn’t into pictures at all — "I didn't have a photo of his face for months" — so soft-launching suited both of them.
Evie, 20, also recently soft-launched the guy she’s seeing. "Soft-launching is a good way to let people in your wider circles know that you’re seeing someone without being explicit about it," she says. She also adds that as her ex and their family still follow her on social media, soft-launching her new partner was useful for "showing all the people from my past that I’ve moved on."
Evie soft-launched her situationship by posting photos of her food and drinks while on dates with him. "I didn’t tag him or show his face," she says, explaining that their relationship is more of a "low-key thing" at the moment. She’s been soft-launched in the same way on her partner’s social media. For Evie, the informality of soft-launching mirrors the casualness of her current situation, making it a natural choice when it comes to sharing a glimmer of her love life online.
Soft-launching also mirrors the excitement of these early stages of a relationship — because although soft launches appear nonchalant, there’s an air of mystery about them which makes them exhilarating, too. Part of the fun of a soft launch is the inevitable flood of DMs you receive afterwards, asking: "Who is that???" This chimes with Ryan’s view of soft-launching: "It’s part of the 'theatre of dating' – the exciting stages of something new when a couple haven’t quite committed to each other but are clearly connected romantically. It is the social media soft launch of a 'situationship' more often than not."
Soft launches have gone mainstream in the past few years — even Kourtney Kardashian revealed that she was dating Travis Barker by way of a soft launch featuring their intertwined hands. The trend is indicative of a wider shift towards using social media in a way that seems much more effortless. Earnest Facebook statuses and minutes-long Snapchat stories are things of the past: we’re living in an era of finstas and photo dumps, where there’s nothing cooler than adopting a perpetually aloof persona online. Really, it’s no surprise that low-key soft-launching is the strategy du jour when it comes to announcing a new relationship on social media.
This resonates with Gen-Zer Evie. "I definitely think when I was younger and in high school, I was more liberal with everything I posted online," she says. "Now I take photos but I don’t always share stuff online. I think there’s something nice about that, just because it leaves a portion of your life to yourself. And the same goes for relationships — I think it’s nice to not have the pressure of being 'Facebook official' or whatever."
Soft-launching is not only the 'thing' to do right now — it’s sensible. Iris says that in her relationship’s early days, she was itching to tell people about her new boyfriend but reined in her excitement when it came to social media. "I wanted to show off this new, exciting thing," she says. "But I didn't want to make an official announcement only to get dumped the next day." Perhaps for the generation who grew up watching millennials endure the public indignity of changing your Facebook relationship status back to 'single', soft-launching is a natural progression towards an altogether more measured approach to posting about relationships on social media. After all, social media's still a relatively new thing (reminder: Insta's yet to reach its 11th birthday). Is it any wonder it's taken us a while to learn to use it with caution?
Deciding between soft-launching or hard-launching may not seem like a big deal but, as Ryan says, "in this day and age, sharing about your romantic life on social media is a commitment." There’s no escaping the fact that your approach to social media as a couple does have a bearing on your relationship. "It is a good thing that relationships are kept private because then people can just focus their energy on what is going on between the two of them," Ryan surmises. "It’s a healthy approach to forming something real and long-lasting."