In a 2008 Cosmopolitan advice column, a woman expresses her concern that her boyfriend of over two years still lists himself as “single” on his MySpace page and includes “women” as one of his interests.
“We recently talked about moving in together,” she writes. “Does this mean that we should hold off?”
As dated as the lament might be (ha, MySpace), the issue at its core — the way we represent our relationships online — is one that is still a pertinent, increasingly complicated component of social media today.
At the beginning of the earliest social media platforms, the “relationship status” was a central tenet of profiles that took on a very real, offscreen significance. On Facebook, the field has been a part of the site since its start in 2004, back when it was still called “the Facebook.” Although you could only choose from one of three options then (today, there are 11) — in a relationship, single, or in an open relationship — it was enough to add a new dimension to the DTR moment of relationships round the nation, and, later, the world. Were you really official circa 2004 to 2009 if you weren’t Facebook official? Discuss.
While the relationship status still exists on Facebook — 200 million of the platform’s 2.23 billion monthly active users currently list themselves as single, a stat the company announced when introducing its upcoming Facebook Dating feature — it’s faded into the background as millenials and Gen Zers have migrated to other platforms. (When was the last time you even looked at, let alone thought about updating, the “About” section of your Facebook profile?) The one exception, at least in this writer’s experience, seems to be updates to Facebook statuses that involve announcing engagements and marriages. Perhaps this is a signal that for a generation that came of age with Facebook, declaring life events there still holds some sway.
The lack of relationship statuses on apps such as Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, meanwhile, could be viewed as freeing: There’s no written expectation that you’re required define anything about your love life when you create a profile. But it’s also given rise to a whole new host of questions without clear answers: If one partner posts a photo of the two of you, does the other need to like it? Need to post a photo in return? And what about your profile — does putting “wife of @husband_name_here” mean the other needs to reciprocate? Is it time to update the love languages to include online affection?
The challenge is that unlike the myriad guidelines surrounding social media and your career, there is no one-size-fits-all, right or wrong approach when it comes to social media and relationships. While it might be easier if everyone bought into the YouTube trope of the “Boyfriend Tag” video, in which creators bring their partner onscreen and introduce them to their audience, the reality is that people have vastly different opinions about what they want appearing on a public platform and these opinions can change from one relationship to another.
"This is one of those topics that really is subjective, and depends on the comfort level of both partners," Diane Gottsmann, a national etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas, says.
LaQuishe Wright, a celebrity social media manager in Houston, chose to stop sharing as much about personal relationships online after her divorce four years ago. “I decided being more private was the better approach for me and my kids,” she says. “I generally don't even follow people I know I like romantically until we're officially dating monogamously or have been out on a number of dates.”
Even then, Wright says she prefers to post in ways that more subtly reference her significant other, rather than naming or tagging them.
“If he didn’t share anything, did I exist in his world?”
For couples where one partner is more active on social media than the other, the dynamic can be more complicated. This is partly because, like or it not, the original, baked-in presence of the “relationship status” created a precedent for sharing that promoted reciprocity: For a relationship update to appear on Facebook, both parties need to approve it. When this reciprocity isn’t present on other social media platforms, it can have real-life repercussions and cause people to question their relationship in ways they wouldn't otherwise.
Such was the case for Nicole Howard, the founder of women's empowerment group Sis Stay Ready in Silver Spring, MD, when she first started dating her boyfriend, who rarely posts online. She was accustomed to seeing people take to their profiles with long posts expressing gratitude and love for their partners. She admits she worried about it: “If he didn’t share anything, did I exist in his world?”
Howard says she recognised this was not the case — her boyfriend showed her the affection she craved online IRL, "where it really counts" — but it took time to adjust nevertheless. “I still post about him because he's amazing, and I like to share how supportive he is or special moments like his birthday, but I don't feel I'm missing out anymore and I don't bug him about it," she says now.
Other couples choose to avoid any pressure or ambiguity associated with posting photos or messages to their own profiles, and engage in other ways entirely on social media.
Ina Yulo, a senior content manager in London, says she and her fiancé prefer to tag each other in the comment sections on videos, posts, and memes that remind them of the other person. "It's subtle and personal, and you're not doing it for anyone else rather than each other," she says.
That desire to avoid posting for others is not unique to Yulo and her fiancé. Andrea Syrtash, a dating and relationship expert in New York, says she has seen a backlash against the TMI of relationship posts online. While the rules of being a couple online have not necessarily changed, that's because "there weren’t many rules established years ago because it was so new," Syrtash says. "Now we have a better understanding of social media boundaries."
Although the rules of engaging as a couple are constantly evolving as Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube evolve, too, experts agree there is one steadfast rule couples everywhere can heed in times of doubt: Communication (offline) is key.