"Relationship status. Interested in. This is what drives life at college. Are you having sex or aren't you. It's why people take certain classes and sit where they sit and do what they do. At its centre, that's what The Facebook is going to be about."
Whether these words, spoken by a fictionalised Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's 2010 film The Social Network, express the real Mark Zuckerberg's belief that humanity's basest instinct – to get down and dirty – would be the lifeblood of his masterpiece, we will probably never know. Yet whatever that 'poke' button may or may not have been for, in the 15 years since its inception, the way we use Facebook has changed. And one thing we know for sure is that sex (and the pursuit thereof) is no longer what it's about.
What it is definitely about is showing off. As our lives have moved steadily online, increasingly targeted services have popped up to cater to our every whim. Thinking about booking your next holiday? There's an app for that. Want to order a stack of euros before you go? There's an app for that. Need someone to walk your dog while you're away? You get the drift. Facebook ceased to be a source of new connections the minute dedicated platforms like Tinder came along. These days, the hottest action on Facebook involves reminding your existing connections of the very nice life you already lead.
However frustratingly, for many there is no clearer indicator of a life successfully lived than the presence within it of a significant other. Per the rules of the social media brag, though, it is not enough to post a photo on your profile of you and your beloved sipping cocktails against a breathtaking sunset. To make it absolutely clear to your followers that yes, you are In A Relationship and no, you could not possibly be happier, there must be a caption and that caption must be worded in a very specific way: "Easter spent touring this one's home country." "This one has excelled himself today with the birthday surprises." "This one [heart eyes emoji]."
The speed with which 'this one' has become accepted shorthand for 'boyfriend/partner/spouse' is extraordinary, even by digital standards.
If you have not deployed this phrasing yourself, you almost certainly know someone who has. The speed with which "this one" has become accepted shorthand for "boyfriend/partner/spouse" is extraordinary, even by digital standards.
Urban Dictionary – frequently ahead of the pack in tracking contemporary neologisms – recorded its first definition of the term in August 2005: "An affectionate way of how someone might refer to their 'significant other', usually in the presence of that person and others." The accompanying usage example is speech-based – "I'm a vegan...but THIS one here loves his sirloin!" – but in the intervening years, the expression has migrated from IRL to URL. Crucially, it is now used less for the benefit of the "one" in question than to make a point to the wider online community.
There are two camps: those who use 'this one' joyfully and with abandon, and those who abhor its existence.
On that subject, though, the community is split. Anecdotally, there are two camps: those who use "this one" joyfully and with abandon, and those who abhor its existence. Are those of us in the latter camp just a bunch of under-shagged miserabilists, begrudging our friends their happiness while muttering about the dumbing down of language and how the French would never let this happen? A little, if not entirely. As an idiom it certainly seems contrived to signpost the user's romantic fortune and – particularly when punctuated with a series of kitschy emoji – is gushingly sentimental in a way that sits uncomfortably alongside our stereotypical British reserve.
I think the reason it generates so much distaste is more nuanced, however. Even accounting for the fact that women are the biggest users of Facebook and Instagram, "this one" (and its cousins "this boy" and "this guy") appears to be more popular among women than among men. To my mind it recalls the male comedians of the 1970s with their barbed references to "the old ball and chain" and "her indoors" – only strip out the casual misogyny and replace it with something approaching condescension.
Does that sound harsh? Maybe. In a paper from 2005 entitled "The Scope Of Internet Linguistics", the linguist David Crystal highlights a quirk of online communication that he calls "the absence of a nonsegmental phonology" or, in layman's terms, "tone of voice". This is the reason sarcasm is best avoided when emailing your boss or why a WhatsApp conversation descends out of nowhere into an argument. It is impossible to determine the tone of a person's words unless they are spoken aloud, thus we ascribe them our own meaning. My friend Sharon may have had the purest of intentions when she posted a picture of her husband in front of the television with the caption "Making dinner while this one watches the football!" but to me, on the other side of a computer screen, it is the linguistic equivalent of her bending down and ruffling his hair. Affectionate, sure. Infantilising? I can't help but think so.
Enter the arena of Mumsnet and it acquires a more troubling connotation. Here, where there is a degree of anonymity – i.e. no photograph to provide context and clarification – users refer not to "this one" but more generically to a "darling husband" or "darling partner", frequently abbreviated to "DH" or "DP". The sincerity of that "darling" is often up for debate, however. Take this response to a post from a woman whose husband was uncomfortable with her earning more than him: "Ignoring the fact that your DH sounds like a massive bellend, the way you work out your money seems a bit chaotic." From term of endearment to unabashed insult in the same breath. Snide remarks like this one set women against men in a way that, in 2019, feels regressive and dangerous. We're back to those 1970s comedians again.
It is important to remember, though, that what we share online is rarely an accurate reflection of real life. Last year, a survey of 2,000 UK adults by the relationship support charity Relate found that 51% of millennials portray their relationship as happier than it really is, while 42% use social media to give "the impression of a perfect relationship". This may go some way to explain the proliferation of terms like "this one" – we have identified them as a signifier of romantic bliss and, consciously or otherwise, used them to cultivate our online persona. I'd hazard a guess that most of your mates who drop a "this one" do so unthinkingly.
How and why it came about, we may never know. I suspect that the popularity of Bridget Jones' Diary (and later, Gone Girl), with its wryly written journal entries, has something to do with it. I wonder, too, whether the original third-person format of Facebook status updates – "Katy is [insert what you're up to here]" – established a distance between our real and online selves that we have since struggled to close. Our reluctance to use the possessive – "my boyfriend", "my partner" – could certainly be indicative of a tendency to think of ourselves in the third person. Or perhaps it is pure narcissism: a carefully positioned "this one" conveys to the people who matter that you have hit the relationship jackpot but in refusing to name your significant other, you ensure that the focus remains squarely on you.