Will You Still ‘Like’ Me Tomorrow? Loving at Scale in the Digital Age

By Devon Glenn 

Social media sites made our romances easier to share and harder to forget.

In a recent study, Melissa Read, PhD and Annicka Campbell, who work together as digital anthropologists at the global marketing and tech services agency SapientNitro, tracked the love lives of social media users to better understand the growing importance of social media sites in managing our relationships.

Over the course of 5 months, they examined more than a thousand visual-social data points as they watched romantic relationships unfold over social media through videos, blog posts, and pictures.

“For better or worse,” said Campbell, “it’s part of our lives now.”

People now expect to see evidence of others’ relationships online.

Facebook and other social media sites have effectively standardized the way people define their relationships and share their milestones with their friends, they found. For example, when people marked their relationship status as “it’s complicated” — a phrase popularized by Facebook — they would describe themselves in those same terms across all platforms.

There was also a difference in which social media sites people used at varying stages of their relationships. Facebook and Twitter reach a general audience, so the posts on those sites reflected casual relationships or high school romances, Campbell said. As couples became a more integral part of each other’s lives, their memories would show up on Instagram in personal pictures or as diary entries on their blogs.

Social validation is part of the allure for people who have just started dating, although Campbell noted that most social media users would never admit it.

For engaged couples, social media serves to intensify and amplify an already important moment in their lives: the wedding.

“It’s incredible the extent to which social media is a core part of getting married,” added Campbell. A rising group of “Digerati Brides” use social media in every part of the planning process, from announcing her engagement to organizing her bridal party.  Robin Greene of Atlanta, GA, for example, dressed her little cousin in a tuxedo t-shirt and had him ask her friends to be her bridesmaids in a YouTube video.

Once an intimate event for close friends and family, even the wedding ceremony can be made public thanks to social media on smartphones. The couple will often designate a Tweeter of Honor to document the ceremony highlights in real-time. The researchers also noticed bridesmaids who would Skype into the ceremony (in full hair and makeup) and be carried in on an iPad to virtually stand alongside their friends. Other couples brought their phones with them to the altar so they they can could change their Facebook status from “engaged” to “married” once they exchanged their vows.

Relationships can last longer on social media sites than they do in real life.

On the flip side of celebrating a marriage among friends, said Campbell, relationships can also “crash and burn in a more public way.” Digital artifacts remain on social media sites long after the relationship ends in the form of status updates, messages, and old photo albums that never get deleted.

Before the era of Facebook and Tumblr, Campbell added, “You weren’t exposed to [your ex’s] ongoing life after you parted ways.” Today, couples who remain “friends” online will see evidence of each others’ next relationships on their news feeds, whether or not they ask for an update.

But this could change. Message apps like Snapchat are gaining popularity as a way to keep sensitive material private by automatically deleting a message shortly after it’s sent.

In general, different generations of social media users have different approaches to privacy.

For Millennials and some Generation X users, “social media is less of a place to broadcast the news of their relationship,” said Campbell, and a more integral part of the way they communicate.

Older internet users, who are now adopting social technology at a faster rate, are also starting to mention their romances and long-term relationships on their networks. But for them, posting on social media sites is an afterthought.

Not consulted on the matter are babies, whose lives are documented online before they are able to type. Parents post their milestones on their behalf, from their ultrasounds to their first words, until they can set up their own profiles. Campbell described a 3-year-old whose earliest blog posts were non-verbal videos in which the toddler was attempting to use the computer on its own.

In the end, while embarrassing baby photos and ancient blog posts from middle school might come back to haunt their owners, social media posts also serve as “important markers in the evolution of ourselves as people,” Campbell concluded, “and should be recognized as such.”

Image by Masson