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This article is by relationship expert Tracey Cox.
Remember privacy in relationships? That antiquated notion that two people could meet by chance, go on a date without every single one of their friends being aware of it and fall in love with only a few close friends and family in the know? Well, wave it goodbye because that’s in the past. Today’s relationships are transparent and mercurial - and it’s social media that has transformed them, dramatically improving our love lives and friendships in some areas, complicating and sabotaging in others.
Take love. More than 20 million Brits now date online, finding partners via both websites and social media. For the time poor, socially awkward and bar adverse, this is great news. Why trawl a sad single’s haunt, when you can sip a chilled glass of something and shop for a partner in the comfort of your own home? Isn’t it easier to ‘poke’ someone hot on facebook, rather than cross a crowded room and risk rejection? What have you got to lose if they ignore your friend request? If no-one new takes your fancy, look up an ex to see if they’re available.
Google loves a good gossip. Simply type in their name and there they (usually) are. You’ve hit the jackpot if they’ve opted for a public profile on a site like facebook: it’s a plethora of information on total strangers. Their privacy setting reveals whether they’re a gregarious, carefree extrovert or cautious introvert. Their wall posts divulge their intelligence level, income and class through spelling, grammar, the topics they talk about, travel destinations and restaurants. The number of friends reveals how popular they are, their attractiveness level tells us whether they’ll be attractive too, given we tend to hang out with people like us. Even if the photos posted are relatively tame, ‘tagged’ pictures offer less edited, more interesting insights into their drinking and dating habits. If they’re signed up to Instagram or tumblr, expect to meet a visual, arty, creative type who prides themselves on being ‘individual’. Blogs are another goldmine of date data; a presence on career focused sites like ‘Linked In’ not only lets you know they take their job seriously, if you check out their qualifications or job title and do another search, you’ll get a good idea of how much money they make.
By the time you’ve even set eyes on each other, you could potentially know more information than a couple who’ve been dating seriously for three months. Probably more. Is this healthy? It certainly makes our search for the ‘perfect partner’ seem easier. Experienced online daters are relentless and ruthless, sifting through thousands of hopefuls and narrowing their search to a finely tuned criteria and half hour ‘coffee dates’ with a revolving door of hopefuls. But all this information lacks context. You might not care if your new boyfriend earns a pittance once his quirky sense of humour kicks in and you realise how kind he is. Knowing it pre-meeting means that meeting may never take place.
If you’re who you say you are, social media makes it harder to get away with lies (which has to be a good thing, right?) On the other hand, a child could create a fake digital persona making it ridiculously easy to get away with anything at all. Simply set up a false Twitter and facebook account, drop an attractive image into the profile pic and your false identity is ready to go. If you’re a man and choose a picture of a guy playing a guitar, go to the top of the class. Women are three times more likely to flirt with you, according to researchers.
Eventually your cover might be blown but it takes a while. People believe what they want to believe. The reality show Catfish (MTV) unites people who’ve never met but formed online romantic relationships often spanning a period of years. Invariably someone finds out the person they’ve been flirting with, pouring their heart out to, sharing sexual secrets with (and more), isn’t the person they said they were at all. Not just in the sense of having told a few porkies about age, weight, height and profession but sometimes they’re not even the right sex! Happily (thankfully) there’s growing research to show that people are roughly the same online and off on sites that show their true selves but it reflects our gullibility with social media. We all know people lie but we all figure we’d be smart enough to spot an imposter. Not necessarily so.
Commitment is no longer a private relationship agreement. Changing your relationship status is a perilous business. Switch it too early and it reeks of desperation, not changing it fast enough causes arguments and insecurity. Studies show just looking on your partner’s facebook account makes people feel anxious. The more time people spend on facebook, the more jealous of their partners they are likely to be. (Whether the snooping causes jealousy or jealousy makes them snoop is unclear though it appears to be a little of both.) Even when the relationship’s over, most of us keep ex-partners as friends with a third of users actively keeping tabs on their exes, even though it makes it infinitely harder to move on.
Is this sharing of information good for relationships? Clearly, in lots of ways, no. Why do we do it? Because social media offers vicarious peeks into other people’s lives. It’s so entertaining, it’s become our entertainment. Books, papers - even telly’s been taken over by You Tube with the creation of channels - all are being usurped by social media. Because everyone shares everything, we feel it’s expected of us to let our ‘friends’ at least know major events, if not intimate emotions like depression or heartache. (“Why didn’t you facebook you’d been dumped/fired/feeling down? I’d have come over!”) There’s the ‘show-off’ factor of letting everyone know just how gloriously fabulous your life is and - crucially - the approval of others for all our choices. Choices of partners, haircuts, clothes, food, music, movies, your opinion on world events: you name it and there’s a little thumbs up button ready to be clicked.
Lots of people say it’s impossible to be lonely with social media. Waiting for a date on your own in a bar? No need to feel awkward or rip that drink coaster into tiny pieces, instead, share how you feel and you’ll get instant reassurance. It’s Valentine’s Day and you’re on your own? Tweet the sentiment and know there are thousands out there feeling the same. (Course, this also has the reverse effect. Why go out when you can ‘play’ with all your ‘friends’ at home? Social media is said to be stripping youth, the most uber-enthusiastic of users, of face-to-face social skills.) Others claim writing down what’s happening in your life or how you feel, knowing everyone can read it, has the benefit of making you focus on your life, appreciate what’s working and highlights what needs to be fixed.
But there’s one undeniably dangerous aspect to all this sharing of intimate information: the internet doesn’t have a delete button. Our digital lives are there to stay and one silly mistake can come back to haunt you. The main plus of social media – instant gratification – is also the main negative. Emotions like love, lust, anger and jealousy can be fleeting but they’re powerful and have a tendency to take over and hold other more sensible brain inhabitants – like logic and judgement – hostage. Overcome by overwhelming emotion, plenty of us put fingers to the keyboard to express it – only to lose friends, jobs and the respect of existing and potential lovers by misjudging the situation.
What seems like a great idea when we’re young can be something we bitterly regret when older. The long term crush of a Norwegian man recently agreed she’d have sex with him if he got one million ‘likes’ next to a picture of the two of them holding a placard announcing the fact. How will she feel later in life if a much-loved partner finds out (easily) that the guy got his wish and she (apparently) kept to her side of the bargain? What about the virgin who auctioned off her virginity to the highest bidder? Will she be ashamed? Or will we all be so used to living our lives out in public, live streaming our weddings, births, and last dying breaths, it really won’t matter at all? Time - and the internet - will tell.