Love in the Age of Social Media: Where Does Creeping End, and Dating Begin?

As the lines between private and public become more blurred online, so do our real-life interactions with others, especially when it comes to dating. Unsplash/Rawpixel.com

“I knew it!” my friend gasped as we huddled over her iPhone screen and baked shakshuka one Sunday morning in a crowded restaurant.

We were gawking over Snapchat’s latest feature, the Snap Map, where friends’ exact locations can be broadcasted across the globe in minute detail, marked by cartoon “Bitmojis” that can be customized down to hairstyle, body type, jaw line and nose shape; social media characters eerily indicative of their human counterparts. Our two friends, who we suspected of having a budding romance for some time, were caught on the map together the morning after a late night on the town, their Bitmojis side by side on a street corner in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn.

“They’re probably grabbing morning-after coffee,” I mused.

Social media has evolved beyond our wildest dreams. We’re connected more than ever, often in ways that transcend traditional conceptions of privacy—entering a realm where everything is broadcast to a global audience.

For the boldest online personas, privacy is becoming as obsolete as Facebook. Nothing is off limits as they invite followers into their homes, personal lives and innermost thoughts in the form of Instagram posts, YouTube videos, tweets and more.  As the lines between private and public become more blurred online, so do our real-life interactions with others, especially when it comes to dating.

For those who choose to participate, a sort of social media singularity has emerged, where the personal brands we craft online through carefully-constructed profiles become difficult to distinguish from the real us.

New York City is the most Instagrammed city in the world. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Our Instagram photos depict our happiest, best-looking selves. Our tweets reflect our sharpest wit in 280 characters or less. Snapchat filters digitally Photoshop selfies to meet an oddly fetishized version of Eurocentric beauty standards; our skin lighter, our eyes bluer. Dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble, Grindr and Hinge have redefined online dating for the social media age, where profiles are crafted to reflect how people wish to be viewed, rather than how they might actually be viewed, with misleading photos or information.

The plethora of information available online can make a first date feel like a third date, or deter the date from happening in the first place should you stumble upon compromising information. With a quick social media scan, you can successfully compare yourself to your date’s ex, browse the photos from their trip to Spain last summer, and figure out how you align with their political and religious beliefs.

The opportunity for social media creeping isn’t just reserved for Internet-savvy singles who browse dating apps and websites for potential partners. Simply entering the phone number of the alluring stranger you met at the bar last weekend into your contacts might allow you to locate their Snapchat, Instagram or other social media handles, unleashing an avalanche of information you didn’t necessarily want. Suddenly you know what they do for a living, and you’ll have to act surprised when they explain it to you on the first date.

Checking out someone online isn’t always a bad thing, though. Licensed marriage and family psychotherapist Vanessa Marin, an expert in sex therapy and relationship coaching, discussed the pros and cons of dating in a social media-first world.

“The internet and social media aren’t inherently bad. It just comes down to how you use them,” Marin told Observer. “If you’re arranging a date with a total stranger, it’s a great idea to Google their name and make sure you don’t see any glaring safety concerns. The internet can actually save you from a lot of potentially risky situations.”

The Internet has become so intimate and personalized that many argue social media has morphed into its own form of online dating.

Earlier this month, Valeriya Safronova of The New York Times penned an article titled, “Instagram Is Now a Dating Platform, Too. Here’s How It Works.” In it, she articulated the platform’s many digital nuances that make it an easy way to flirt with potential love interests without being too forward, a comfort-zone approach to making the first move, similar to Tinder or Bumble’s “matching” concept.

“Not only does Instagram provide a visually driven collage of your life,” Safronova wrote, “it also offers a subtle way of expressing interest through likes and comments, and connecting in the form of a private chat. Meanwhile, the lists of users who have looked at each of your Story cards mean that you now have data — rudimentary and inconclusive, but still, data! — on who exactly is obsessing over you today, tomorrow and yesterday.”

With all this opportunity to digitally pursue partners, is it really worth it? Whether you meet them on or offline, Marin warned us the answer is probably no.

“Safety issues aside,” she said, “I think it’s best to get to know your date directly, not via the internet. Don’t look for personal information. You won’t get any context to what you find, which can lead to a lot of incorrect assumptions and misinterpretations. Get to know the living, breathing human being in front of you. I know we’re all in a rush to weed out people who aren’t good fits for us, but it’s easy to make snap judgments and miss out on someone who is actually a great person.”

While it may be tempting, researching a date online is best used exclusively for ensuring your safety, not assessing who they are as a person. Seeing somebody new? There’s nothing better than getting to know someone on a real, personal level. Refrain from stalking their Instagram, stay off their Twitter feed and don’t forget to turn off your Snap Map, at least for now.

Love in the Age of Social Media: Where Does Creeping End, and Dating Begin?