I can tell you whether or not I’d be attracted to someone based on their Instagram bio. There is no specific formula to this, nor any logic behind it – if it’s witty or a little bizarre, it’ll work. If it includes his height or more than two emojis, it won’t. This is both risky and judgmental, considering the fact that whittling one’s very essence down to 150 characters or less is a tall order and also, not everyone is David Harbour or Chelsea Peretti. No bio is a cop out, as are the flag or three-letter abbreviations of your country of origin (sorry).
We as a generation answer so many questions surrounding attraction before any kind of in-person contact takes place. The accuracy of these answers has no fixed pattern – they range from spot-on to not-entirely-accurate – although in my experience they are yet to be wholly misleading. And why shouldn’t we access all the information available to us in order to form some kind of tentative impression or fulfill an initial curiosity, as we would do with any subject of interest? It’s all there – passions, politics, sense of humor.
This very 21st-century romantic elimination tactic has inevitably resulted in marked shifts in our priorities and perceptions. Access to someone’s online presence is both helpful in the little clues it gives us, and exhausting in that it’s just another factor to take into consideration during the highly susceptible, seasonally variable mating ritual that is modern dating. Knowledge is power, but it’s not always accurate. Transparency keeps us safe, but is likely as manufactured as everything else online. Our demands are equally contradictory: we want authenticity but not if it’s messy or ugly or boring; and insight, but only if it shows us what we want to see.
A rising percentage of couples first meet online, the majority of them on dating apps, which, unlike social media, are built for the specific purpose of initiating romantic relationships. I would argue, however, that social media is a step up from dating apps, simply because it’s so much more revelatory.
Dating apps show you how someone interacts with you, while social media shows you how they interact with everyone else. Tinder will show you how your crush presents themselves to potential romantic partners, while their Instagram or Twitter will show you how they present themselves to the rest of the world. Social media is a dating app for the nosy, offering a much wider scope of information and, as a result, a higher capacity – depending on the nature of said information – for either satisfaction or regret.
The two also have their similarities, the biggest one being the potential for disappointment. At a time when a lot of our communication with loved ones is via social media, it seems presumptuous to disregard online chemistry as a valid marker of a deeper connection. It seems equally foolish to lean towards the opposite extreme: to rely entirely on the conviction that a months worth of direct messaging and a handful of meme tags can give you a solid idea of who a person really is. Best not to put all your DMs into one basket.
For those earlier on in the process – pre-contact with but post-identification of your subject of interest – there is the issue of personality versus projection. Part of social media’s appeal is that it offers us a say in how we are perceived, and image control is one hell of a drug. Projection, whether it’s carefully crafted or kind of accidental, is still telling you something about someone.
It’s difficult to stay nuanced in the way we think about social media and whether or not it’s a helpful tool that heightens the excitement of attraction, or a scourge on all things private and intimate and sacred. Thinking in extremes comes particularly easily to me, but if the former assessment is on the right and the latter on the left, I’m comfortably seated in-between, slowly, slightly hesitantly inching to the left with age and experience. And then maybe backtracking further to the right whenever it suits me. And back again to the left again when I feel like I’ve had enough.
When your generation is the first to grow up steadily consuming and consumed by social media, the first to see it create connections and facilitate careers you could never have conceived of before, to see it aggravate mental illness and conflate your sense of what’s real and what’s not, you learn to treat it with the ambivalence it warrants.
You embrace it openly for the wealth of opportunity it affords, but remain prepared to be deceived at every turn. In a sense, social media stands for the opposites of all the qualities we associate with true love: intimacy, honesty, and absolute trust. And as literature and film and even astrology have repeatedly told us, opposites often attract.