No one ever told me that a thousand of my closest friends would be notified when I got my heart broken. No one ever warned me that the hot flush of shame would accompany my deepest lacerations of the heart. But with the onslaught of tiny pink hearts, hundreds of my “friends” (and his) got the news that after four years, the strain of transitioning to college had proven too much for us.
So goes the narrative of many a millennial relationship.
For those of us who grew up in the era of Facebook, there seems to be an almost inescapable pressure to establish the legitimacy of relationships by broadcasting them on social media — even at the expense of personal happiness. People are constantly trying to build loving, fulfilling partnerships, but if these relationships are not publicly displayed on Facebook, suspicion arises as to how committed two people truly are to one another. No longer is it enough for relationships to be “exclusive” or to officially adopt the “boyfriend/girlfriend” titles; it must be “Facebook official.” Yet, by buying into the trend of broadcasted intimacy, people are opening themselves up to unforeseen consequences both as a couple and as individuals.
The instinctive desire to collect as many likes and comments as possible on any social media post has given social media a strange power to drastically influence how people live their lives. In the age of social media, we have all become near-professional marketers—the product: us. Users desperately attempt to glamorize their lives and make themselves appear happier than they may very well be; this in turn leads to more wide spread disappointment and frustration. Frolicking in the waves on a too-hot-for-the-city day should be the inspiration for a trip to the beach, not scoring a cute new profile picture that will not only score a ton of likes, but also show off how good you look in a bikini and how spontaneously outdoorsy you are. Subsequently, the tendency to “curate” one’s life on social media, by only presenting the happiest, most ideal renderings of one’s life can often make people feel inadequate — both for glaringly obvious singleness and for living in a dull, unexciting state of coupledom. Social media enforces the idea that it is more important to appear “Facebook happy,” than to be quietly, but truly content.
Our current obsession with whether or not major life events and relationships are “Facebook official” stems from a greater need for social acceptance and affirmation. As societal attitudes continue to shift thanks to the proliferation of social media, publicizing matters of the heart has become almost a rite of passage. If our elementary school selves depended on gold stars and smiley faces atop papers to feel secure in our self worth, our grownup selves depend on achieving a certain number of Facebook likes and Twitter retweets. When romances and relationships are supposed to be so fulfilling, why do we need the outside approval of dozens of “friends” to make us feel that our relationships matter?
Even scientific findings support the idea that Facebook plays a significant role in forecasting the fate of relationships. “People sort of have their inclination that ‘it’s just Facebook and people take Facebook too seriously’,” explained Gretchen Kelmer, a Rhoades doctoral student in clinical psychology whose research focused on the site’s effects on relationships. “But this shows that how we portray our relationships on Facebook is telling and shouldn’t be dismissed or seen as trivial.” Kelmer’s researched revealed that how many pictures a couple has together, whether they look happy in those pictures, and whether one or both members of a couple chooses to feature their partner in their Facebook profile picture can all offer eerily accurate insights into how happy a couple actually is in real life — and even if their “in a relationship” status is likely to change to “single” in the near future. Her research shows that the more public couples made their relationship, the less likely they were to have broken up or cheated on one another after a six month period. But is it really the posting of lovey-dovey photos and virtual love notes on social media that makes couples less likely to cheat or break up, or are social media postings merely a reflection of how happy (or unhappy) these couples already are in their private relationship dealings? In choosing to feature her boyfriend in her profile picture, a girl could be showing her unbridled love, trying to make an ex jealous, attempting to project an image of coupled up bliss, reassuring her boyfriend of her affection, or simply choosing the photo she likes best of herself.
By publicizing budding romances and even established relationships, people raise the stakes, so that when relationships do eventually falter and collapse, it is more than just their personal suffering that they must endure. Each sweet wall post and affectionate couple picture is like a grenade — ready to one-day blow back up in our faces. No matter how gleefully people change their relationship status to “in a relationship,” they will still have to deal with the deletion, untagging, or ignorance of any couple pictures in the case of a future break up. As if the pain of untagging every photo where it looks as if — God forbid — you were once very much in love, social media degrades heart-breaking, soul-crushing sorrow into just another news update for the rest of the world. Facebook has taught us to think it normal for heartbreaks and divorces to publicly announce themselves — sandwiched between notifications of who just started playing candy crush and who has a new profile picture. But, hey, it’s not as if Mark Zuckerberg has a reputation for his extreme empathy and compassion.
This past summer people erupted into a frenzy of outrage over the fact that the NSA may be spying on their top-secret Facebook information; yet few people seemed to focus on the more disconcerting issue: how Facebook is actually shaping that information in the first place. How can we expect people to value and cultivate intimacy, when social media is preaching that intimacy is nowhere near as important as the number of likes or comments a new relationship or couple-photo receives? By increasing the self-consciousness and decreasing the intimacy with which couples conduct their relationships, social media becomes not just an onlooker, but an active participant in modern romances. Those little pink hearts that pop up all over Facebook may look innocent, but their ability to alter behavior and break hearts should not be underestimated.