Recently, I was dating a guy who, on our second date, showed me pictures of a family wedding and texted photos of his nieces and nephews after our third. I thought that this was a significant step; that I was really getting to know this person. This peek into his world, as it turns out, was as significant as texting “what’s up?” with no capital letters. Introducing someone to family used to mean something, but the casual nature of texting photos renders it less personal. I could sketch out his family tree after mere weeks, but that didn’t mean that I knew him at all. With every detail, another tiny part of me became more invested.
It’s not that people are sharing themselves more online, it’s where we go to look for the dirt on our new paramours. Three quarters of people Google someone they’re about to go on a first date with (and a quarter of people are looking up their exes online). Then there’s the unquantifiable Facebook stalking and Twitter reading and LinkedIn dissection. It happens both when we’re trying to figure out if we like someone and if they’re worth getting to know and also once we decide we like them and want to spend even more time with them, even if it’s just with them in our browser window.
Social media “can make you feel more intimate – it can give you the sense that you know the person better than you do,” says Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psychotherapist in New York City. “It can contribute more to our fantasies.”
But the tantalizing nature of letting people in, digitally speaking, and yet not seeing them in person as often as you’re texting — even if you live just blocks apart — can lead many to social media to fill in the grey areas of a person’s life. As a result, relationships become shaped by a person’s digital doppelgänger — someone who looks like the person we’ve met in real life, has the same sense of humor — but with a whole world wide web of details about their life that social media helps us “fill in.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a tendency to turn to digital doppelgängers to make sense of a person. Access to someone’s Instagram and Facebook accounts — whether you’re connected or they simply have public accounts — can be the death of dating sanity. Countless nights, I would lie awake and scroll after giving into my curiosity and peek at the Instagram account of a guy I am dating. When things play out organically, one can only know as much as people reveal about themselves. But with a trail of public digital evidence to help shape a person’s past — and the possibility of clues into the missing parts of someone’s life — it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to scour through photos, tweets, and other digital detritus.
Social media is a 24-7 portal into a potential future lover’s life – and the power of suggestion that results can be detrimental to the formation of a new relationship.
“Your curiosity changes in a way,” explains Dr. Nicole L. Cromer, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. “You’re not experiencing them as you’re talking [to that person], you’re doing that independently.”
All these pictures, posts, and tweets have a distorting effect on my recollections of the last time we saw each other, or the last time we communicated. Maybe he wasn’t laughing at my jokes as much as I remembered, or enjoying the restaurant I picked out. How could he, when he’s eating a delicious meal I’m not invited to, or drinking with friends at a trendy lounge I’ve never been to? I can’t help the “what ifs” triggered by pictures, tweets, or posts that I am not a part of. Surely that’s a woman’s arm I see next to the glass of wine. Is he on a date? With someone else?! Without social media, these thoughts would likely not arise, nor fester in my mind at all. With this digital background information, I can revisit the time we spent together in a whole new light, reevaluating what happened IRL in the context of what I see on all of his social media accounts.
Last spring, a friend of mine was seeing someone who was connected to her and several of her friends on Facebook. But when he consistently “Liked” photos that one of her best girlfriends would post, she became suspicious that perhaps he secretly had a crush on her friend. Perhaps it meant nothing, perhaps her suspicions were true. Either way, it ate away at her.
If you type in the words, “Snapchat Best Friends” into Twitter’s search bar, it populates tweets as recent as five to 10 minutes ago with users debating the utility of the auto-deleting social media app’s feature. How it works? It declares someone’s top three “best friends” based on who they are most frequently sending and receiving pictures from, and displays them to your contacts. One 22-year-old New Yorker who was a couple of months into dating a new guy noticed this guy’s ex-girlfriend’s Snapchat handle kept making its way into his Best Friends. Was he constantly sending her pics? Was she snapping selfies and sending them to him? All kinds of anxiety arose as a result.
One 33-year-old Brooklynite — we’ll call him Ron — says he “avoids” connecting on social media with women he’s dating for this very reason. Deciphering a person digitally “takes the fun out,” he says. To protect both himself and who he’s dating from the temptation and subsequent messiness that can result from analyzing each other’s digital likeness, he says he’d rather someone find out who he is by getting to know him in real life.
“I may do a little stalking here and there, but generally I do not want to know everything about the person,” Ron says.
Cromer, the clinical psychologist, says men and women both fall victim to surveying profiles of friends, but the impact of this newfound digital knowledge can have different effects.
“Men and women might be looking just as much [as each other] but the questions might be different. Women might be questioning more but the curiosity is certainly equal,” said Cromer.
For many of us, the age-old notion of a disconnected heart and mind is further aggravated by technology. Our heartstrings are unfortunately easily manipulated by technology, but we have to be careful that the person we’re worrying about, and even falling for, isn’t just a digital doppelgänger.
“Pre-technology, in order to get access to a person’s sister, or college days, that would require some form of intimacy,” Ludwig says. “Now…boundaries aren’t as strict. With Throwback Thursday, you can feel like you have a sense of a person. There’s no replacement for time, though.”
Warning: Digital looks can be deceiving. Unlike a mirror, photos and texts can be far removed from the person you ultimately get to know in real life. And so, I repeat to myself, step away from the devices.