What does Instagram do for modern romance? Quite a lot, Kate Demolder writes.
In 1995, the world’s first online dating website was launched, Match.com. Lonely hearts, those apparently shelved, and the socially insecure rejoiced as they could now pivot their dating schedule to online, flirting with the opportunity of a life less singular, all without having to change out of their individual goblin-modes. In the 27 years since, the ocean has deepened with internet-adjacent romantic opportunities, some niche and some flawed, an overreliance on the convenience and attention proximity factor at play throughout. The boundaries, too, of social media have shifted, Instagram in particular, transcending the limits of self-expression and shared experience, now encapsulating business and, indeed, pleasure.[restrict]
Instagram situates itself insistently in a particular social lineage: its forefathers, we know, are Bebo, Facebook and MySpace, where everyone’s lives have suddenly become their personal brand. We know this because we’ve lived through it, picking up the pieces of the former to gauge the latter, all honed in on the direct-to-consumer product that is image sharing, a long-considered commodification tool.
In inverse proportions, dating applications like Tinder, Happn, OkCupid and Feeld oftentimes show us what we want without always accurately reflecting the experience. Our expectation that algorithms and socially profitable photography will create anything more than opportunities for social connectedness may overlook the hard work of coexisting with another human being. Yet, an online CV—which, for all intents and purposes, one’s personal Instagram is––will often display a more likely depiction of someone’s daily life; their achievements, the company they keep, the kind of things they find funny and how they portray themselves in the world. With Instagram, one can imagine oneself slotting into the life of another in a way dating platforms can’t allow. The photo-sharing, multi-billion dollar app also eliminates the vulnerability barrier some feel when they set up an online dating profile, akin to ‘I want to meet someone––maybe that someone could be you?’. It’s a narrative many despise, a forwardness few relate to and the rest feel will eliminate the possibility of a meet-cute, the unforeseen language of love in any romantic comedy from Notting Hill to The Holiday.
In June 2018, Meta stopped reporting Instagram usage when it reached one billion active users. In late 2021, however, CNBC reported that the social network reached the two billion monthly active user benchmark. In terms of social media demographics, more than half of global Instagram users are aged 34 years or younger. The largest age group is 18-34 years old, consisting of 62.2% of all users. 59% of Instagram users log in daily. While committing to an abnormally gargantuan demographic, not to mention a regular placing in the zeitgeist, Instagram 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 Stories mean that you now have data—rudimentary and inconclusive, but still—on who exactly is curious about you today, tomorrow and yesterday. It too commits to a rigorous privacy programme, where one can block anyone they don’t want to see, or report and potentially remove from the app any member who has exhibited disrespectful behaviour. This can contribute to creating a safe space for people to meet, talk and potentially begin any kind of relationship.
Scrolling through a potential partner’s profile, tagged photos or Stories enables a sort of vetting process and, if their profile is public, fair game. A 2019 study conducted by WhoIsHostingThis.com found that 79% of people looked up their matches on social media before meeting them in person, while 57% friended or followed their matches on social media before meeting in person. Anecdotally, everyone I have ever met who has social media has admitted to stalking. For women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, prioritising date vetting highly is necessary from safely and security concerns. At the top of this ladder is former-actress-turned-duchess Meghan Markle, who admitted to Insta-stalking (as it’s so-called) Prince Harry prior to their first date, as mentioned in their recent Netflix documentary. “I asked if I could see his feed,” Meghan revealed with a smile, replying to a friend who said Prince Harry was interested in meeting her. “That, to me, was the best barometer,” she continued. “So I went through and it was just like beautiful photography and all these environmental shots, and this time he was spending in Africa.” The next day they swapped numbers.
Former NBA player Shaquille O’Neal recently opened up about Instagram as a way to meet someone, appearing on the Full Send Podcast to discuss dating post-divorce as a person-of-note in a celebrity-obsessed world. He said has been facing challenges while embarking on the dating scene after his divorce, namely that dating apps like Tinder continuously delete his profile, as they don’t believe it’s him. Instead of Tinder, Shaq said he is now using Instagram, which he describes as “the best way to meet girls.” “Instagram is the best dating app,” he said. “It’s free. I heard my good friend Gary V say that a long time ago: ‘People out there paying money for these dating apps, Instagram and TikTok the best way to meet girls.’”
We’ve grown so accustomed to the public exposure and punitive chaos of social media––it’s now hard to conceive of it any other way. Yet Instagram allows us to form opinions about our love interests that can’t be determined as easily on dating apps, and interact with them in a way that feels non-pressurised, unassuming and altogether friendly, providing refuge from a full-frontal Superlike or Tinder subscription. This model, too, seemed to hold even greater stead with the advent of the pandemic, when social networks became vital tools for communicating in isolation.
It remains to be said that technological works of art don’t succeed or fail based on their technical or logical merits, they succeed or fail according to the way they work on their audience. Yes, the language of Instagram and, indeed, love is radically inventive and symbolically dense but it seems, at least to me, that it does these things so that we can meet all the more directly, in a place that allows for it. And that, to me, is what Instagram has done for us all, and intends to be their plan for a long time, at least if their 2023 Trend Report is anything to go by: “IG is the new dating app: In 2023, Gen Z plans to use platforms like IG for dating and connections.” If it’s good enough for Montecito…[/restrict]