In a past life, under no circumstances would I date anyone without a social media presence. How am I supposed to know you’re exactly who you say you are and not a serial killer or pro-lifer? The pandemic has changed my priorities, though, and things that once seemed unimaginable — or unprecedented — are now a reality. I’ve officially joined the ranks of Issa Rae and Bella Hadid: My partner is offline. In fact, he hasn’t been on social media since MySpace was cool.
As we’ve seen celebs with massive followings keep their relationships largely offline, it’s become intriguing to us normies. This difference between my partner and I is definitely something I’ve been learning how to navigate. While doing so, I’ve discovered how many people don’t even consider an offline person’s agency.
Most of us shape our social media accounts based on our own desires — essentially how we want the world to see us. If there are two pics of you and a friend, for example, the one that makes the cut for the Instagram grid is whichever one you feel best about yourself in. For some relationships, this can be totally harmless. For others, it’s not. Even including someone offline in your post can feel violating. There can be as much intention in being offline as there is for those of us on social media, and that should be treated accordingly.
“I believe social media provides this proxy experience of connection that we all desire and really need. We innately want to be connected to another. We want to find communion in our same humanity,” says Akua Boateng, a Philadelphia-based psychotherapist. Social media can offer some people this type of support in a place where it lacks in their immediate physical community.
However, those that opt out may choose to be offline for a myriad of reasons. “It could be that a person does not get rewarded by having eyes on them. To have the individuals viewing their life or putting their life on display is more triggering and emotionally disturbing than it is helpful,” Boateng says. “It also can be that they find socialization is met in their in person, physical life, so they don’t really need any additional connection online. They feel satisfied and happy with the people that are in their real life.” And in this case, including an offline person in your post might call for consent, and maybe a conversation.
Learning about my own partner’s past dating experiences relative to social media made me especially cognizant of his boundaries — boundaries he wasn’t even aware he’d set when it came to social media. He never knew what was being posted in the past until a friend brought it to his attention after the fact. There was an element of betrayal to these posts; a representation of him that he didn’t necessarily condone.
My partner shared one story about how a friend with a sizable social media following shared a video of him taken at his job without his knowledge. The question alongside the post read “Why won’t he fuck me?!” When they eventually started to date, she continued to share intimate details of his life without his consent for content that she profited from. As a result, her followers showed up to his place of work and asked prying questions about his life — the life he thought he was living completely offline.
When I tell Boateng this story, she confirms: “There are so many things happening here that are not okay — privacy concerns, boundaries, lack of consent, breaches in trust.” When someone shares a traumatic experience about their past, she says, it’s important to recognize that action (and their story) as sacred. “Not everyone has access to their pain and their triumphs, and so, it is a privilege to be in that space.”
It was a swimsuit pic Danielle Hamoudi’s* (who prefers to use a pseudonym due to the privacy concerns around her job as a lawyer) now husband posted years ago on his Instagram that led her to express her discomfort around his posts. “I was just becoming, sort of, more important in my career and I was interviewing heavily and it just didn’t seem appropriate that they could Google me and stumble upon a pic of me wet, on the edge of the swimming pool.”
Hamoudi tells me she felt mortified about the swimsuit post, though she has no judgement about what others decide to post. It’s just not for her personally. That’s when let her partner know that she needs to approve any image of her being posted (as well as words written about her) on his social media.
When New York City-based Jennings McCarthy has approached others about posting about him on socials, he says he was often felt dismissed. “The response I get a lot of the time is that ‘it’s just a post’ and almost a sense of confusion towards why someone wouldn’t want to be posted,” he says. “[They’re] even offended that someone without an Instagram would have an opinion on the etiquette of how people operate on social media. But, these are the same people who struggle with conversations about consent to begin with.”
He expresses frustration about being robbed of his agency when friends post images of him without permission. “They don’t understand the sense of paranoia or violation I feel when people bring up my whereabouts saying they ‘saw’ me [online] when I wasn’t trying to be seen.”
I’ve found that it’s been helpful to educate my partner on how I, a freelance journalist who consciously posts a mix of work and personal things on both Twitter and Instagram, use social media during my writing process, as well as to find new editors to work with. With this knowledge and a lot of transparency about what I post, he’s been able to express how comfortable he is being posted in different contexts — and I’ve come to learn it’s always in flux.
“The most important things in a romantic relationship or intimate relationship — and really the pillars of that relationship to grow — are trust, respect and connection,” Boateng says. “I think it would be important for the online partner to talk to the offline partner about their own relationship with social media.” Share how you use it, she says, as well as what the intention of the post is. Is it for business? Is it for social connection? Is it for both? “Talk to them about how you use this medium and how you foresee including them in the process,” she adds.
Additionally, it’s be helpful to recognize that their experiences may require a different level of security in their privacy than an online partner is used to. “[Let them know] it could mean that people would know more about them. They might even look for them. If you were to not be together in the future, then it’s possible the information will live online,” Boateng says.
McCarthy added, “And that’s the thing, it’s not a one-time thing, it’s a constant checking in, it’s a constant opening up the floor for discussion.”
So, next time you’re horny for someone that’s offline, ask yourself what it really is you want. Are you trying to live an entirely separate life away from your relationship, leveraging their presence simply for the story and vanity clicks or do you recognize that this person is deliberately offline and their agency around it is paramount? And, if you make it past the pandemic version of the talking stage, consider checking in pre-soft launch.