Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

Facebook Selfies and Romantic Relationships

How you present your self on Facebook affects your romantic relationship

Do the selfies you post on Facebook influence your dating success or the stability of your romantic relationship?  They very well may, and not always in a good way.  Recent evidence suggests that what happens online affects, or at minimum reflects, the real-world social experiences of individuals and couples.  Whether you’re single or in a long-term relationship, the photos you post on Facebook are sending messages out into the world about you and your relationship.  

Single and selfie-ing?  Stop, in the name of love.

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Facebook photos are like catnip for Facebook creeping, the stealth perusal of a friend’s Facebook profile (Fox, Warber, & Makstaller, 2013).  While long-time friends or family might enjoy the occasional creeping to check out your recent pictures, creeping is an information-gathering adventure for new “friends” who are tentatively considering you as a possible romantic partner.  These prospects are curious.  You’ve sparked their interest and they know that by snooping through your profile they can gain a better understanding of who you are.  Maybe you’ve been on the creeping side of this equation, using Facebook to learn more about a crush or attractive acquaintance: what is he like? Who are her friends?  Is he fun?  Is she popular? 

After two people have met, but before their relationship has intensified, Knapp (1978) considers them to be in the experimenting stage of relationship development.  These days, people in the experimenting stage rely on Facebook photos as a useful source of insider information (Fox et al., 2013).  The selfies you post and any photos you’re tagged in, all of these are viewed with interest, giving clues to your personality, sociability, and priorities.

Because people infer a great deal from your photos, be careful when posting selfies.   If you post highly attractive or sexy profile photos, viewers are likely to perceive you as narcissistic, arrogant, and self-centered (Buffardi & Campbell, 2008).  Further, some men consider women’s close-up selfies as indicative of low self-esteem, while women are generally unimpressed by “mirror shots,” viewing selfies taken by men when they are not wearing shirts as ultimately indicative of unfavorable partner characteristics (Fox et al., 2013).  Be judicious when it comes to the selfie, and don't hesitate to post a photo you've been tagged in, instead of a selfie, as your profile picture.  These photos are seen as less easy to strategically manipulate to convey a particular impression, and thus are often viewed as more reliable sources of information.

When the Selfie becomes an Usie

Even for established couples, the photos you use on your Facebook page still bear great meaning.  If a profile picture is a thousand words, than changing a selfie to an “usie” tells your partner, as well as the world, a bit about the quality of your romantic relationship.

For example, if Dave posts a picture of himself and his girlfriend, his girlfriend might see this as affirming gesture of their relationship, his ex might be forced to see that he’s still off-the-market, and his friends might begin to think that Dave is in a serious relationship.  Meanwhile, removing a couple photo, especially in times of conflict, might be interpreted as anger or distancing from the relationship (Zhao, Sosik, & Cosley, 2012).

Recent evidence suggests that people who are more satisfied in their romantic relationships are more apt to post an usie as a primary Facebook profile picture compared to those who are less satisfied (Saslow, Muise, Impett, & Dubin, 2013).  In other words, a person’s profile picture can be a pictoral representation of relationship closeness. The act of having your own profile photo include a picture of your partner, suggests that your own self-concept includes your partner;  presenting the “self” as an “us” in a profile picture correspond with satisfaction and closeness (Saslow et al., 2013).

If your profile picture contains you and you alone, this doesn’t mean you have an unhappy relationship.  The broader context matters.  Couples negotiate with each other to maintain a degree of privacy with which each member is comfortable (Zhao et al., 2012).  This might mean refraining from posting couple photos or status updates that reference the partner or it might mean regularly posting content that affirms the relationship.  Partners must strategically balance their own and their partners’ interests to show-off or keep private their relationship with outsiders’ (e.g., friends, relatives) desires to see pictures or hear updates that say something about the relationship.  The selfie versus the usie may be just the tip of the ice-berg when learning to navigate relationship presentation online.

 

Buffardi, L. E., & Campbell, W. K. (2008). Narcissism and social networking web sites. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1303-1314.

Fox, J., Warber, K. M., & Makstaller, D. C. (2013). The role of Facebook in romantic relationship development: An exploration of Knapp’s relational stage model. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 771-794.

Knapp, M. L. (1978). Social intercourse: From greeting to goodbye. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Saslow, L. R., Muise, A., Impett, E. A., & Dubin, M. (2013). Can you see how happy we are? Facebook images and relationship satisfaction. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 411-418.

Zhao, X., Sosik, V. S., & Cosley, D. (2012).  It’s complicated: How romantic partners use Facebook. In J. A. Konstan (Ed.), Proceedings of the 2012 ACM Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 771-780). New York, NY: ACM

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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