So, I guess Facebook is here to stay. In honor of its IPO, I’m brainstorming about how social media might be existentially changing our romantic lives and intimacy. Here’s the first installment. I’ll postpart 2 Wednesday.
JEALOUSY LOOMS LARGER
Romance might get more jealousy-prone. In an earlier column I summarized research by cyber psychologists who find that Facebook’s a fertile petri dish for jealousy. Even self-confident partners can effortlessly (almost unavoidably) monitor their lovers’ Facebook pages, which inevitably will include unknown friends and the occasional easily-misconstrued comment… which encourages more jealousy and, in a feedback loop, more Facebook surveillance.
OLD LOVERS NEVER DIE. THEY JUST FADE AWAY TO YOUR WALL
It’s the age of the sexual uncanny, that eerie sense that something from another time and place appears, hauntingly, in this time and place. Ghosts of romances past persist on the Wall, or get resurrected through Friending. In some ways this might be really positive. It allows a more seamless, even blurred, transition from lover to friend, which exes often say they want but can’t achieve. In other ways the presence of a romantic anachronism doesn’t provide a clear sense of closure. And it makes romantic nostalgia more tangible, and potentially unsettling.
“IMPULSE BUY” INFIDELITY
In 2010, 1 in 5 U.K. divorce petitions filed online mentioned Facebook.
I quoted that statistic in an interview once. The show’s producer “Mary” later told me that it had happened to her. Mary’s husband had friended an old flame on Facebook. It started innocently but deepened into a private correspondence. The non-physical intimacy escalated to a physical (re)union. Months later, when the husband asked for a divorce, Mary was “blindsided” and devastated. Evidently, she said, her marriage was “weaker” than she knew.
Or, social media is stronger than we know. Online social media increase infidelities of opportunity: Temptation comes to your wall and friends you (women tell me of husbands who received photos of bikini-clad women, asking to be friends with benefits); you can effortlessly window shop for lovers on affair-finding sites. An “impulse buy” becomes easier
RELATIONSHIP TALK GOES COED
In the unwired age, candid heart-to-hearts about sex and love lives were usually conducted with one’s own kind, and in person. Women discuss relationships with female friends, and men discuss them (if at all) with other men. I’ve noticed that discussion forums online, just by accident, are stimulating more coed conversation about relationships. They toss together men, women, young, old, in an interactive format. This might broaden perspectives, whereas “pink team” and “blue team” conversations, even if only subconsciously, tend to reinforce tribal loyalties and in-group biases (i.e, “You know how women are…,” or, “He’s like all the other men…”).
THE SEE-THROUGH MARRIAGE
How many daily moments in another person’s marriage are you now privy to on Facebook? You learn that a couple had pancakes in bed this morning and listened to birds. Another friend wishes his wife had washed the dishes. For better or worse or both, social media lets us peek inside the black box of non-celebrity marriages, with all their intimacies, irritations, and quotidian routines. And you get this bird’s-eye marital view even of “friends” that you’ve never met.
Does marital transparency like this make a love life more susceptible to comparison and the whole range of feelings that comparisons spawn? Could it skew our expectations about marriage, or create new consensus views of marriage within social clusters?
THE RELATIONSHIP METAPHOR OF THE WEB REPLACES THE RING
The 21st century symbol of intimacy might turn out to be a web rather than the closed circle of the wedding ring. Instead of having an exclusive relationship with intimacy confined in that circle, maybe we’ll begin to think in terms of more flattened out, dense networks of intimacies. We’re meaningfully connected to more than a handful of people simultaneously. Growing interest in polyamory is one example of this. The geometry of attachments will get more complex than the close circle. The web symbolizes that visually, and the Web itself also facilitates the change.
Whether this web of connections makes us feel better, or lonelier (as recent research suggests), it’s likely to make us feel different, somehow.
NEW SEXUAL IDENTITIES ARE GOOGLED INTO EXISTENCE
Romantic or sexual preferences can morph into social identities through a search engine version of Natural Selection. “Asexuality” evolved from something that individuals felt in isolation to a social identity, with its own visibility and member network, largely through thousands of people Googling the term and concept, until it sedimented into an identity. Asexuality is now discussed as a sexual and lifestyle choice.
THE ALL-SMOKE, NO-FIRE AFFAIR
Cyber-affairs are relationships with sexual intimacy but no physicality. Often the “lovers” never meet, touch or kiss. Is this a “real” affair, or romance? Physical contact was once an affair’s sine qua non, but now it’s an optional characteristic for those who feel like a “mental affair” online is every bit as real as the physical kind.
Some couples would consider this infidelity. Others wouldn’t. They might see erotic chatting and sexting as a sort of private pornography writing, between two people who create an interactive but incorporeal fantasy, on the cyber-frontier between an affair and pornography.
Most of what gets told about sex online is dispiriting, dangerous and sometimes tragic. The sex trafficking of girls and young women is so depressing that it makes it hard to get up in the morning. Twenty percent of all Internet users engage in some kind of sexual activity online. What kind of expectations for sex will young people have when a lot of them first encounter it graphically through easily-accessible Internet pornography, online fantasy worlds, or the sexual marketplace as gleaned through Craig’s List? A friend who works with young women has already noted their insecurity about bodies and sex lives, which they tell her is exacerbated because boyfriends have had a steady diet of porn scripts and fantasy bodies before they even begin dating.