My sister and her boyfriend have the same names as the characters from the movie The Notebook. When a girl from our high school realized this, she tweeted, “I JUST REALIZED ALLIE AND NOAH GO OUT AND THAT MEANS #THENOTEBOOK #IMFANGIRLING okbye” (Sievers). They were horrified. Although they have tried to avoid becoming one of those “annoying couples” – graciously withholding posts about the intimate details of their blossoming relationship - sometimes friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have posted sappy details for them. For example, one night, we were celebrating birthdays with my dad’s side of the family. I teased them (as I often do) by taking a picture of them both wearing crowns (Ally because it was her birthday, Noah to appease my youngest cousin). I said I would post it on Instagram with a Taylor Swift quote under it. Both groaned dejectedly as I typed lyrics from “Love Story” while posting the picture. Ultimately, however, the joke was on me: the Likes on the picture grew, surpassing the average number of Likes for any of my pictures, and bruising my ego. I had forgotten: everyone loves a cute relationship.
Many social media researchers are interested in the risks to personal safety and personal privacy associated with the attention that relationships like Ally and Noah’s can gain in online forums. What are the potential social and psychological effects on the people in these relationships, on their friends, and on the people around them? A variety of research offers some initial answers to these questions.
Some social media users have become more interested in tracking friends’ relationships online than in sharing their own life events. Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center notes that, in the ten years since Facebook was founded, many Facebook users have become more focused on reading and liking their friends’ content rather than posting their own (Smith 2014). Smith found through surveys that about 25% of users now have stopped posting statuses on their accounts (Smith 2014). To a certain extent, it is understandable that these users prefer watching to being watched. What is more exciting than seeing an “in a relationship” status switch to “it’s complicated”? The status switch alone implies a thrilling backstory and leaves followers to investigate by analyzing statuses, pictures, and potential subtweets (when one person makes a vague post on Twitter, indirectly insulting another person). This type of outsider analysis can enable a relationship to exist publically in social media, even without the participation of the participants themselves. As Dr. Daniel Trottier points out in an article titled “Interpersonal Surveillance on Social Media,” other friends can post pictures, statuses, and comments about a person or a couple without their knowledge (323). Chances are that there is at least one picture or status update about you on the website, and it could be reflecting poorly on your reputation without you even knowing about it.
This type of watchful user may pose a risk for couples like Noah and Ally, whose relationship has now entered into the public arena. Such people may be drawn to viewing the couple’s pages in order to live vicariously through them. Followers scroll through feeds and visit profile pages and blogs every day, hoping for another chapter of a dramatic love story to hold their attention. As Daniel Trottier points out in “Interpersonal Surveillance on Social Media,” however, this frequent monitoring could fall under the definition of surveillance, which he fashions from David Lyons’s book Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life, as the “covert, sustained, and targeted collection of information, often about an individual or group of individuals” (320). Social media’s analog to surveillance is “creeping”, which he describes as “a more involved and targeted way of using Facebook… [It] involves perusing content: a few pages of wall posts, or a photo album… and leads to the prolonged scrutiny of others’ information” (320). He points out that creeping can eventually lead to “stalking”, a more obsessive, invasive form of creeping (325). A well-versed Facebook stalker could discover information about you from years ago, regardless of its relevance, and use this information in a myriad of ways. From casting judgment, to sharing it with others for amusement, or to employing it in more damaging ways such as identity fraud or blackmail, Facebook stalking has a variety of nefarious uses, all of which are rather easy to achieve. Since anyone can make a Facebook account claiming to be someone else and revealing confidential information, it is important that people monitor what information they post online, because anyone can access it and do with it what they please.
What can be done to reduce social media’s impact upon its users who are in relationships? Couples may need to monitor or limit their own use of social media. In an article for the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, M.M. Hand and fellow researchers suggest that the perceived amount of time a partner spends on social media has more impact on the relationship than the actual amount of time spent. They discovered that this perception negatively correlates with intimacy, meaning that the more a person thinks their partner’s Facebook use is excessive, the less intimate they feel with one another (Hand 12). The combination of Facebook obsession and a lack of privacy due to social networking sites could possibly leave a member of the stalked couple feeling isolated or pessimistic about the relationship. Therefore, it is up to each person in the relationship to communicate with their partner if they feel that the other is using social media excessively, creating a public face for their relationship is inviting unwelcome or even dangerous attention.
In addition to risks to couples that are facilitated by social media, risks exist to observers or outside participants who engage in creeping or stalking. For instance, Ashwini Nadkarni and Stefan Hofmann’s study found that low self-esteem correlates with excessive Facebook use (Nadkarni and Hofmann 246). This excessive use would mean more exposure to couples’ posts. If the viewer is not in a relationship, he or she may feel left out and more insecure. This finding is verified by additional research that suggests some social media users may now rely on the computer for their social interactions, rather than talking to other people in person. This disengagement can in turn hamper face-to-face communication when the situation calls for it (Hand 8). Elise Clerkin, April Smith and Jennifer Hames note that the types of people who are more inclined to stray from face-to-face interaction experience drawbacks from using social media, as shown in research that finds people with low self-esteem tend to use Facebook to share more negative statuses than positive (Clerkin 526). Clerkin, Hames, and Smith’s research found that those with lower self-esteem seek reassurance through Facebook; when social media use fails to receive the desired response, the encouragement-seeking person feels like a burden (Clerkin 529). The combination of low self-esteem and feeling like a burden could lead to detachment or depression. In extreme cases, it could lead to considerations of suicide among those observers; in fact, suicide is an all-too-common cause of death for Facebook’s largest demographic, 18 to 25-year-olds (Clerkin, Hames, and Smith 529). While users may set out to see any information posted about their friends’ relationships, this exposure may in turn also be hindering their self-esteem, increasing the possibility of detrimental results.
It is important that people monitor what they upload to social media, asking first whether posting questionable material, or something that could haunt them later in life, will be worth an immediate validation or reaction. As Trottier points out, Facebook exposure puts personal privacy at risk and can result in a person being unable to control what information people know about him or her (Trottier 323). Further research about surveillance, privacy, and social media sites would also be helpful because it could inform readers and shock them into being more careful about what they post. We should keep in mind that users are responsible for the information they put online and the information people put online about them.
As social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook continue to grow, people become more intertwined in each other’s social and personal lives in new ways. Researchers like Hand, Clerkin, Nadkarni, Trottier, and Walther have studied topics like surveillance, self-esteem, judgment, and relationships separately with respect to social media sites. While these topics have been studied separately, all of these issues relate to each other and should be combined in a future study. More research should be conducted to examine why third party acquaintances desire to learn about other people’s relationships. Research should also be conducted about how friends’ interference in a relationship affects the partners, their feelings on their relationship, and the relationship itself. So the next time that you find yourself checking a friend’s recent tweets and Facebook relationship status to determine whether she’s still dating her boyfriend, remember that impact the website has on relationships, friendships, and you as an individual, and log off.