(These people are neither Taylor Swift nor Tom Hiddleston.)Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

Here are the facts: Taylor Swift, the famous pop singer, and Tom Hiddleston, the famous actor, recently spent some time together upon some oceanside rocks in Rhode Island. The pair (it is as yet unclear whether they are, indeed, a couple) climbed those rocks—she in a chunky sweater, a short skirt, and oxfords; he in black jeans, a button-down, and a quilted jacket. At one point, he gave her the jacket to wear, perhaps because of the sea-chilled air or perhaps for another reason. Together, the two also: sat on the rocks, kissed on the rocks, cuddled on the rocks, held hands on the rocks, and took at least one selfie on the rocks.

We—the small but significant slice of humanity who follow the comings and goings of celebrity’s artificial aristocracy—know all of these things because the seaside frolic was captured by another camera besides the smartphone’s: A paparazzo, or perhaps multiple paparazzi, documented the beach-rock frolic. And they did so so thoroughly that the U.K.’s Sun tabloid was able to include, in a story headlined “TINKER TAYLOR SNOGS A SPY,” 15 separate images of Tay and Tom, captioned with dreamy descriptions like “Tom Hiddleston looks reflects [sic] on the special moment leaning his head on new girlfriend Taylor Swift’s shoulder” and “Taylor Swift can’t let go of her new man Tom Hiddleston who has been strongly tipped to be the new Bond.”

But what, actually, was “revealed” with all this? Assertions of “romance” and “girlfriend” aside, all that is known for sure is that Tay and Tom once made out on some rocks. (And even that might be in doubt.) The paps might have captured an intimate moment shared between a new couple, as they learn about each other and delight in each other; they might have participated, on the other hand, in one of Hollywood’s oldest institutions: the staged romance. That discrepancy, coupled with the fact that pretty much all consumers of celebrity journalism understand the cynical mechanics of celebrity journalism, is perhaps why so many people’s initial reactions to the Sun’s new-couple news (Hiddleswift! The latest celebrity centaur!) was not surprise, or joy, or even horror, but rather ... skepticism. “‘Can we talk about those staged photos?’” the Daily Mail asked, simultaneously acknowledging and dismissing its rival’s scoop.

And so, almost immediately, the conversation about Hiddleswift came to concern not just the new maybe-couple, but also the photo shoot, staged or not, that announced their new maybe-coupledom.

Media outlets got in on the action, too. “​Is Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston’s ‘relationship’ real or a great big FAKE?” Digital Spy asked, adding: “What’s the deal, and is it the real deal?” One Country, the country music site, published a post titled “Why We Think the Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston Photo Was Staged,” offering a detailed explanation pegged to the notion that Taylor could be so victimized by paparazzi when she has historically been so firmly control of her own image. The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon noted that “at best Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift are in love and craggy rock enthusiasts ... At worst, this is a stunt and a terrible career move for both.”

What that amounts to is a celebrity-journalism spin on the old saying that “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” It was the naked (or, in this case, the chunky-sweater-wearing) facts—Taylor and Tom, together, on some rocks—that mattered more than the ancillary truths about their real relationship or how it may or may not have come about. The Sun’s photos claimed to “reveal a secret romance”; their real purpose, however, was to titillate people with the mere idea that Taylor and Tom might be a couple. It was to give people an excuse to do what they will do any time a new celebrity couple, whether Brangelina or Gigi-and-Zayn or Bennifers I or II, emerges: create nicknames (Hiddleswift! Or maybe Tomlor?​ ​Or Hiddley Swiddley Swiffleton?); generate memes; fantasize about the mergings and clashings of fandoms; ask questions about what the new union might mean for Taylor’s song-writing and for Tom’s Bond prospects and for their respective exes and, in general, for the status of the space-time continuum.  

The point of the images was, in other words, to inspire fan fiction. The pictures served not as a story unto themselves, as the Sun claimed, but rather as a prompt for participation in the new form of literature that has emerged on the internet: a genre that invites fans to fill in the blanks with their own ideas and hatreds and hopes and truths. The images of two people frolicking on some rocks may be very slightly about the two humans named Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston; what they are more about, though, are the universal conceits of early romance—the uncertainty, the fragility, the potential. They are an extension, and also the logical conclusion, of a culture that celebrates The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and their unapologetically performative approaches to love. And that finds Cosmo referring to the Kardashians, only partially ironically, as “America’s First Family.” And that finds Jenna Maroney, one of 30 Rock’s resident celebrities, orchestrating a fake romance with James Franco—all to get attention from the paparazzi’s hungry CAH-ma-ras.

The real Tay and Tom, through interviews given to outlets like E! and People by publicists and “sources close to” the pair, have downplayed the romance. (“Taylor is hanging out with her friends and keeping busy,” an “insider” told E!. “She wants to be single for a while and have a relaxing summer.”) None of that, however, has mattered. Hiddleswift is, for the moment, a union that operates almost purely, and thus almost unassailably, in the conditional tense. What might their long-term coupledom look like? What might it mean? For Taylor and for Tom and indeed for us all? In a culture that treats “reality” as both a truth and a genre of entertainment, it’s no wonder that our first impulse would be to question the reality of Hiddleswift. But it’s also no wonder that our second impulse would be to dismiss that “reality” as thoroughly beside the point.

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