Is Online Presence a Turnoff?

The internet can be toxic or unproductive. But in its better forms, it’s an interest like any other—one that can become a keystone of a world that partners build together.

An old photograph of a sailor kissing his girlfriend, but with a selfie stick edited into her hand
Alex Cochran; Getty

The narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel, No One Is Talking About This, is a caricature of an “extremely online” person. She’s constantly on her phone, inhaling an enormous amount of content each day: bizarre makeup hacks, dog videos, pictures of breakfast food and people’s bruises. Her speech is peppered with the slang and nihilistic humor of her feed. While her younger sister is focused on starting a family, leading a life that is “200 percent less ironic” than her own, she’s weeping over a clip of “a woman with a deformed bee for a pet, and the bee loved her, and then the bee died.”

Lockwood is drawing on an idea that’s become a kind of in-joke on the internet: that “onlineness” is an affliction. To be “chronically” or “terminally online” is to be so deeply involved in the digital world that—by your own doing—you are condemned to the esoteric, unpleasant, or toxic content that’s often part of it.

Even if you yourself are extremely online, then, the logic goes that you should keep away from others in the same corrupted condition. “Relationships Work Best When Only One Person Is ‘Very Online,’” Vice declared earlier this month; according to the author, Daisy Jones, social media can worsen relationship anxieties between partners. For Indy100, a publication of The Independent, Becca Monaghan argued that with an “offline man” you can expect more “thought-evoking and insightful conversations” and fewer “ick-worthy gym toilet selfies.” In The Cut, Danielle Cohen observed that an active social-media life can leave an unappealing digital paper trail—the cringey detritus of a series of past selves. “At best, my feelings stay the same,” she wrote. “At worst, his feed is full of fish photos.”

But I’m not convinced by this offline-partner propaganda. Being online can be understood more generously—perhaps as the technology magazine Real Life does, as a cultural identity, “akin to goth or punk.” In any romantic relationship, partners meld identities to some degree: They develop their own language, informed by the spaces they inhabit together and the culture they consume. The internet provides an almost limitless pool of references to draw from—including silly memes and inside jokes, but also serious ideas and conversations. It’s a beautiful world to share with another person.

Of course, heavy social-media use really can threaten a relationship. Tensions can arise if one partner shares photos or personal news without the other’s consent. Cyber-cheating can lead to heartbreak. A person aspiring to grow a following may become an inattentive partner with an objectionable dedication to clout. Someone who posts a lot might come across as desperate to be seen and heard; if they rack up followers, it might go to their head.

That last possibility may hold especially true if the partner in question is a straight man, according to some of the people I spoke with. (It feels telling that many commentators have focused on the allure of an offline boyfriend.) “When you’re a man and you have like 200,000 followers, and women DM you all the time for saying you like feminism or whatever,” the journalist and commentator Rayne Fisher-Quann told me, “I think it does something to your brain.” By this reasoning, the more offline a man is, the better. As Cohen noted in her article for The Cut, “There’s something distinctly attractive about a man who feels so uninclined to broadcast his thoughts that he hasn’t even created a space for himself to do so.”

Admittedly, the internet can feed people’s egos—or draw them into unproductive conversations, or even lead them to hate. But in its better forms, it’s an interest like any other—one that can become a keystone of a world that partners build together. A survey of the Twitter DMs between me and my partner of eight years, for instance, reveals a few of the ways he tells me he’s thinking about me: old Peanuts comic strips, Adventure Time screenshots (I remind him, he says, of the character BMO), pictures of animals being cute together, a post satirizing the latter as a dating trope. Establishing your favorite corners of the web can be a way of forging identity, of pointing at something and saying, with feeling: “It me.” If to be loved is to be mortifyingly known, then I am more known and loved with each silly little post.

Joy Gyamfi, a 26-year-old photographer living in Vancouver, British Columbia, told me something similar. She met her partner Khalid Boudreau, who’s 22, through local Black community organizing and activism circles, but online is where they really clicked. “It all started over 3 years ago when he slid in my Instagram DMs,” she told me in an email. “It feels great to be able to make niche references that only chronically online people will get. You know those memes that compound on each other?” Boudreau is fastidious in his TikTok curation, sending about 20 videos to Gyamfi’s inbox each day. “The specific content varies, but they tend to fall under these categories: babies, nature, politics, and leftist shitposting.”

Kanika Lawton, a Toronto-based Ph.D. student who uses they/them pronouns, prefers Snapchat and Reddit for keeping in touch with their partner, Fabian Rivera, who lives in Los Angeles. The pair, now 26 and 28 respectively, met over Tinder in 2016, but currently live “​​three time zones and a five hour flight apart.” “Being so online is, quite literally, how we stay connected and why I think we’ve lasted so long across so many kilometres,” Lawton told me in a Twitter DM.

Internet content like become part of a “relational culture”: the shared reality that exists between partners in a relationship, allowing them to operate as a coordinated unit. According to Julia T. Wood, the communications professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who coined the term, such a culture is built from the objects and experiences a couple deems significant. And research has suggested that when partners align in what they value, it may bolster their relationship. One 2007 study followed newlyweds for a year and a half, and found that when couples grew more alike over that time, the change was associated with higher relationship satisfaction. Partners who became less similar “faced steep drops in marital satisfaction.”

This isn’t to say that couples need to share everything, or be online to the same degree. Fisher-Quann told me that her own partner is considerably less active on social media than she is, though he does possess an “internet literacy” that allows them to discuss online drama and compare memes. “I think that is the perfect middle ground for a man, where they speak the language, but they don’t give it enough attention to develop brain worms.” Even when your passions don’t overlap completely, it can be enough just for your partner to understand and appreciate yours.

The desire to be known by your partner can come into contention with another wish: to find someone better than you, who doesn’t reflect the silly, vain, distractible parts of yourself. Perhaps that person might rub off on you; you might even start doing regular digital detoxes. But ultimately, it may be better to find a more honest fit. “I get the inclination to want a sweet boy whose mind is not poisoned by the internet,” the Vox writer Rebecca Jennings told me. “But … I don’t get the longing for, like, some finance guy. What are you even going to talk about?” The longing for a hypothetical offline partner feels adjacent to the half jokes some career-minded women make about wanting to give into tradition, marry into wealth, and become stay-at-home mothers: Both are born from an idealized vision of some purer, more wholesome life that doesn’t actually exist.

Inevitably, many very-online loves will end in very-online heartbreak. Social media makes it difficult to extricate people from our life; even if you unfollow an ex, your smartphone’s memory features or suggested posts can leave unwanted reminders of your past together. And those infinite reference points—once reasons for laughter and symbols of connection—can become sources of pain.

Gyamfi and Boudreau are well aware of this. “I would get TikTok, given that I’m the Gen Z in the relationship,” Boudreau joked, explaining the hypothetical terms of their breakup. Gyamfi would get to keep using Instagram and Facebook. “We’ll definitely need court-mandated arbitration to fully divide the assets,” Boudreau told me. Lawton’s concerns are elsewhere: “I would miss sending him memes … or saving our Snapchat streak by sending extremely unflattering selfies, or just hearing the little notification that means he’s thinking about me,” they said. “The small things build into something bigger.”