The Secret Lives of Perfect Social Distancers

Someone who looks like they’re always staying inside on Instagram may actually have a double life they’re hiding to avoid judgment.

An Instagram logo and a woman saying "Shh"
Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

“When I look at my choices as objectively as possible, I should not be doing this,” a 26-year-old speech pathologist told me, referring to the romance she started a few weeks ago.

The speech pathologist, who asked to not be identified by name to avoid repercussions at work, has been renting a car and driving from her home in Washington, D.C., to her new boyfriend’s home in Baltimore a few times a week, and keeping it a secret from almost everyone she knows. This isn’t because she doesn’t take social distancing seriously, she insisted. She lives alone and was “real good” for the first month of her city’s stay-at-home order. “I really felt a duty,” she said. “And then, I don’t know what happened. I mean, honestly, loneliness is really persuasive.”

For now, the speech pathologist has told only a few friends (all of whom got mad) and her mom (who also got mad) about her blossoming relationship. She’s been careful not to drop hints at all online, including in the Facebook group where the pair met. “There’s nothing I want more than to blow up Instagram,” she said. Even outside of this super-secret situation, the speech pathologist has been vigilant about maintaining her sterling pandemic reputation on social media, and recently ducked out of a group photo at a friend’s spaced-out rooftop birthday party. “We can all remember that I was at this birthday, but I can’t jeopardize my job, my clients,” she told her friends.

Now that stay-at-home orders have been in effect for months—to varying degrees—in many parts of the world, this kind of double life is a serious temptation. People are lonely. People are taking risks. And yet, people also have shame, so they are keeping secrets.

Before all of this, we went to Instagram to flash the most socially active and best-loved versions of our lives, but during the pandemic, that kind of presence scans as a reckless endangerment of other people’s health. Social distancing is difficult enough on its own, but many of us are also feeling the added demand of projecting on social media that we’re doing the right thing and staying inside if we can. Even people who don’t have surreptitious boyfriends and swear they’re staying safe can end up feeling like they’re being deceptive.

Feuds between friends have played out on social media since the platforms were first created, but for many people, this is probably the first time the passive aggression has been about public health.

Julia Byrd, a 22-year-old who lives in Roanoke, Virginia, has been going to gatherings of about 10 people with her boyfriend and his fraternity brothers, she told me. “I would find myself posting videos and then deleting them off of my Snapchat story, because I was like, Oh man, people are going to judge me,” she said. She’s pretty sure that her friends are judging her anyway, as they’ve been subtweeting her. “They’re like, ‘If you’re still going to kickbacks, this is for you,’ and it’s videos on how fast viruses spread, or some meme.”

Erica Angers, a 28-year-old who works at an environmental nonprofit in Ottawa, Canada, said she’s been hanging out with friends during the pandemic—but only outside in her large backyard, where everyone can stay six feet apart. Though she takes photos of her friends when they come over, she’s “explicitly stated” that she won’t post them to social media. “I don’t want to get attacked online for something that I really, genuinely feel is not a public-health risk but I still think would elicit a lot of negative feedback,” she told me. “I might wait until June and then start posting again.”

She’s worried about being judged, because she’s already felt that same judgment for others. An acquaintance of hers recently posted photos from a birthday party at which she was hugging her mom and her friends and taking shots with them with their arms intertwined, which Angers felt was egregious. “That was clearly over the line,” she said. “It’s fairly safe to assume she has not started living with all of those people.”

The problem with social-distancing social media is that it provides almost no context. I’ve hesitated over sharing pictures hanging out in the backyard at my old apartment with my three former roommates, wondering whether I would have to add a lengthy caption explaining, “They are sitting near one another because they live together,” or “I am sitting far away, although you can’t really tell from the camera angle.” I’ve also followed, with great horror, the saga of an acquaintance who started dating an essential worker just as coronavirus infections were peaking in New York City. I don’t know anything about their situation beyond the photos she’s posted on Instagram, but I still shiver in judgment, saying it’s something I would never do.

Though the pandemic is happening everywhere, it’s not happening everywhere in the same way, which further complicates the urge to judge others on social media. Juan Vivanco, a 26-year-old from Chile who moved to Berlin three years ago, said he’s had a hard time isolating so far away from home. His makeshift family consists of him and his two roommates, but they recently decided to invite one friend over for a small dinner party. (Parts of Chile are still on lockdown, but in Berlin, some restrictions have been lifted.)

Vivanco posted a photo of the friend in their kitchen, and immediately received angry messages from friends back home, he told me. “Like, ‘How could you be so irresponsible? You need to flatten the curve. You can’t just, like, have fun.’” He tried to reply to them, but it was pointless. His friends in Chile didn’t understand that what he was doing was legal in Berlin. “I just basically said, ‘We’re lonely. We need human contact, or if not, we’re going to go insane.’” He started limiting who could see his Instagram posts, but then just stopped sharing pictures of other people at all.

He made that decision after he posted a photo of two wine glasses on the ground in the park and someone replied to it asking what he was thinking: His dad is 85 years old; would he want people back in Chile to act so recklessly and endanger his life? “Two glasses of wine, not even me in the picture, and that’s the reaction I’m getting,” he said.

Social distancing is a vital part of any strategy to slow the spread of the coronavirus—regardless of what leaders in some states have decided. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an enormous and difficult thing to ask of people.

Jeff Niederdeppe, a communications professor at Cornell University who studies the effectiveness of public-health campaigns, told me that social distancing has presented a unique challenge messaging-wise. “Public health is not very good in general at communicating in a way that is empathetic,” he said, when I mentioned that the language around “households” didn’t seem to account for people like me, who live alone and who have been asked to spend an extended period of time in total isolation. “Asking people to socially isolate for months on end, the sacrifices are real, and those have other kinds of health consequences. I think that’s part of why people are talking about the messages feeling kind of cold.”

Even if people aren’t always perfect about social distancing, the official messaging around it is obviously clear and effective enough for them to feel nervous about being judged when they flout it. They’re also savvy enough to know that posting a picture of a birthday party on Instagram risks not just shame within their social circle, but also the possibility of going viral. “Who wants to be the person who’s shamed in their network, and also at scale, seeing their photo on the news?” Niederdeppe asked.

With a chaotic response from the federal government, compounded by wildly variant responses from state governments, and in some places, deleterious infighting at the local government level, the responsibility for containing the pandemic has been largely left on the shoulders of individuals. In that situation, vigilante scolding and shaming is a common tool—whether it’s working or not.

Still, day-to-day decisions are trickier than they can seem from the outside. Vivanco is living thousands of miles away from his family and recently accepted that it would be unsafe for them if he visited at all for the rest of the year. He also invited someone over to his house for dinner. He hasn’t been going to any of the dinner parties he’s been invited to. He is having some wine after work in the open air. He’s taking the pandemic seriously, and living as rigidly as he feels he possibly can.

Public-health officials have started to talk openly about “quarantine fatigue” and how to combat it. The term is nice because it’s frank about how exhausting it is to pretend that being alone is okay. The performance of social distancing is part of that fatigue—on top of not seeing our friends in person, we have to ruthlessly hound them to stay safe? If we sit 10 feet away from someone in a mask, we have to justify it in an Instagram DM to some concerned citizen we haven’t seen since high school? All of the surveillance and anger and self-righteousness is draining too.

The coronavirus is going to be around for a very long time, so, at some point, everyone is going to have to start making decisions about how to conduct their lives while minimizing the risk to themselves and others. We’ll probably have to come out of digital hiding, unless we end up with an uncarriable pile of secrets 18 months from now.

When I asked the speech pathologist with the new boyfriend whether she thought there would ever be a good time to unveil the relationship on social media, she told me she isn’t sure. She’s the type of person who’s always thinking about how a love story will sound when it gets told years from now, at a wedding or to grandchildren. “Then we can be like, ‘Oh my god, we met during the pandemic,’” she said, before singing a few bars from Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” But she’s a little nervous.

“When is this going to soften enough where we can say, ‘Yeah, we found each other in the craziest of times,’ and people will go, ‘Aww,’ instead of going, ‘You’re fucking irresponsible and selfish’?”