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.”
Read: Friends are breaking up over social distancing
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.