The Art of the Boyfriend ‘Soft Launch’

In the age of Instagram, starting a new relationship means coming up with a public-relations strategy.

Clark Gable's face, mostly blurred out, with a spinning wait cursor overlaid
Bettmann / Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

The first thing you’ll notice is that there are two wine glasses on my dinner table. Then one day I’m taking selfies on a couch you’ve never seen before. Then, a few weeks later, half an unfamiliar face shows up on my Instagram Story. Hopefully, you will read into these images and ask: Does Kaitlyn have a new boyfriend? And if all works out, I won’t have to bother making an official announcement about having a new boyfriend.

In the summer of 2020, the comedian Rachel Sennott put a label on this odd, previously unnamed behavior: “Congrats on the instagram soft launch of ur boyfriend,” she tweeted. The joke went viral not because it was so funny but because it was so astute: Women like me have been doing this, and we’ve been doing it deliberately. We hint at the existence of new partners in a coy series of blurry or oddly cropped photos, feeling out whether the new relationship is going to last long enough to become a regular part of our online presence—and whether anyone is interested in learning more. It sounds cold and calculated, but what are we supposed to be? Reckless?

A good soft launch can mean two plates of pasta and a glimpse of a button-down shirt. (Be sure to clarify if it’s actually just your dad.) Your blurry, oddly cropped photo can be of a crewneck sweatshirt foregrounded by a Heineken. It can be whatever you want it to be, really, as long as it subtly signals that someone is there who wasn’t there before.

Soft launch is corporate jargon, referring to the introduction of a product or service that is not yet ready for formal promotion or widespread consumption. A soft-launched product or service gets tested within a limited group first, with the results determining its fate. A lipstick might be soft-launched to gather comment cards from potential customers, so its formula can be refined. A video game might be soft-launched for beta testers as a way of finding glitches. And a boyfriend might be soft-launched to give a person’s friends and followers the chance to get used to the idea of him, as well as to give the soft-launcher a chance to gauge their social circle’s first impressions.

No one is really going to throw out a new partner if the soft launch sputters. Infatuation can survive an onslaught of negative reviews, or your heart may not be in it even when you’ve launched a real crowd-pleaser. Still, the boyfriend soft launch isn’t just a joke. Being online and caring about Instagram requires a person to think about how any major change in their life will come across to a wide audience.

Before the soft launch, we had the more brazen, one-step “boyfriend reveal.” On Monday, there was no boyfriend in the picture; on Tuesday, there was a picture of a boyfriend. The photos usually appeared on the Instagram grid (the semipermanent album of photos on a person’s profile page). That gave boyfriend reveals an element of danger: What would happen after the breakup? Would you delete the photos, or merely archive them? How long would you wait? As a matter of public relations, all-at-once reveals invite unnecessary risks. In a way, that makes them more romantic.

The boyfriend reveal is not for Gen Z, the digital-native generation, though it was once popular among corny YouTubers. It still has an appeal for slightly older adults, however, who have been getting more creative with the ploy: Jennifer Lopez, for instance, boyfriend-revealed Ben Affleck in an Instagram-grid slideshow, preceded by several photos of herself in a bikini. Kourtney Kardashian confirmed her romance with Travis Barker with a close-up of their entwined hands posted after Valentine’s Day weekend—a vintage early-Facebook move (or maybe even a little bit Myspace?).

For everyone else, however, the demands of self-presentation online have been evolving. We’re prioritizing authenticity and turning against artifice. We want images to feel organic, and for everyone to be less obviously obsessed with attention.

Last year for New York magazine, Molly Young detailed the way nonsensical corporate speech evolves and leaches into regular conversation. In the 1980s, she wrote, work meant Wall Street words: leverage, stakeholder, value-add. The next generation brought early computer jargon: bandwidth, hack, beta. As for the present moment of life on platforms, she quotes Anna Wiener’s Silicon Valley memoir, Uncanny Valley: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling.” What anyone is doing in an office at any given time has no real relationship to any of these words, though the words reveal something about the attitudes of the people who use them.

When someone talks about “soft-launching” their new boyfriend on Instagram—when they type out the phrase, instead of merely engaging in the behavior—they’re signaling awareness of, and also mocking, the demands that are now made of even nonfamous people online. We use plenty of other corporate-sounding words in just this half-joking way: We call videos of our loved ones “content”; we joke about inconsistencies in our “personal brand.” When I refer to surprising posts from friends-of-friends as “plot twists,” I’m really making a ruder accusation: They’re showing narrative inconsistency, which hints at a poorly run PR operation that is throwing everything at the wall. While there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, that doesn’t mean there are no bad ideas, I might think to myself, looking at a photo of that aspiring singer who pretended to get a portrait of Harry Styles tattooed on her face.

This way of talking acknowledges that, for better or worse—but mostly for worse—our personal brands require continued upkeep and innovation at great emotional expense. A public narrative has to be easy for people (followers) to follow along with, and the soft-launched boyfriend remains popular because, as a content strategy, it minimizes the risk of introducing a character who may not stick around. I think it’s also goofy and entertaining on its own terms. Autumn happens to be soft-launch season, so you should have an opportunity to observe and decide for yourself whether you feel the same. “I honestly love witnessing the months-long soft-launches of new boyfriends,” read a recent viral tweet. “A hand at the other side of the table, in the corner of the picture? god forbid, a mysterious bunch of flowers on your story? a hotel room?? you can get invested in this shit.”