Baby, You Don't Poke Me Anymore: How Social Media Complicates Relationships

8 years ago

Socially, we are more mobile than we have ever been before. But digitally, we are now more connected than we have been for a long time. No longer are geographic moves tearing our social ties apart. We now inhabit more than a physical space—we are also living in the Cloud.

When the web came around in the 90s, it was a place where, unconstrained by the reality of your meatspace life and largely anonymous, people could be anything they wanted to be. Fast forward almost twenty years and the web is now the place where the majority of us are most ourselves: Facebook accounts list our family members and friends from kindergarten to adulthood, our LinkedIn profiles list our work histories, our Twitter streams show everything we're doing, our Foursquare accounts show everywhere we're going—and so on.

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Muriel Rukeyser asks rhetorically in her poem Käthe Kollwitz. “The world would split open.” If she's right, then everyday, women and men are splitting the world with their truths, one update at a time.


Ambient awareness—that's what social scientists call the incessant contact we have with one another nowadays. As Clive Thompson described it in his piece for the New York Times magazine in 2008, ambient awareness is “very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye.”

The color of a friend's Gtalk status (green, yellow, red, gray) tells me how available they are that day. Their Twitter updates give me a blow-by-blow of what's going on. The music they're putting up on suggests their mood. Mixed media microblogs like Tumblr and social bookmarks (often fed right into their Facebook newsfeeds) let me know what they're looking at. Other status updates let me know how their day is starting, who they've started dating or broken up with in real time-- or at the very least, in time as real as the impulse that drives their action.

As a result, I know more about my friends now than I ever knew before.

“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” says Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley. “No message is the single-most-important message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.”

This constant connection has solved the problem of isolation as we go about our increasingly mobile lives, but it is giving rise to a new set of issues.


“WHY ISN'T HE POKING ME?!” Cécile types in caps into the chat window in response to my greeting.

Cécile has just started seeing a man we'll call Andrei, who'd previously “poked” her every other day on Facebook (yes, she checked their poking history).

“I CAN SEE HE'S ONLINE BUT HE'S NOT SAYING ANYTHING TO ME!” she messages. She's going out of her mind.

Just then, my friend Marisa direct messages me on Twitter. She hasn't heard from her lover all day and his choice social network is showing he hadn't logged in there, either. Marisa e-mailed him twice during the course of the day, but she knows he hasn't opened either message thanks to one of those handy black-belt e-stalking tools that enable you to see when someone is accessing the e-mails you've sent.

“WHERE IS HE?” she screams when I conference both her and Cécile into a private TinyChat room for a cross-continental webcam-enabled pow-wow.

Marisa's imagination is running wild with images of her photographer paramour Brandon cavorting with scantily-clad models on the beach. Cécile is hysterically debating whether the lack of a poke constitutes a loss of interest in her new object of interest.

“I am so far beyond Xanax it's not even funny,” says Marisa with a sigh, lighting a cigarette. “I already took two. I'm still hysterical. If he doesn't message me by Tuesday, I'm going to cut up all the shoes he gave me—the ones I don't like—and throw them on his lawn.”

“That's brilliant,” I say, lighting my own cigarette. “I'll help you.”

“AV,” Cécile interjects. “What's up with Tristan? He just tweeted the weirdest thing.”

Tristan and I have the converse of usual “is that tweet about me?” phenomenon. I'd say that some 90 percent of our tweets are somehow directed at the other, even if they're not actual responses. When a tweet comes in and it seems to have no relation to me, it feels a lot like hearing a text message come in and then realizing it's not from the person you wish would text you.

I check Tristan's Twitter. I don't know what the update means. It feels unhappy—but how do I know that if I don't even know what it means? Is it even meant for me? What does it mean? I have no context.

“Honestly I wish I hadn't checked the poking thing,” says Cécile, getting back to Facebook. “Because this now confirms my suspicions. I remember two weeks ago I worried about the poking thing and it wasn't a huge deal, but this time he intentionally ignored mine.”

Just then, Andrei updates his Facebook status with a lyric from a Pet Shop Boys song.

“What does that even mean?!” Cécile screams. “This is maddening!”

I couldn't believe how three successful women—a fashion journalist, a technology author, and a relationship columnist—could be sitting around in our respective homes on a weekend stressing out, popping Xanax and chainsmoking over updates, pokings and e-mails.


Social media's ambient awareness makes crushes and fledgling relationships torture. Status updates become a sort of bizarre Rorschach test: fuel for the insane. Pokes, tweets, Tumblr reblogs, posterous uploads, without context, are a direct threat to gestalt laws. Closure? Continuity? Proximity? Similarity? Symmetry?

Without context, we have no way of connecting the dots. Doubt sets in, fear and instinct, in their double-helix dance cloud any logic. Uncertainty reigns in the digital debris.


It's crazy, I know it is. I remember the first time I was questioned about the meaning of my status updates. I had ended things with a man I'd been seeing for two weeks. We hadn't spoken since, but now he was back, in instant message form, right on my desktop: "was that about me?"

Was what about him?

He quoted a tweet I'd sent out a few moments before: “We met on Twitter. My bio reads: 'Master escapologist.' Can you escape without untying yourself? This is the web. You can fly if you want.”

“No,” I responded. “That's not about you. This is a comment about the nature of relationships on the web.”

He linked to a quote I had posted on my Tumblr next.

E-mail after e-mail I send into oblivion. He told me a time would come that he would be silent. Has the time come or is he amusing himself, relishing that his silence is as powerful as his body? It doesn’t matter. I don’t need his words for some reason. I carry him like a mission inside me. Like faith. Is this what it’s like to believe in God? To have no need for miracles or proof? To send odes into silence and just know they’re heard, know, somehow, somehow beyond reason, that I am heard? Yes.
Z. Borgia

“No,” I said. Was I sending him e-mails? How did that even make sense?

Then he linked another, a favorite of mine from Madame de Stael: “The desire of the man is for the woman, but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man.”

“These aren't about you,” I said.

He didn't believe me. He had analyzed his own updates and seen correlations. I explained I wasn't following his updates very closely. We ended up getting into a fight that culminated in me singing at the top of my lungs and in all-caps, “OH, YOU'RE SO VAIN, YOU PROBABLY THINK THIS TWEET IS ABOUT YOU. YOU'RE SO VAIN, I'LL BET YOU THINK THIS TUMBLR'S ABOUT YOU, DON'T YOU, DON'T YOU?”

It was crazy to me, but that was only because I had context. He didn't. We had spent three weeks not speaking (in my mind, we were giving each other space so we could maybe try to salvage a professional relationship), but just because we weren't speaking didn't mean we weren't still communicating. That's the thing about social media: it never stops.

Yes, we have a choice to not friend and follow our exes, but we usually friend and follow these people before they're exes. After a breakup, unfriending and unfollowing seems like such a dramatic thing to do—completely uncalled for unless the breakup is caused by something extreme.

No one wants to be that person, the one who isn't cool and collected. And no one wants to lose the ability to check in to make sure exes aren't telling our mutual friends weird things about us, or posting horrible photos.

And, if we're to be really honest with ourselves, most of us are very interested in seeing how their lives without us will turn out.

A part of me—the part that has lived on the web for almost fifteen years, the part who would have no one if it weren't for the web because of how much I move—thinks there is nothing wrong with this. But another part of me thinks there is something obsessive and sick with this, something deeply disturbed and corrosive to sanity.

Which is it? You can't be Dali and Mondrian in the same breath—or can you?


The hysteria engendered by a crush's analysis of a single status and the paranoia surrounding an ex's post are nothing compared to the insanity of watching your significant other engaging with other people in real time.

We all have a choice when it comes to how we behave when we're engaging others while we're in a relationship. But we cannot control how other people behave toward us. Previously, someone I was dating would never know if a colleague hit on me at the office, but with Facebook and Twitter, my significant other can see a large percentage of what people are saying to me, including these suggestive comments.

I know what you're thinking: this is a matter of how secure you are in a relationship. If you trust the other person, then who cares what people are saying to him or her?

It's not that the other person is doing anything wrong, it's that it's annoying. Previously, the overt attentions of other people toward my partner would have never occurred in front of me. If for some reason they did, simple body language on my part was enough to establish that the other person had overstepped a boundary. I'm not entirely certain how much of a deterrent this action was to their behavior itself, but I do know no woman ever approached the man I was seeing in this manner once I gave her The Look.

The digital world is devoid of these cues—you may be there, but you're not really there. Unless you decide to butt into a discussion—which is so much more than a look and just feels so tragically déclassé—and say something, there is no way to give any cues.

You're basically relying on people to observe what someone's relationship status as displayed on their profile means—which is a lot like hoping people will observe what a wedding band means while standing a few feet away from your partner to see what happens (some call this e-stalking. When it's welcome, I prefer to call it “thinking of you 2.0”).

It's annoying. And that's just if people are misbehaving. What if your significant other is up to no good? Recently news broke about an interesting survey of divorce petitions by lawyers in the UK that found a startling one in five cited Facebook as cause for divorce.

“I had heard from my staff that there were a lot of people saying they had found out things about their partners on Facebook and I decided to see how prevalent it was,” Mark Keenan, Managing Director of Divorce-Online, told the UK’s Telegraph. “I was really surprised to see 20 per cent of all the petitions containing references to Facebook. The most common reason seemed to be people having inappropriate sexual chats with people they were not supposed to.”

It used to be that frequent calls or texts indicated a level of intimacy between people. Now there's more: tweets going back and forth, wall comments and uploaded images showing body language that suggests a little more intimacy than “just friends,” song dedications on, congruent status updates on Gtalk—you don't even have to peruse phone statements. It's all right out there, floating on the web, right under your nose.

An article in Details last month titled “Everyone Else Is Cheating—Why Aren't You?” reported 41 percent of marriages featured one or both spouses had admitted to an infidelity, be it emotional or physical.

“A lot of people are coming to terms with the unnaturalness of monogamy,” says David P. Barash, co-author of Strange Bedfellows: The Surprising Connection Between Evolution, Sex and Monogamy.

But is it as simple as to say that we are all coming to the collective realization that monogamy isn't really working and we're all acting out or could it be that we have always engaged in this sort of behavior but now social media makes it easier for people to get caught?


The constant contact via social media tools is changing how much information is available to us and this is shaping our expectations and behaviors. Ambient awareness is creating the expectation of shared time and space without the need to be physically present. To suddenly go offline is a choice that carries with it the same implications of not showing up at work. You're expected and colleagues are going to wonder where you went; for those who have become accustomed to your presence, your absence may also result in varying degrees of separation anxiety.

Access to an individual's every thought via the content they have shared makes creating space difficult when we're seeking to terminate a relationship. Uncertainty and unresolved issues shape how we intuit the meaning of messages that often are not directed at us.

Lastly, access to exchanges between our significant other and other people can cause undue stress to an established relationship. What's more, social media tools are obliterating whatever hope of secrecy we once wished to maintain when misbehaving.

So what happens?

I don't know. I'll tell you one thing: psychology had better get itself caught up on the web and all these changes, because in a world where even your mom is on Facebook, it's negligent to ignore the impact that social media has on how we live, perceive, reason and love.

AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405--what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.


Does Facebook Mess Up Relationships? [Video]: a hilarious, if depressing video of the effects of social media on existing relationships.

Is It Still Cheating If We're Unofficial? by Hannah: “He told me that there was never an 'us' to begin with. Really? That's why you made sure to say we were in a 'complicated relationship' (because, in his words, 'we're not officially dating but I really like you') on Facebook? That's why we've been holding hands and being cute for 4 months?”

Man Living Entire Existence Through Twitter Is Divorced at The Oracle Speaks: comically portrays the impact Twitter is having on how we spend our time.

John Mayer Says Twitter Is Ruining Intimate Relationships on I'm Not Obsessed!:

Explaining his new song 'Half of My Heart', he said: "It's about questions of, do I want to share my desires with someone else or do I just want to sate them myself with my laptop and my Twitter account? — these are substituting relationships. Knowing that I could blog right now from my iPhone and it's up on the internet with people reading it and responding to it. How much is that a synthetic version of having dinner with somebody? How intimidating must it be to try to find an 'in' with the man who is consistently satisfying himself by all means necessary? Where is her place in that?”

One of the most difficult things John faces is remaining present in these relationships. He added to The Times newspaper: “Interpersonal relationships are not bookmarks. You don't go to load all tabs, 'How was your day honey?' You don't go, 'You know what, I'm gonna put this conversation with the woman I love on my iPod and listen to it on the subway'. You have to be present, in this synthetic, listen-later sort of world.”

More from love

by Elizabeth Yuko | 18 hours ago
by Charyn Pfeuffer | 2 days ago
by Allie Gemmill | 7 days ago
by Charyn Pfeuffer | 10 days ago
by Katie Smith | 15 days ago
by Katie Smith | 17 days ago
by HelloFlo N/A | 20 days ago
by Monica Beyer | 23 days ago
by Lisa Fogarty | 25 days ago
by Monica Beyer | a month ago
by Brie Gatchalian | a month ago
by Allie Gemmill | a month ago
by HelloFlo N/A | a month ago