I once briefly dated a guy whose entire Twitter feed was about biking. He spent his day posting links to cycling routes, talking about his bike, communicating with other biking enthusiasts, advocating for cyclist safety efforts, and putting up photos of cars obstructing bike paths. All of this is admirable, of course, but the problem was that I didn’t have a bike, like to bike, or care very much about biking at all, and I started to sense, based on his very enthusiastic bike-related activity on social media, that perhaps this might pose a small compatibility problem. We ended things for a few reasons, but both the relentless bike tweets and the fact that he constantly talked about biking when we were hanging out at least drove a wedge between the two of us in my head. He’s a great guy, after all, but we had very different interests.
Social media has made it all too easy to stalk your partner, your ex, your crush, your crush’s ex, and your crush’s extended family members and childhood teachers. It’s also given us more insight into the minds and behaviors of others, including those of the people we love. Sometimes, social media reveals little things about partners that annoy us, like that they keep retweeting Eric Garland or that they exclusively follow butt models on Instagram. Sometimes, those revelations are even troubling, like if you find your partner flirts with other people on Twitter or Instagram, or engages in online behaviors that are abusive or harmful. So what do you do when you hate your partner’s social media presence? And at what point does annoying online behavior cross over into being a legitimate red flag?
Try not to sweat the small stuff
Social media can’t tell you everything about a person—my Facebook “Likes,” for instance, include bands I have never listened to and companies I have never utilized, just because friends asked me to support their pages. But it can tell you a lot, and if you find your partner mostly likes Instagram photos of soccer teams, they probably like soccer. If they keep retweeting Paul Ryan, well, there’s a good chance they like Paul Ryan. If they keep retweeting themselves, they might be slightly narcissistic, or real thirsty for favs. Hopefully, these are things they’ve already revealed to you privately, but you may find it annoying that this information has taken over their public persona.
The fact is, there’s a good chance you aren’t going to like everything your partner likes, and that extends to the things they crow about online. “If you don’t particularly agree with your partner’s political point of view, or their affection for football, or their love of purses, that’s just something where you’re going to have to say, ‘That’s their interest, and that’s part of who they are,’” says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “You aren’t the same person. Good relationships aren’t when people are perfectly the same. It’s when they can come together and share.”
If it’s early on in the relationship, as was the case with me and my Bike Guy, those differences in interest might just be another thing that scares you off of taking things further. If you happen to already like and/or love your partner, if not their affinity for RTing Russian collusion conspiracies, it’s worth remembering they are not solely their Internet persona.
But that said…
Don’t ignore red flags
There’s a big difference between finding someone’s social media presence irritating, and finding it harmful. Online red flags are real, and should not be ignored. These include but are not limited to: harassing and/or trolling other social media users, using hateful and/or body-shaming language to describe people online, and posting racist/sexist/anti-Semitic/Islamophobic/xenophobic memes. A friend of mine says she often searches the Twitter handles of prospective partners alongside phrases like “women,” “girlfriend,” “sex,” and “bitch,” to see if they’d ever tweeted anything problematic (and indeed, she says she’s found some scary stuff).
One woman I communicated with via email, who requested to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, says her ex-husband had posted terrible things about his ex before she started dating him. “I believed he was just in pain at that time and chalked it up to immature coping skills,” she writes. “Fast forward five years and I learned he copes with anger and resentment when he feels rejected or unloved in any way. People show you who they are.”The fact is, if someone is abusive online, there’s a good chance they’re abusive offline, too. “Social media is an extension of our social world,” Rutledge says. “I think you’re fooling yourself if you think that if someone behaves badly online, that somehow that’s not them. Social media doesn’t make us do anything we would not do otherwise.”