How Instagram Stories Dictate the New Rules of Love

Love and Sex

How Instagram Stories Dictate the New Rules of Love

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Of late, Instagram seems to dominate almost all conversations between my best friend and I. “He views all my Instagram Stories without fail,” she told me at the end of a long day while talking about an ex whom she isn’t on speaking terms with. On another day, we discussed the mixed signals a guy she recently met was giving her. “Why does he see my stories if he isn’t interested,” she asked me earnestly hoping that I had the answer. But all I had were even more questions.

The awareness that my ex watches my stories subconsciously filters into my Insta-decisions too. How do I not let this validation affect me? Or not make myself miserable when my crush doesn’t view my Story even as it inches toward its 24-hour expiry time? And when will I stop wishing for my ex to strike up a conversation with me after viewing it?

Initially, all this overthinking led me to convince myself that Instagram affected my dating life because I was more addicted to the internet than the average person. But now I know I’m not alone. Relationships and technology are incomplete without each other and Instagram dictating our dating lives seems to be the norm.

The funny part is that most of us grew up in an age devoid of the intricate web of Instagram Stories, Twitter DMs, and Snaps. Back in the day, developing a crush, making the first move move, falling in love, it all happened offline. I remember an embarrassing moment from ninth grade: My version of a big bold move was asking my crush if he had read Erich Segal’s Love Story.

In my defence, getting someone we liked to notice us was hard work back then. The most bankable trick was taking a genuine interest in their hobbies, like suddenly supporting the same football club as the cute guy from school. Or picking up the guitar because the senior who stole your heart is in the college band. If that did not work, we’d intercept them on their way to a coaching class, grab the closest possible seat to them on the bus, or hang out at their favourite haunt, hoping they’d notice. Regardless of your modus operandi, wooing your crush was about getting the timing right and showing up as the best version of ourselves.

The green dot that indicates when someone is online and which once gave us hope of endless possibilities – a full 15-minute chat if the broadband co-operated – now only causes anxiety.

To be fair, it isn’t much different now, except our best versions of ourselves are displayed on the mantlepiece of the internet. We intercept our crushes on social media. The green dot that indicates when someone is online and which once gave us hope of endless possibilities – a full 15-minute chat if the broadband co-operated – now only causes anxiety. Today, 60 seconds are more than just a minute, it’s a lifetime of possibilities.

Adding grief to the ambiguity of these new-age dating rituals are Instagram Stories. Yep, that beautifully annoying way of keeping up with someone’s life, without really going through the motions of actually keeping up. It’s ironic how an invention so perfect for the low millennial attention span is also the cause of our sleepless nights.

Imagine this scenario: You meet someone you are interested in, hang out twice but over time, drop low in each other’s WhatsApp contacts. Ideally, it should be over between the two of you, but it isn’t the end, because said person is the first to view your Instagram Stories every day. You on the other hand, hope to find his name headlining the “People Who Viewed Your Story” list. The two of you are indifferent enough to never get to the bottom of it, instead wilfully suffering from what I like to call Insta-frustration.

It’s as if the ghosting lover got an upgrade and became the orbiter. For the uninitiated, HuffPost describes orbiting as “this phenomenon ― in which a person cuts off all direct, meaningful communication but continues to engage with you on social media.”

This orbiting potential lover could be your ex, your best friend from school, or that colleague from work you keeping stealing glances with. He’s always in your social orbit, but is hardly interested in ever coming closer to a collision. And soon enough, knowing that you have an audience in him, you take to using your Stories to leave a breadcrumb trail of your personality. You package the story with every last detail – who you’re hanging out with in geo-tagged landscapes embellished with mood stickers, what song you’re listening to, what you’re watching on Netflix, and who’s bringing home the Chill.

In an Esquire essay that explores how Instagram Stories have altered the way we love, act, and play, Olivia Ovenden writes, “Dating, now, also has the added pressure and thrill of knowing exactly when someone you like has looked at what you’ve uploaded. The downside is that this becomes a game of cat and mouse that requires a lot of ‘brand maintenance.’”

Take my best friend for instance. For all her complaints about how her ex won’t leave her alone, she loses her mind when he doesn’t watch her Stories. She then ends up curating posts solely intended to bait him.

At a time when we crush and ask for reciprocation of our affection on Instagram, the raw appeal of discovering a new person, is now marred by the pressure to be constantly visible for a personality evaluation. We only reveal parts of ourselves we like. Love, once upon a time, used to happen. But with Instagram Stories in the mix, we create it.

Maybe Instagram Stories won’t be the end of love as we know it. Maybe someday I’ll bump into someone in the nightclub or the train à la Before Sunrise. Maybe he’ll also watch my Stories. A girl can hope.