NEW YORK CITY — Something felt wrong for Heather, 40, when she received a Facebook friend request from a man she had messaged through the online dating service Match.com.
For Heather, who is now a client of New York City-based dating service eFlirt, allowing someone into her Facebook community of close friends and family was a step too intimate for someone she had never met.
“Most people with any social I.Q. wouldn’t do that,” she said.
As a romance progresses, key social media milestones need to be carefully navigated.
What does it mean to follow a love interest on Instagram? How important is the moment when a couple agrees to each delete their online dating profiles? And what about deleting photos of exes on Facebook?
“Social media has become a yardstick of how we measure the progress of our relationships,” said Krystal D’Costa, an anthropologist who specializes in how social media shapes relationships. “There is a degree of acceptance that needs to happen on those social media platforms before our communities accept that relationship.”
While there are no hard-and-fast rules for how relationships play out on social media, D’Costa and other experts provided a general guide.
A Relationship’s Rise
Step One: Follow on Instagram
Instagram is a love interest’s first point of entry into our social media lives, according to Laurie Davis from eFlirt, because it doesn't have many details that can often be found on a Facebook.
However, for D’Costa, Instagram can present a behind-the-scenes look at someone’s life that is more intimate than Facebook, which she considered a polished and highly curated image of a person.
"[Instagram] is an intimate way of how you see the world, the way you look at things,” she said.
Step 2: Befriending on Facebook
At the end of a few good dates could be an appropriate time to send someone a Facebook friend request, according to Tracey Steinberg, a New York City-based dating coach.
“I think it just means he is lightly interested,” she said. "I don’t think it’s a marriage proposal."
Step 3: Social Media Stalking
Couples increasingly view each other’s Facebook profiles in the weeks and days leading to an “in a relationship” status change, according to data from Facebook.
Gathering information on someone through social media or “social media stalking” can damage a young relationship, according to Amber Madison, a New York City-based psychologist who specializes in relationships and sexuality.
“Analyzing their social media profile is not going to get you any closer to knowing what is going on in their actual life,” she said.
On the other hand, the amount of information on a person’s social media accounts can easily speed up a relationship, according to Davis. In the past, a relationship could only develop from date to date with perhaps a phone call in between, but with social media, relationships can evolve without face-to-face interaction.
Step 4: Vetting Potential Partners Before Our Digital Community
A couple’s interaction on Facebook, such as commenting on each others posts, also increases before they list themselves as “in a relationship,” according to Facebook data. This demonstrates how we subtly introduce a potential mate to our digital community with the hope of getting that community’s approval, according to D’Costa.
“You ultimately want to do things that please your network. That is just basic human nature in terms of belonging,” said D’Costa. “You want [your digital network] to buy into this extension of yourself.”
Step 5: Deleting Online Dating Profiles
A couple having “The Talk” about whether it’s time for each person to delete their online dating profiles is a modern relationship milestone, according to Davis.
In online dating, it’s common for people to juggle multiple options so closing the door on choices and other future prospects is important, she said.
“Some [clients] will have a little celebration with each other and sit there and take down their profiles down at exactly the same moment,” Davis said.
Step 6: The Official Announcement
Changing status to “in a relationship” can be a big moment for the couple and for their digital community, according to D’Costa.
A Relationship’s Demise
Step 1: Announcing the Breakup
The last step in joining together is the first thing to go when severing digital ties. This again requires an adjustment for our digital community, according to D’Costa.
Step 2: Unfollowing, Unfriending or Blocking
If the breakup was friendly, Madison suggested blocking their social media updates from your Facebook feed. Instagram has no comparable function and cleaning up your feed only comes by unfollowing a user. On Twitter you can block or mute users.
“If you have to keep seeing them then you are stuck in the past when that person had a big impact on your life,” Madison said.
Step 3: Deleting Posts and Untagging Photos
Completely eradicating any evidence of a person from your social media accounts can be a hurtful gesture, according to D’Costa.
“It’s the ultimate act of annunciation,” she said.
However, later on, removing evidence of a relationship from social media can be a sign of closure.
“When you are ready to move on, you look for a clean sweep,” D’Costa said.
Step 4: Cleaning Up Your Google Results
Although it’s not social media, evidence of a past relationship that appears on Google or other search engines can be problematic.
A number of clients have used Reputation.com, a San Francisco-based company, to help bury information on former relationships deep in their search results, according to Karissa Sparks, a company spokeswoman. Evidence could include wedding announcements or photos of a former couple at a charity gala.
“We are not trying to hide things,” said Sparks, “It’s more like going through your wardrobe and thinking ‘That’s not me any more. That’s not relevant.’”
Reputation.com takes existing content on a person or business, or creates content before using proprietary mechanisms to push desired information to the top of search engine results, according to Sparks. The process takes at least six months and costs between $3,000 and $10,000, she said.