How to manage your love life in the constanly updating world of Twitter. Don’t let 140 characters ruin your relationship.
In gentler, pre-Twitter days, jealous lovers would worry about “three people in this marriage”. Nowadays, it’s more likely to be 300. Or even 300,000. “Ah, pinot noir, truffle gnocchi and my beautiful wife!” a friend tweeted recently one evening to a rabble of “followers”. “I love our date nights!” A Twitpic of antipasti and map coordinates of the bistro were provided. Further mouse clicks told us that “date night” also included him under-the-table tweeting about the Arsenal score, plus evidence of the 30% discount he’d bartered with the bistro’s owner earlier that day, over Twitter.
This is love in the social media age. Candlelight dinner, fine wine, degustation, a lover’s face scrunched over a phone screen live-tweeting brainfarts about the relationship to largely uninterested skim-readers. We love our partners, we really do, but we also love the sugar rush of constant cyber-stimulation, and it is causing us to behave very badly indeed. I watch people on Twitter flirting, fawning and having their heads turned by nameless avatars. I see people broadcasting the bleak lows of their marriages, I see precious anniversary and birthday gifts chosen by Twitter “committee”. I have friends who’ve synced their laptops and phones to update simultaneously, and now arrive at lunch carting rucksacks of electrical equipment, such is their terror a partner might read a direct message they shouldn’t.
I know a man who live-tweeted his girlfriend’s growing coldness towards him, then blogged 1,000 Leonard Cohen-esque words on her moving out. “It feels inevitable,” he boohooed. Of course it was inevitable – he used to tweet at least six times an hour, endless say-what-you-see drivel.
I know people who have “legacy-strategy” in place to wipe all their social network sites within two hours of their accidental death so as to avoid a punch-up at the funeral. Obviously, I smirk watching this chaos unfold, from my lofty moral vantage as a woman checking Twitter dozens of times a day, a woman who often presents her husband with meals consisting of fridge remnants as I’m too busy fannying about on the internet to cook or shop. Perhaps for any of us to stay loved and in love, we need to accept some uncomfortable truths about relationships and social networking. Things such as:
Accept that Twitter love is better than real love (sometimes)
Be honest, real love with actual humans can be an arduous task. It’s a few months of giddiness and dilated pupils, followed by a 20- to 50-year stretch of orbiting a lounge sighing, “So is the council tax being paid to the wrong sort code?” and, “But where are the ants coming from?” or, “No, you’re not wearing that bloody T-shirt to parents’ evening – you look like you work at a Wild Bean Cafe.”
Twitter and the warm “love” of a thousand nameless avatars often feels much more rewarding. Your Twitter buddies expect nothing of you except the odd grunt about the Olympic ticketing procedure or the occasional YouTube link of a Russian cat trying to get into a small box. Twitter would never pass you a phone and make you listen to an in-law talking about their gall bladder. Twitter would never ask you to spend Saturday wiping a child’s bum, then queueing for the municipal tip.
If you asked Twitter what to do this Saturday, the electronic hivemind would suggest a pop-up restaurant in a multistorey car park involving a DJ set by Jamie xx and a five-day recovery period. Twitter has never been to a Harvester. Twitter doesn’t know you can’t fit in skinny jeans. In the battle of love versus social media, Twitter will very often win out. Real-life love needs to raise its game.
One of you “doesn’t do Twitter”, the other one loves it. Luddite Larry/Louise needs to man up and get involved now. It takes 20 minutes to open a Twitter account, add your partner, a few friends and start some cyber-territorial pissing around your partner’s timeline. It is in your interests to do so. (Example: Bought this lovely coffee table for our house today. Look at our lovely children.)
It might seem noble and even bo-ho to reject social media and claim “speaking to people in real life”, “fresh air” and all that guff is more rewarding (snore), but meanwhile your loved one is most probably amassing 3,000 followers, has begun to view themselves much in the manner of the leader of a remote yet powerful hillside tribe and needs some monitoring. Do they talk of “their followers” at breakfast? Do they feel anxious if the Wi-Fi goes down and they can’t bark out another missive to their clan? You’re the queen or king of that tribe. Stake your claim now.
Choose your cyber battles
You can’t stop your partner being on the internet, it makes you look like a weirdo. Access to the web to most people feels like a basic human right. Deny your partner a Facebook or Twitter account if you want, but don’t snivel when people are swirling their fingers round their ears at talk of your name. Demanding a full password amnesty makes you look unhinged, too. However, you can set rules about where your real lives and cyber lives merge.
You can refuse to have your personal life tweeted about. You can put your foot down about being bitched about. You are allowed to set a limit time, postcoitally, of when phones are grabbed and Twitter is checked. It is not acceptable to tweet from your mother-in-law’s funeral. If you don’t want your 12-week scan results, your sperm count stats and details of your vasectomy tweeted, then say so. You are totally within your rights to object to your other half giving out signals that they’re not actually in a relationship. (“What do you mean, you’re a widower?”) You do get ultimate veto on Twitpics of yourself. This is a rule Katy Perry might have wanted to put in place before Russell Brand tweeted a picture of her sans make-up looking like someone who’d just done an eight-hour shift on the fryer at a service station KFC. A sackable offence as a husband, in my opinion. Set your rules and enforce them.
Realise nothing is secret
One of the charming things about social media, particularly Twitter, is nothing stays private for long. Ergo, if your partner is flirting with someone else in the public timeline, it should take only two or three tweets before a stranger called @toxictina47 in Missouri wades in bellowing, “You guys should get a room!!” Twitter is full of unpaid cyber-cockblocks obsessed with anyone having fun. It’s also worth keeping in mind that most Twitter frissons are being discussed constantly as a form of “meta-Twitter” on direct message and Skype, iChat, Facebook Chat.
Meta-Twitter feels a lot like Dangerous Liaisons (lots of, “Well, she’s not exactly being respectful to her husband, not that I’m one to judge, but I’ve seen her Facebook pictures and he never looks happy…”) mixed with teen-film Mean Girls (“I can’t stand @spiritpixie anyway. Never liked her. Look at that Twitpic. Her curtains could do with a boil wash. Maybe she should be doing that and not trying to pull @bigshlong46″).
The useful thing about Twitter’s bonfire of beastliness is if you tweeted, “In the event of my tragic death, who would be round my house within three hours with a sympathy card?” Twitter would be able to provide you with the exact usernames.
Your love rival is a loser, too
Before you start getting too fizzy-headed about @saucysusan37 or @manlymike flirting with your partner, keep in mind they’re largely imaginary.
Most skilled flirters on Twitter are masters of the 140-character brag. They ensnare bored lovers via a mesh of signifiers communicating how they love only the hippest bands and the coolest TV shows; that is, when they’re not leafing through Proust, updating their influential pop culture blog or running around a park at dawn doing a British Military Fitness class to tone their butt. Your love rival’s avatar is them looking saucer-eyed and skinny, limbs and face positioned perfectly to prevent spam-arm or turkey wattle-neck. They buy clothes from net-a-porter, not George at Asda.
It is completely normal to harbour desires to batter these smug twunts about the head with a hot MacBook Air. Better still, befriend them on Facebook, then sit back and enjoy them being photo-tagged looking double-chinned, and school photos that reveal they kept a collection of paperweights or pomanders. Enjoy the subsequent timeline messages from their mothers, who don’t understand how to private message, saying things like, “Darling, how is the bum fissure? I spoke to Auntie Harriet and she says plenty of fibre.”
No one is who they seem on the internet. You can have a lot of fun with this. Alternatively, be bold and orchestrate a “tweet-up” your love rival can attend, then laugh down your sleeve while you watch them awkwardly trying to recreate their cyber-swagger “IRL” (in real life). Every time your partner’s eyes silently scream, “Holy hell, save me” across the room, pretend to be checking Twitter.
Accept this is just the beginning
If you’re with a social media addict, you need to realise that Twitter and Facebook are already passé and where they go next will probably be even more terrifying. For example, right now we interact on social media platforms that encourage hundreds and thousands of friends or followers. Largeness is king. But what happens if we take our profiles and switch to smaller, cliquier, private groups? Ones that not many can see. If your lover joins Google+ with its smaller, selective “friend circles”, can you demand access to the inner echelons of that? Likewise, if your husband is DJing in a cyber-nightclub at turntable.fm, do you have to tag along, too, by the imaginary DJ booth, making your avatar scowl at other avatars rating his track and declaring themselves “fans”?
When we all finally grasp the concept of video calling – the technology is already easily available on iPads and laptops; all that is stopping us now is our reticence – how do you really stop an errant partner masturbating in a locked room in the house? And if the slickness of grindr.com finally catches on with people of all sexualities, then how can fidelity as a moral norm survive anyway?
When we all eventually submit and transfer our personal details, documents and online brands to an overhead “Cloud” that is never turnoffable, can we ever scream at our loved ones, “It’s me or the fucking computer” with any conviction again?
I need a heart-to-heart with my partner about all of these ideas. His iChat status says he’s available. When I’ve finished posting these important 140-character chunterings about the new X Factor judge line-up to my Twitter followers, I might write to him and give it a go.
• Grace Dent hosts Talking Twitter at Hoxton Hall, London, on 12 July – guardianbookshop.co.uk for details.
T-shirts in photograph made by Liz Putland
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010