There is a lot of sex on the Internet. There are teenagers making love to Hot Pockets on Vine and 27-year-old medical students auctioning off their virginity. There are hookup apps and dating apps. But there are also just… people. People talking—chatting, tweeting, and commenting. And wherever you gather a group of people together, they will inevitably start flirting.
As we spend more and more of our lives online, inevitably we discover ourselves flirting with people we’ve never met IRL ("in real life"); you might even call it having a crush. And of all social media, Twitter seems particularly suited to this kind of experience.
“There’s something about the dynamism of Twitter that feels both more truthful and more mysterious,” freelance journalist Johannah King-Slutzky wrote to me in an email. “You have lots of intimate knowledge of a person but you can’t see them, which is like a dating game-show or Cyrano de Bergerac or something. It’s a trope.
“Unlike other social media, on Twitter your profile doesn’t look like you, it acts and speaks like you.”
There is always going to be a divide, however, between our public persona(e)—whether presented via Twitter or Facebook—and who we are in the physical realm.
“[On Twitter] you get all the fun, interesting parts of someone without having to deal with the things that are difficult or dull about them,” science enthusiast and DJ Lily Benson told me over Gchat. “They are not presenting to you, for the most part—or at least in any way that actually affects you—their idiosyncrasies, emotional unavailability, or the way they chew with their mouth open.”
“I tweet about crying all the time,” she continued. “People think that’s cute. IRL I think they would mostly find it distressing.”
New York magazine's Maureen O’Connor—no relation—is similarly disparaging about her Internet presence. “I’m fucking annoying online. My Twitter is super annoying,” she told me. “I’m way better in person. Then again in person I can just LAUGH UPROARIOUSLY at my own jokes to hide the fact that they’re only mediocre.”
I feel the same way. It says it right there in my Twitter bio: “honestly idk why you would follow this account.” Why would you? I am my worst self on Twitter: neurotic, obnoxious, overly cynical—completely irritating in every way. I am also all of those things IRL, but I’m much better at hiding them until you get to know me well enough and then there’s no escaping it. You’re in too deep at that point.
Then again, this might be a little bit unfair. We all know that the information Twitter users present about themselves is mediated by the process of writing out that thought or observation and then deciding to hit “tweet.” It’s just as easy to perform an unflattering self-image as it is the opposite. And even in performance, there is honesty—which is why meeting people in person you’ve come to know online is such a pleasure.
“I love meeting Twitter friends. It is the best,” human bot Kevin Nguyen told me. “When you meet people you know from the Internet, you’re already weirdly close.”
The relationships that arise amongst people who interact mostly (or exclusively) online skip over many of the steps through which more conventional, IRL relationships—whether platonic or romantic—must proceed.
“I happen to like the obfuscation of biography on Twitter, because I think the stories we tell about ourselves get in the way of intimacy,” offered King-Slutzky. “There’s also very little OMG-time-to-share-something-meaningful on Twitter which is something I do IRL and on dating apps and which is mostly counterproductive.”
“I often feel like Twitter knows me better than many of my friends do,” she concluded.
But that familiarity is not without its pitfalls. Kickstarter art and fashion project specialist Nicole He said she doesn’t let herself get Internet crushes at all: “Partly it's because of my history with online dating, where you think someone might be potentially cool but then you meet them in real life and it’s just the worst. That’s how I approach anybody’s Internet persona.”
She added the caveat that she doesn’t really get crushes IRL, either. “I’m dead inside,” she said.
Nguyen, on the other hand, lets himself crush—but not too hard. “Since the things that factor into an ‘Internet crush’ for me are so shallow—a thing he/she wrote, a series of funny tweets—I recognize that these aren’t actually things that are romantically appealing,” he told me.
So what is a Twitter user to do with this feeling we have toward someone we do not know very well, but to whom we are, nonetheless, drawn—perhaps even specifically for that reason. And moreover, if your Twitter crush is on someone you might also find yourself physically attracted to, what then?
The process of moving a Twitter crush into the direction of an IRL relationship—or even just a date—is long, drawn-out, and probably painful.
“I think the ideal order is: mutual follow, excess faving, @-reply flirting, faving @-reply flirtations, DMs, Gmail, whether email or chat, then texting/IRL concurrently,” BuzzFeed’s Katie Heaney speculated. “I exercise ‘caution’ to the point of ridiculousness, where I give things months to fester.”
“Before transitioning to IRL I would try to ask yourself if you’ve built up enough interest in this person’s actual life, so you feel confident you’ll have things to talk about,” she said. “Twitter lends itself to zinginess, and it takes longer to get that IRL, and it can be weird to show up expecting to banter sexily immediately and then remember that talking doesn’t work like @-replies.”
Yes, this sounds exhausting, and like it could take forever. But maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.
“That forced slowness can be really nice! I kinda like distance because having someone be all up in my space isn’t super compatible with my lifestyle or temperament,” said Benson. But it can also be a risk: “Twitter crushes are dangerous because they can get SO built up and be SO disappointing.”
As always it seems the best way to avoid disappointment is to lower your expectations.
“I think it’s more of a friend-crush when you crush on someone online,” O’Connor said. “I do think that online friends ‘count’ as friends, though. I think of it as a ‘crush’ if you’re hoping for more interaction—which could just mean more online interaction, or hoping to make the jump to IRL friends. Which is roughly the same principle as the crushes you have in your regular life.
“Although if they seem physically attractive, you might hold out hope that there would be sex sometime too.”
Illustration by Jason Reed