I Learned To Love Online. Now Every Romance Leaves An Internet Trail.
Modern flings come with text messages, playlists, and posts — evidence that remains even when the love is fleeting.
By Alice Berry
The first friend I made online was a girl named Bella. At least that’s how she was known to me—I’ve since learned her real name, which sounds nothing like Bella but has the same feeling. We met in the comments on The Clique author Lisi Harrison’s blog, Blah-g. Suddenly, my life was online.
From Blah-g, I met more internet crushes on Twitter, and soon after, on Tumblr. Tumblr is where I met my first and only girlfriend at age 14. It ended disastrously, the only way it could have for two lonely girls living in Arkansas and England, respectively. Despite that, she became one of my closest friends. The relationship rested on a digital foundation: images of girls with their temples pressed together, excerpts from love poetry, gifs of favorite TV couples. Even after our weeks-long relationship ended, we continued to send each other poems we’d written about our doomed romance (always screenshots from the Notes app). We dreamed of traveling Europe together and had tags on our Tumblrs to match. We're still in touch — just last spring, I went to London and visited her.
I don’t get embarrassed talking about that relationship any more than you would talking about a high school fling. I don’t need to give you the stats on how many people meet their significant others on dating apps now (about 70% of us, according to Forbes). My ex and I were just two people experimenting with dating online before it became popular, before Hinge existed, before we were old enough to be flirting online at all. But the way we came together has shaped all of my romances since then. It seemed entirely natural to scroll through someone’s likes on Twitter or read into their Spotify playlists. I know now it’s totally psychotic, but most of my friends do the same things, too.
I see more and more people, even ones who aren’t “chronically online,” doing the things that my ex-girlfriend and I did: compiling a collection of images of and for them via Instagram story highlights, sending them bits of media that remind each of the other, constructing entire digital worlds for each other. Having a Tumblr tag for a girl signified that my ex and I were something serious. Alix Earle broke up with a guy because he wouldn’t post her on Instagram. It’s the same thing: It’s not real if it’s not online.
The memorabilia of my relationship with my ex-girlfriend had to be digital because of distance. It was the only proof we had of us. But now, even people who meet in-person, or who live in the same city, digitize their relationships. When the flowers die, the picture of the bouquet is all you have. The movie tickets from your first date only ever lived in your phone. You probably remember the day they said they liked you because you texted your friends about it on the way home.
If I sound sanctimonious, it’s only because I feel territorial about this method of loving another person. I went through it early, did it more clumsily, and perfected it.
My freshman year of college, I was head over heels for a boy from New Jersey who communicated with me in cryptic texts and Snapchats. I went back to my parents’ house for spring break and he sent me pictures from the beach as I drove aimlessly, wishing I were somewhere more interesting. My nose started bleeding the instant my phone lit up with a notification from him. It was an image that would have done numbers on Tumblr: my lovestruck face, a line of red trickling down my philtrum, outside a gas station in Arkansas. Suddenly I was somewhere more interesting.
I was the love interest in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. I was glamorous and tortured, bound to be misunderstood. I was soft grunge. In retrospect, my nose only bled because of the nightly Benadryl I was taking for eczema at my dermatologist's recommendation. It didn't matter. It meant we were fated.
That boy is still real to me mostly because of that image I have of myself, because of a series of texts I took screenshots of and saved to my laptop. I remember the time we kissed at a party because I sent a video of myself talking about it to a friend afterward.
He’s hardly the only one. In the summer of 2020, I spent most weekend nights sharing a bottle of prosecco by the Arkansas River with my crush. These moments are dear to me, but more precious still are the playlists he made for me that I spent hours listening to and decoding. I saved most of them, but when he started dating a girl and removed the playlists from his Spotify profile, I felt betrayed. It wasn’t just jealousy or the sting of that soft rejection. I felt that he was trying to take our past from me, not just the record of it, but the history itself. The internet made me feel our connection was permanent, the internet reminded me it was temporary. The crush faded but still I can’t forgive him for it.
Another former college fling and I reconnected during the pandemic. I saw him recently when I visited the city he now lives in, and he was sweet to me in too many ways to count. None of it felt more real than when he texted me saying that I was strange in a charming way, or called me stunning in my Instagram DMs.
None of this is to suggest that the internet, or AI, or whatever, will replace human relationships for most of us. Our relationships live online, but they are still with another person, mediated by an iPhone. I wouldn’t have cared about Tumblr for very long if it weren’t for the girls I was online with, falling in love with and on the internet for the very first time together.
I’m not sure what gets lost and what gets saved when we love online. I know that any time I meet a lover, I’m already thinking of how I might post about it.