Maya, a 26-year-old in San Francisco, is currently drip-feeding evidence of her relationship onto Instagram. “I’ve been in a weird, secretly-dating-for-months-but-not-official thing for a minute, and I’ve definitely maneuvered on Instagram differently as a result,” she tells me. “I’ve posted pictures of landscapes and that’s a kind of inside wink to my friends who know I’m off hiking with my mystery dude, but it also means that I get to keep my own personal brand of California nature pictures going. I’ve also posted pictures of flowers that he bought me on my story, but with absolutely no caption or comment. That’s different, because I feel like it signals to everyone — not just the people who know about my life more directly — that I’m in some kind of romantic relationship.”
What Maya describes is known as the “soft launch” of a relationship on social media, and it’s becoming increasingly common for hyper-online young people. As memorably described by TikTok star Jess Fisher, a relationship soft launch involves posting just enough about your partner on Instagram to signal to your followers that you might be in some kind of romantic relationship, while also retaining plausible deniability of the relationship’s existence. “For the girls, she will post a picture of him at a restaurant: His face will not be in it, she will tag the restaurant but not tag him,” Fisher explains. “For the guys, it will only be a photo of himself, and he will tag her as the photographer either in the description or the photo.”
Marcus, a 21-year-old New Zealander, cops to soft-launching his six-week relationship in the exact way Fisher describes. He posted a photo of himself with his partner tagged as the photographer — in the image itself rather than the caption, which seems to be about the “softest” possible launch. Posting an untagged picture of your partner is a little “harder” on the scale, especially if there’s some indication of romance; as with Trisha, a 30-year-old in Trinidad and Tobago who soft-launched her relationship of about two months “with pics of our feet next to each other standing in flowers, but no face pics or tagging.” Because of the relative degrees of permanence, anything that gets shared to the grid is ‘“harder” than an Instagram Story, too.
When I ask soft-launchers why they employ this method, they point to the risks of overcommitting to a relationship that might not last. “New relationships are such fragile things and family and friends can hound you down a lot,” Trisha explains. “I wasn’t sure how my partner might react to the attention and didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable, plus if the relationship doesn’t work out so early on, at least no one knows enough to bring it up with you and make you feel shittier.”
Lindsey, a 24-year-old in Texas who is currently soft-launching her boyfriend, agrees. “It somehow feels less risky — like, if something were to go south, I don’t have to retract any statements because I haven’t made any specifically,” she says. “We’re two-and-a-half months into our relationship, which I guess is a decent amount of time, but if I posted something formal it would feel like jinxing things.”
These insecurities all make perfect sense to me, but if the relationship is so early and fragile, why post anything about it at all?
“Mmmmm, that’s a good question,” Lindsey responds. “My friends and family are scattered across the country, and social media is an easy way to keep up with what’s going on in other people’s lives and vice versa. [The relationship] feels serious and important enough to my life that I feel like people who care about me should know about it, but it’s still too early to share lots of details.” For Marcus, it’s because he “was just fully in the honeymoon phase.” “I was absolutely smitten and wanted to introduce my partner to the world, but still be kinda sensible about it,” he says.
Despite being a risk-averse hedging exercise, soft-launching a relationship can still land people in hot water; usually because their partner is even more averse to spotlighting the relationship than they are. “I remember having a fight with a previous boyfriend about this very thing,” Maya says. “We were early into the relationship and went to a concert together and took an absolutely perfect picture. I told him that he should post it on his IG. He wasn’t having it, which indicated to me that we were in different places when it came to ‘launching’ a relationship on Instagram.”
Being with a person who feels less committed to the relationship is a classic source of pain, but the social media launch is a new way of bringing those tensions to the fore. And because this is a new area of etiquette with no hard and fast rules, it can become a delicate dance. “I really wanted to post pictures of him and be more explicit, but he was really clear that he didn’t want to tell anyone because he didn’t want people knowing his private business,” Maya continues. “So it ended up with me testing what I could post within the limits of acceptability — still flexing, kinda, but not crossing his boundaries.”
For Maya, the experience of always being the more eager launcher feels gendered, too. “It feels like that recurrent meme about how dudes will get married and only ever post a sunset,” she laughs.
All of this talk of soft launching begs an obvious question: What would constitute a “hard” launch, and when is that appropriate? Well, short of explicitly confirming the existence of the relationship in words, the consensus is that a romantic-looking grid post is as hard as it gets — and it’s not to be taken lightly.
“I’d only do that after both a full conversation about the nature of the relationship and our titles, and then after checking in about the picture specifically,” Maya says. Trisha concurs: “We’d have to have been dating for a while, had lots of conversations about where we want the relationship to go and have dealt with issues and come through them peacefully.”
Basically, she says, “We’d have to be in a very secure place to do a hard launch.”