When Nesi first approached me at a party a few weeks ago, I already knew how our interaction would proceed. A few demographic markers made it obvious: He was young (25, I learned later); he was dressed in casual streetwear and wearing the kind of glasses that identified him as a member of the creative class (you know the ones); and he had a boyish confidence (which I found endearing).
After issuing a flattering compliment on my “good vibes,” he took out his phone and asked me the question I knew was coming: “What’s your Insta?”
This was a pattern I’d already started to recognize, over and over again, in my love life: Men no longer asked me for my number. Instead, they wanted to follow me on Instagram. In the coming days, there would be a few faves of selfies here and there, but this would rarely extend to direct messaging or any IRL action. When I asked other friends about this behavior, they reported similar experiences: Men want handles, not digits.
In this way, Instagram effectively functions as a modern-day black book for men, turning their timeline into a Rolodex of past, future and ongoing hookups and relationships. The app allows them to stay in contact without the necessity of answering text messages; it keeps them up-to-date on what their exes and maybe exes look like without the necessity of inviting them out IRL; and the photo-based layout instantly telegraphs taste, social capital, hobbies and interests without the necessity of actual conversation.
I was no anomaly for Nesi — he approaches all girls with this same question. “Nine times out of ten, girls are like, ‘All right, cool,’” he says when I ask to interview him for this story. “They’ll type their names in, and I’ll follow them.”
I was the 10th girl. My personal Instagram is by no means a well-curated space. It’s private, and it has an audience of fewer than 150 people—mostly close friends and trusted acquaintances. My grid contains unedited selfies, blurry snapshots taken from poor angles, closely cropped photos of objects presented without context and screenshots of articles I’ve read. My Instagram story often features out-of-focus footage of my night out or videos of my friends and I goofing off in unflattering ways.
Simply put: It’s not always the kind of content I want to present to a potential partner.
So when Nesi asked me for my handle, I politely declined and offered my number instead. “You got a boyfriend on your Insta?” he asked me at the time.
Instagram, he tells me now, is part of his vetting process. It’s how he determines compatibility (and feasibility) before initiating a first date. “If I ask a girl for her number, it’s like, you don’t know what situation they’re in. You don’t know if they got a man. You don’t wanna be overstepping your boundaries. With Instagram, we can be friends and I can see where you’re at, rather than just blindly aim and shoot.”
There’s also, he says, low emotional risk when it comes to Instagram. “Asking for a girl’s number used to be a big deal,” Nesi says. “Girls would be like, ‘No, you can’t have my number,’ and that shit hurts.”
It’s a good place to determine reciprocity as well. In this context, favs aren’t just social capital but romantic indicators. “If you go through and like at least one or two of my pictures, I know, All right, cool, she’s digging me. Or: She wants me. Or: She likes what I post, which equals, she’s interested,” he says.
Selfie-faving aside, if there’s a hierarchy to digital relationships, Instagram ranks at the bottom, because it’s the easiest, least reciprocal form of communication. “The IG is just for intro,” says Ibrahim, a 23-year-old from California. “If it goes further, it moves to Snapchat. And finally, a number.”
Mariam, a high school teacher in California, says she observes these rituals play out among her students every day: “Most of the youths start their relationships on Insta these days before moving to iMessage.”
In 2015, Tinder started allowing users to include their Instagram photos to their Tinder profile — a feature that implies Instagram functions as a better way to get to know someone than their Tinder profile. “Instagram is kinda like a picture diary so you get to see what I’m about,” Ibrahim explains. “And I get to see what you’re about as well as what vibe I’m getting from you and your interests. If they’re funny or not. If I text someone, then I gotta start from square one.”
Both Nesi and Ibrahim admit, however, that they haven’t had any meaningful relationships materialize from Instagram. Responding to a tweet I posted last week, many women told me that their potential hookups and relationships ultimately became stagnant Instagram flirtations that didn’t seem likely to progress — just aimless faving and shallow DM interactions, if you’re lucky.
For instance, Noor*, a writer in Canada, says she met her crush in person, but the relationship immediately migrated to Instagram — and then stayed there indefinitely. “At one point we had to exchange numbers to talk about something work-related. But even though we went through that step, it’s only Instagram DMs ALL THE TIME,” she says. “I think there’s a safety to it? No matter how much we talk or how deep it gets, it feels noncommittal.”
If there’s an app capable of lowering the barrier to relationship entry even further, it’s Snapchat. Many of the younger people who responded to my Twitter call out said they were much more likely to get Snap handle requests than ones on Instagram. Snap streaks — the term used to describe multiple snap exchanges in a row — have become a unique measure of social compatibility in and of themselves, with long snap streaks indicating a similar protracted romantic interest.
“Snapchat is sort of a weird limb,” says Mariam, the high school teacher. “One of my kids had a snap streak of 300 days with her ex-boyfriend after they broke up. It’s somehow the most intimate [because snaps typically happen only between two people and no records of them exist], but also the most removed. These kids keep snap streaks going with people they no longer even talk to face-to-face when they see each other in hallways.”
Rejection, too, is easier on Snapchat, says Ronald, a 22-year-old St. Louis native. “You can take an L, but then it disappears, which is a nice change of pace.”
The power — but ultimate limitation — of both Snapchat and Instagram is that they grant people access to you without necessitating any form of reciprocity. A crush can scroll through your life (e.g., family graduations, birthday parties, work promotions) without saying a word to you. Once you’ve demonstrated dateability, fuckability or whatever the case may be via your online aesthetic, a man can slide into your DMs with a winking face or a fire emoji when the mood strikes but never actually see you again in real life.
As for me, while writing this article, I was alerted that Nesi had faved my most recent Instagram selfie. My last text to him, however, has gone unanswered.