As I scrolled through my Twitter feed this morning, I came across a number of tweets from news outlets reporting that Miley Cyrus and her boyfriend (fiance?) were officially over. “FIND OUT WHY HERE!” the tweets would exclaim. Out of curiosity – and, shamefully, slight interest – I clicked through one of the links to indeed find out why they had broken up. The proof of their break-up? Twitter. Yes, it appears Miley has stopped following her significant other on Twitter. My first instinct was to laugh; it seemed kind of ridiculous that this was the most solid evidence of a split. Yet the truth is that her decision to un-follow him on Twitter was probably very deliberate, and her way of making a public statement about their relationship status. As a young celebrity whose star status is arguably at an all-time high, she knows that people are following her every move, particularly on social media. By the simple act of clicking a button, she was able to send a message to the “twitterverse” and subsequently the rest of the news world about her personal life without making a formal statement.
Miley Cyrus is a celebrity however, and a very recognizable one at that. She has millions of people, most of them strangers, following her career and speculating about the other aspects of her life. It makes sense why she would want to use such a public platform to comment, although it is arguably an ambiguous comment, on her personal life. What I don’t understand is why “normal” people, who don’t have nearly as many people invested in their everyday lives, feel the need to make such public statements about their private relationships. I’m sure most you know what I am talking about – most of us either know people or have heard about people who broadcast the details of their personal relationships across social media platforms. I have come up with the phrase DDA, digital displays of affection, to describe this phenomenon.
Perhaps I’m not “social media-savvy” enough to understand this behavior, or maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I personally feel like these kinds of displays are unnecessary and in some ways disingenuous. Moreover, I am interested in why people are so inclined to publicize their relationships to such an extent. In looking back at some of the readings for this class, I was able to come up with an explanation which, at least for now, satisfies my curiosity: appearances. To elaborate, people exhibit DDA because they want the other people in their digital network to believe that they are in a strong, happy relationship. As Don Slater explains in his article, Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline, the cyber world allows for a detachment of the mind from the body, and gives users the opportunity to construct their desired version of reality. In other words, people on the Internet have the freedom and ability to present a custom-made identity, and theoretically control the way others see them. As Slater explains,
Cyberspace seems to promise a technical mastery, or transcendence, or mind over body, in which you can really be whatever you conjure or type (Slater 538)
To be clear, this is not to say that these people are not truly happy in their relationships or that their feelings are “fake”. On the contrary, I am sure that many of the relationships being flaunted on social media are genuine. However, taking Slater’s essay into account, I can’t help but wonder if some of these people think that by portraying a happy relationship to the cyberworld they will somehow achieve it in “real” life as well. Of course there are many instances of people displaying imperfect relationships through social media, as in the case of Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, but for this post I am more interested in looking at the displays of affection.
This notion of “you are what you type”, or “you are what you post”, can shed a lot of light on the motivations behind people’s activity on social media. In the case of DDA, I am arguing that people feel compelled to post about their love lives because they want to convince others of their romantic success. As I said before, this does not mean it is fake, but that it is publicized for show purposes. One of the most prominent features of social media, as Michael Wesch’s YouTube video demonstrated, is that it permits users to build an identity in accordance with how they want others to see them. This creates a filtered version of reality, in which people can present themselves, and their personal relationships, however they please.