Suddenly there are two wine glasses and a torso on the other side of the table. A backlit silhouette in a sunset photo. Another pair of feet in this precious snap on the beach. And a stranger gradually begins to colonize the feed of one of our contacts on social networks. There isn’t a sufficiently explicit message and the photos don’t show her in a loving attitude. It can be a friend. A friend with whom you often dine out, go on trips with, attend parties with, watch sunsets with, and take romantic walks hand in hand. The Americans call this technique of shy entry into the virtual world Soft Launch Boyfriend.
The term went viral thanks to a monologue and a tweet from comedian Rachel Sennott in the summer of 2020 and hasn’t stopped growing in popularity since. It is the transfer of a marketing technique to the world of relationships: the soft launch is the limited and gradual presentation of a product and can be translated into Spanish as a pilot or soft launch. A smooth presentation is a content strategy that also makes sense on social media. It gradually introduces the followers to a new character in the narrative that its users make of their lives. It does this by minimizing the risk of introducing a love that may not be final. It’s also a frivolous and fun strategy. A way to add meaning, to make people ask: Who is this new person?
“I think it’s the most common way to introduce potential couples on social media while they’re assessing whether or not the relationship is going to happen,” explains couples psychologist Lorenlay Fraile. “I did it myself in my last relationship, not knowing it had a name,” she admits. Perhaps the term is so well received because it baptizes a trend that everyone has naturally and unconsciously adopted. “In the age of Instagram, starting a new relationship requires crafting a PR strategy,” wryly explained an article in The Atlantic magazine last year.
Introducing a partner to society can be stressful. “It makes you look exposed and vulnerable, and it gives you feedback about the person you’re with,” says Fraile. It’s a step designed to cement but also test a relationship. And this process, which used to be completely analogue, has also been transferred to the digital environment in recent years. Because of this, strategies have been devised to cushion the importance of this big move with each new couple.
One of Facebook’s shock effects in the first few months of its existence was the creation of a section where the user had to indicate whether or not they were in a relationship. This detail was crucial for the success of the social network, which is also reflected in the film of the same name, directed by David Fincher. Whether it was for flirting or just gossiping, people showed keen interest in checking their contacts’ relationship status. Facebook had – and has – different ways of summarizing something as complex as a relationship. “Single” or “for two” were the two originals, although alternatives have been added over the years. This reductionist binarism made the introduction of a pair a little more definitive and official. Seeing on the wall that a contact had changed their status from “single” to “in a relationship” (let alone the opposite) sparked a range of reactions and comments. To continue the marketing parable, more than a soft or pilot presentation, it appeared to be the presentation event of the new iPhone.
Social networks have changed a lot since then and so has the way of presenting oneself in them. Over the years, users have learned to count themselves to control the narrative of their love life. And the ones who know best how to do it are the famous. Singer Jennifer Lopez revealed that she’s rekindled her relationship with actor Ben Affleck with a photo of the two kissing in a slideshow carousel on Instagram. It’s an official presentation, more similar to what it was 20 years ago when they first started dating. For its part, media outlet Kourtney Kardashian confirmed her romance with musician Travis Barker with a close-up of their clasped hands, which sounds more like a gentle (and cheesy) presentation.
The boyfriend’s gentle introduction or his official launch are crucial to understanding how a couple presents themselves in society, and this isn’t just limited to public figures now that everyone has a little virtual speaker. “Social networks can somewhat mark the identity of a relationship and are sometimes a source of conflict,” says psychologist Lorenlay Fraile. The amount of information the couple chooses to share, the extent to which they value their intimacy, or even whether they choose to hide their relationship are crucial aspects in calibrating the content that is shown.
According to an analysis by Pew Research, 28% of social media users share or discuss aspects of their life as a couple or their dates. This percentage varies greatly by age. The younger the user is, the more likely they are to show or talk about their partner. So will 48% of youth between the ages of 18 and 29, a proportion that drops to 34% for those aged 30 to 49 and diverges for adults between the ages of 50 and 64 (14%). Only 7% of those over 65 will do it.
“Having a partner and showing them in society is overrated and unconsciously perceived as synonymous with success,” reflects Fraile. This explains the excess of sugar on Instagram, a place where the photos go through a social and personal filter before applying a Valencia filter that further distorts reality. “What I post on the Internet is the image that others will have of my life, and many people today build their self-esteem on this identity,” says the psychologist.
In this context, the gentle introduction of a couple on social networks may seem like a frivolous and absurd trend, something that only affects very young people or those very addicted to mobile phones. But what matters is how couples present themselves in public, including in front of the digital public. The way we tell ourselves, how we project ourselves, is important. And the way business language and techniques infiltrate them.
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