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#LikeForLike: social media romance and heartbreaks in India

On Valentine's Day, a look at how young urban Indians are finding love online, but not on dating apps and matrimonial sites

The possibilities of finding a romantic connection on social media extends beyond their usual offering of promoting business ventures and/or staying in touch with friends
The possibilities of finding a romantic connection on social media extends beyond their usual offering of promoting business ventures and/or staying in touch with friends (Photo by Pratik Gupta on Unsplash)

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Finding love on social media and building amorous connections online takes a unique form with every user. From meeting strangers in the comments section of a meme page, to breaking up over someone's tweets suggesting infidelity — the idea of carrying out a relationship online is wholly different from pursuing the same on mainstream matrimonial websites or dating apps. The possibilities of finding a romantic connection on social media channels also extends beyond their usual offering of promoting business ventures and/or staying in touch with friends.

Kartik Chandra Chaturvedi (30) found himself in a long distance online relationship that he had forged over Facebook in 2019. “It started from a comment I’d left under a meme and she slid in my DM to talk to me,” he recalls.

Growing up, Chaturvedi was familiar with his mother’s pen-pal from Canada, whom she had kept in touch with over time via Facebook. Seeing his mother keep in touch with her friend of decades gave him hope and encouragement in pursuing his relationship forward with the girl he met on Facebook. He says that they found comfort in each other and scaled their relationship with in-person hangouts and dinners at home. Eventually, they introduced one another to their siblings, friends and families.

When Chaturvedi and his girlfriend parted ways almost two years after they officially started dating, he realised there was little in common, “I don’t think we’d have dated each other and gone down this road if we’d have met on a dating app.” It was the happenstance of finding someone under a meme’s comment section that led to two years of a relationship – but he learned more about himself.

In another happenstance of bonding with a stranger online, Nirati Majumdar (26) met her boyfriend of 12 years now, on Orkut, a community microblogging site that is now defunct. “We found each other on a Shahrukh Khan fans community,” she says while adding that their 12-year-long online relationship went through several ups and downs including one break-up in between. “We were kids when we met on social media. We practically grew up together and have seen each other through school, college, career changes and everything in between. Even though we have grown up to be very different adults, that initiation of finding each other online at the same time binds us.” And so, she says they wouldn’t have gotten together had they met on a dating app now.

“We met on FB”

Despite having found some meaning through their relationships online – whether in learning about themselves like in Chatuvedi’s case, or finding a long-term companion in Majumdar’s case – most such people are plagued with how best to answer the big “where did you meet” question. While this is true of couples who met on dating or online matrimonial apps too, there seems to be some additional sense of taboo if one has met their partner on a social media not specific to finding a match.

Mumbai based creative professional Manav Parekh (37), found himself sidestepping the question when it came to telling his mother where he’d met his (then) girlfriend. “I told her we met through friends. It was based on a technicality. We did have Twitter friends in common so I leveraged that.”

Parekh, an early adopter of Twitter in India, has had three relationships, all of which started on Twitter. “Approaching women in India is far removed from the reality of our lives. In Mumbai, I can perhaps list a few upscale bars where you can initiate a conversation without intending to stir drama, but that’s about it,” Parekh says.

In India, socio-cultural conditioning restricts offline freedom and agency to youth. They are therefore limited to online avenues to start conversations with strangers, in the hope of finding a companion, love or just a consensual, casual dalliance.

“Every app is a dating app if you’re Indian enough,” reads a trending meme format. It draws on this very limitation, and implies the desperation on their part to hit on someone, anyone on any online portal.

Journey of a comment section: from soul “sister” to romantic “partner”

Despite this, there are counter-claims by South Asian couples on social media legitimising these connections with strangers, on platforms not meant, traditionally, for finding partners. In 2018, Twitter urged users across the world to share their stories of meeting “friend, significant other, business partner or someone else” on the platform with the hashtag “We Met On Twitter”. 

In January 2021, the hashtag started trending soon after an Indian user shared her wedding announcement with a screenshot of her first Twitter exchange and the wedding photograph with the same person. Several others followed the suit by sharing their relationship status using the same hashtag, in the same format. While this trend highlights that the users are open to initiating lasting connections through a stray comment or a tweet, it is interesting to note the shape shifting nature these connections acquire.

Bushra Hasan, a 26-year-old working professional in Bangalore credits her partner Ayesha for helping her come out of the closet. “We used to talk all the time and I called her my soul sister,” says Hasan, who now identifies as a panromantic asexual.

Their paths first crossed in 2015 on a Facebook page, writing comments under a meme. Soon, they befriended each other online, met in person and opened up about their lives. “Without her, I’d probably be using dating apps and looking at boys,” she says.

Coming to terms with her identity and their journey together took time, as Hasan confessed to writing off their first kiss as a drunken escapade due to internalised homophobia as a part of her conditioning. In 2019, when they had both moved to the same city for work, they decided to live together. “It wasn’t until the lockdown in 2020 when we found ourselves at home with each other and realised we have grown in each other’s presence and that we love each other,” she says.

Dr Dhiren Borisa, Assistant Professor of Gender and Society at Jindal Global Law School says, “even within hostile heteronormative environment, people with ‘queer’ desires have often learnt ways to recraft, reinscribe, reimagine their worlds to survive”. He explains how technology offered speed and expanse to the experience of locating queer partners. “From stray eye contacts, a shy smile on roads and public places to read if there are others like you, we have accelerated to spaces online.”

To understand how social media prominently emerged as a “a site of experimentation” he traces the genealogy of virtual spaces over the years – from email lists to chat rooms to more community driven social media networks. “People made secret groups, often anonymised themselves,” he adds. However, he says “people still negotiate exclusive dating platforms secretly”. Dr Borisa lists “Instagram” as one of the more popular dating apps today and adds that “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram all facilitate [the possibility of] parallel lives where people can transgress social boundaries for validation and approval”.

URL to IRL: Is there merit in social media dating?

To safeguard oneself from these parallel digital identities, individuals connecting on dating apps or matrimonial sites often run Google searches of the people they’re interested in, or ensure that they have a few mutual friends or common shared hobbies and interests listed on their profiles. This is also done as a measure to avoid getting catfished by strangers. People forming relationships over social platforms not meant for dating too follow the same practice.

However, having been in relationships through dating apps and social media platforms both, Ekata Lahiri (24), feels that there is a performative element to dating app matches, something that is not true in finding potential partners on social media. “With 6 odd photographs and a limited space for writing about yourself, everyone’s putting on a front on dating apps, but on social media you can really see the person for who they are. Go through their tweets and you’ll know more about them than what they offer on their dating app bio,” they say.

Delhi based filmmaker Vidhaat Raman (34) also agrees that the dating apps operate more on “performativity” than “authenticity”. Having met his first girlfriend online on Orkut in 2006, he says that even though they broke up because long distance relationship wasn’t feasible for both, it would be hard to find a match like that on dating apps since the choices there lack depth. He says, “Dating apps allow people to be whoever they want for a while, however, they cannot run a con that long on [other] social media. You are ultimately surrounded by your friends and things you like and you do, showing the real you.”

Anisha Saigal is an entertainment and culture writer and researcher from New Delhi

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