I seem to be a magnet for weird and wonderful situations. I lost my Kindle while overseas and ended up having an email exchange with its new owner, which culminated in him returning it. I’ve had someone sit on me on a train. I’ve been given food by complete strangers and just recently, an Iranian man signed up to Instagram using my email address. I find these incidents hilarious and have usually followed through on my impulse to share them with my Facebook ‘friends’, but recently I’ve been reflecting on just how much a person’s social media persona impacts on their perceived marriageability.
Social media is all smoke and mirrors. It’s the ultimate power trip: controlling exactly who sees what and when they see it. Consequently, many of us appear far cooler, smarter, funnier and more religiously knowledgeable than we actually are. The dangers of this editing process are manifold. The tragic 2014 suicide of 19 year old Madison Holleran, whose inner turmoil was never evident in her sparkly social media persona, is just one example of how steep the gap between perception and reality can be.
For Muslims, this gap can be particularly perilous if and when there is little opportunity for IRL interaction between males and females. When people have barely spoken in person, the online space will assume far more weight than it actually merits. The guy on the MSA shura, the girl from that event, and the fellow members of an organisation all become ‘friends’ on Facebook, despite only the very slightest offline acquaintance, and the psychological games may begin.
As always, women have far more to lose in this skewed state of affairs. Just as women who appear too loud/forceful/silly in person are encouraged to ‘tone it down’ to find a husband, women who appear this way online will often find that male Facebook friends will disregard them in their search for a wife. This leads to an interesting phenomena whereby women feel pressured to ‘soften’ their image. A woman who posts many political items often simultaneously posts glamorous selfies and photos of cakes she’s baked. This could be viewed as a reflection of people’s multifaceted identities, but it could also be seen as a way to even things out, a reassurance that, yes, I’m smart but I’m also good wife material. Women who are seen to regularly interact with men on Facebook are deemed to be too ‘friendly’, despite the fact that they may rarely even see these men in person.
Of course, it isn’t only women who suffer from snap judgments online. Men have been barred from consideration for the way they conduct themselves online too, whether it be a stray selfie or a penchant for posting to many photos of cars. People who don’t even know basic facts about each other suddenly feel qualified to make judgments on their compatibility, all based off a Facebook profile. We might scoff at people for swiping left based on a Tinder profile, but we’re in effect doing the same thing when we refuse to consider someone because they posted a whiny rant or a grammatically incorrect status update. With Muslims, this can get even more specific. Depending on where we sit on the Islamic spectrum, a post quoting X scholar can immediately boost or ruin our chance of making a good impression on someone.
The safest path is simply to remain largely inactive and silent. Online silence implies mystery, unavailability, and where women are concerned, modesty. Basic psychology tells us that we desire that which is perceived to be unavailable, and if people are very active online, our subconscious can make that person seem less desirable. Another safe path to take is that of least contention, posting only generic Muslim stuff like updates on Gaza and the occasional family photo. While this may not necessarily attract suitors by the bucketful, it can ensure that no one is put off either. This is why we see so many nearly identical Muslim female profiles, decked out in sunsets, modestly-looking-off-into-the-distance-photos and Yasmin Mogahed quotes. It’s bland, but it often works.
In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that an online persona means nothing. If racism, misogyny and/or general crudity form part of someone’s online interactions, it’s fairly safe to assume that they could in fact be a racist, misogynist creep. If someone has thoughtful contributions to make in online discussions, at the very least we can assume that they have some meaningful thoughts. But what it doesn’t tell us is whether those contributions were edited and re-edited within an inch of their lives, or more importantly, whether their stated commitment to women’s rights in that Facebook discussion group will translate to them being less of a jerk to women in their personal lives.
It seems counter-intuitive that our partners will likely be from outside of our online friendzone. After all, these are the people who are most likely to share our religious and political views, as well as our sense of humour. But it seems that most of us have already dismissed those in our cyber-vicinity, often for the flimsiest of reasons. We make assumptions based on essentially meaningless things, like how many people comment on someone’s posts or the fact that someone uses lots of emojis. Tenderness and vulnerability, those cornerstones of relationships, just don’t translate well into cyber-language. But this is how things just seem to work now. In his 2015 book Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari reminds us of this, saying:
We have two selves: a real-world self and a phone self, and the nonsense our phone selves do can make our real-world selves look like idiots…The person on the other end sees no difference between your two selves.
If we want to get really tactical, perhaps the smart thing to do is not to let anyone we’re interested in inside our cyber-world, at least initially. This eliminates the possibility of any snap judgments being made before things are even off the ground. Once things are off the ground and we actually know the person, it hardly matters if we add them and discover their collection of cat videos. By this time, we’re enchanted by their smile, the way they hold their teacup and the way they jiggle their baby niece. Intimate things. Beautiful things. The kinds of things we just can’t learn from Facebook.
Zeynab blogs about love and faith on LoveHaqtually.com