By: Jenny Foughner

The young’uns among you might not remember this, but there was a time, long, long ago, when the term ‘social networking’ referred to happy hours, and ICQ was far a more ubiquitous acronym than DSL. Back then, we were blissfully unaware that ‘weirdo’ pastimes like Friendster and Livejournal were but a precursor to the maelstrom of technological overshare in which we now find ourselves, and we had absolutely no idea that we’d spend most of our days not on the playground, but instead in the midst of “tweets,” “blogs,” “tumblrs,” and whatever else it is the youth of America do now instead of sitting in AOL chatrooms all day.

It’s nice to be able to keep in touch without taking up a quill and relying on the efficiency of the pony express, but few would disagree that technology has thrown a serious wrench into the machine of real-life interpersonal relationships. Not only can we now cyber-stalk everyone we’ve ever dated, but we also have access to sufficient information with which to make snap judgments about people we’ve just met, well before they have a chance to refute our findings.

If you had told college me that late-twenties me would look back wistfully on the “simple” days of brooding AIM away-messages, college me would have laughed in your face and taken another shot of Goldschlager. It’s funny how it switches like that. However, all we can do is forge ahead, so I’d like to take a moment – just sit right there, please – to tell you a few things about managing relationships in a web-obsessed world.

The Prelude

Despite my grumblings, I do believe that the best-invention-in-modern-history award should to go to the internet (Penicillin was cool, but come ON. KEYBOARD CAT), especially for the way it’s streamlined our courting and mating rituals. Yes, sometimes it demands that you lower your standards (Craigslist), and occasionally it requires you to suspend your qualms about shameless self-promotion (EHarmony), but the worldwide web nevertheless provides instant access to smorgasbord of potential partners, many of whom are all too eager to declare themselves in the market for whatever you’re selling. The internet also makes it possible to communicate with these potential partners instantly, which gets points for its gratification potential but loses out in the ‘playing it cool’ department. We all know that there are certain rules of decorum to follow when engaging in pre-relationship flirtation. On the one hand, you want to make your interest known, but on the other, you want to appear otherwise-engaged-enough so as not to ‘come on too strong.’ So what do you do when the girl you just met (and dug) shows up in your gchat list? Or, conversely, do you friend the girl whose number you got at the bar last night and allow her access to the embarrassing photos of you at homecoming two years ago? Important quandaries, these.

After you first meet a girl, if she knows your full name, then she’ll probably look you up on Facebook or MySpace (she might also Google you, so if you haven’t already, Google yourself to find out what kind of embarrassing info she’ll discover). If your FaceSpace profile(s) is (are) public, then there’s a good chance that she’ll either judge you for being behind the security-setting times or judge you for the sheer number of shirtless hotties riddling your photo albums (… so after you Google yourself, you should probably go ahead and privatize all of your profiles).

If she requests your friendship on a social networking site, then she’s going to expect a prompt response, and, depending on your level of intimacy, she might expect an accompanying message. If she gchats you, then she’s going to sit nervously until you respond, so you should probably either go invisible or try to get back to her in a timely fashion.

However, some women are just not into e-communication with guys they’re interested in dating. It breaks the whole “mysterious” wall, and can often lead to obsessive stalking in which they have no interest in engaging. My advice during this precarious time in the relationship is to stick to texting, calling and emailing; if Facebooking or gchatting are going to happen, let her make the first move. This is where relationships are made or broken… you really can’t be too cautious.

The Honeymoon

No matter if you meet your paramour old-fashioned-like (30 drinks into your night at the local watering hole) or new-fangled-like (30 messages into a comment thread on the pros and cons of universal healthcare), there will come a time when you have to address the elephant in cyberspace: how, and when, do you introduce your fledgling relationship to the world of tag-able pictures and common friends? How public your relationship becomes is a statement both about your personal comfort level with public displays of connection and about how ‘real’ the relationship is, so whether you like it or not, there are serious pros and cons for going public or staying private.

When you go public, you’re putting yourself at risk for heartbreak down the road if things don’t work out. You’ve also exposed your relationship to everyone in your social e-circle, which, for most people, doesn’t seem to be limited to real friends anymore. However, you’re also making it clear that you’re into the girl you’re dating and unavailable to the millions of other girls clamoring for your attention, which is a great way to demonstrate how you’re really feeling without having to come right out and say it.

When you stay private, you’re avoiding telling a whole lot of people that you’re now off the market, but you’re also effectively saying “F you, cyber-overshare, I’m keeping my real-life relationship in my real life.” Don’t get me wrong; this latter sentiment is a great thing. It’s nobody’s business who you date, do or dump unless you want to make it their business, but in today’s web-centric culture, staying off the grid can have unexpected repercussions. One, it could make your girlfriend worry that you’re not as into the relationship as you claim to be (before we get too far into this, let’s just all agree that this is all really silly. It doesn’t make it any less true, though). Two, it could make it seem like you’re “keeping the door open” for other girls, just in case something better comes along.

The bottom line: this is a personal decision, so if you have a strong preference one way or the other, make it clear why you do or don’t want to make your relationship public to avoid a misunderstanding. If your girlfriend has a strong preference one way or the other, then the worst thing to do is to ignore her in hopes that she’ll eventually drop it. Haven’t you learned? She never just drops it.

The Denoument

The most difficult period in a relationship is the span of time between when you decide you’re going to break up with your girlfriend and when you actually gather yourself together to do it. Personally, I’m a fan of the band-aid approach (get it done quickly, minimize the pain), but if you’re stuck somewhere between “together” and “apart,” then at least try to keep your thoughts in your head and out of cyberspace.

People have some sort of misconception that things tweeted or posted stay within a select group of individuals, but the whole POINT of social networking is to disseminate information swiftly to a large group of people, so that’s just silly. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you have any privacy on the interwebs. And if you’re trying to be passive aggressive (or “get her to break up with you”), just stop it. The appropriate way to clue in your girlfriend that something is amiss is not through an emo song lyric or flirtatious post to someone else, it is in person, like a man.

The Bang/Whimper

When The End – whether dramatic and prolonged or short and uneventful – finally arrives, it’s tempting to cut all e-ties in a ceremonial severing of the cord that sets you free to pursue more worthy targets. However, immediately de-friending, blocking, or otherwise exorcising your ex from your life is premature (and a little harsh), especially if there’s a chance you’ll get back together. Similarly, checking her updates obsessively or posting angrily on her wall will only make you look like a twelve-year-old, which will do nothing for your ability to score again with the object of your ire (or with any of her friends, for that matter).

In short, although the internet is a hotbed of juvenile detritus, resist the urge to revert back to high school when a breakup hits. If you must, wait the customary two months before blocking, disabling, de-friending, whatever. At least you can blame her obsessive stalking, and not your raging immaturity, should the subject ever come up in the future.