LOS ANGELES - In September, tennis player Caroline Wozniacki took a photo of her boyfriend, golfer Rory McIlroy, asleep in bed - shirt off, eyes closed, slackened maw resting peacefully on his hand - then shot it off to her half a million Twitter followers. When Wozniacki's friend Serena Williams saw the photo, she tweeted: "Omg Caro u are soooo mean!!!! Love it!!" Replied Wozniacki: "I know ha-ha!! Can't fall asleep anymore! Always keeping an eye open lol!" This week, rumors surfaced that Wozniacki and McIlroy had ended their highly publicized two-year sports star romance, and that Wozniacki's social media behavior was to blame.
Wozniacki has since denied the split ("I'm so tired of the rumors. They occur every time Rory and I are apart a few days or do not write on Twitter."), and McIlroy, through his PR firm, said only that he "does not comment" on his relationships. But whatever is going on with these two supertweeters, it's time we all have a talk about lovey-dovey updates on social media, and how they can impact the relationships we share with each other online and off.
Let's dispense with the napping photo issue first, as it's an easy call. Taking a mocking photograph of a loved one in repose is not kind. Tweeting it is a fileable offense. The bed is the most intimate of private spaces. It's where we're at our most physically and emotionally vulnerable. Sometimes, we are not even conscious there! It's a privilege to share that with another person; publishing photographic evidence of whatever weird face your partner is making when he is not aware that he even exists - much less that your iPhone is clicking away within inches of his rapidly moving, yet unseeing, eyes - is a violation. This seems obvious, but Wozniacki is not the only high-profile offender.
In 2010, Russell Brand tweeted a photograph of then-wife Katy Perry as she awoke in bed, her saucer-eyes frozen in fear in the dim glow of Brand's cellphone camera. The photograph swiftly disappeared from Twitter, and their marriage soon dissolved. Brand finally unfollowed Perry on Twitter last year. "Bad Photographs," a song on Perry's forthcoming album, is presumed to be inspired by the relationship.
But even when romantic social media updates are ostensibly consensual, caution is advised. Love is so weird. We do and say things when we're with romantic partners that would seem embarrassing and deranged if shared with the outside world, and that's exhilarating. Publicity can spoil that intimacy. When New York Post reporter Stephanie Smith decided to inform the world, via blog, that she was meticulously crafting 300 sandwiches for her boyfriend in an effort to win his hand in marriage, humanity recoiled in disgust. "It was a joke," Smith later said in her defense. "It was light. It's funny. Come on, it's a sandwich. It's supposed to be just lighthearted." "Make me a sandwich" is hopefully not a very cute joke in most intimate relationships.
But even the most delightful inside jokes wither under the harsh light of public scrutiny. Some moments acquire beauty and meaning not through their literal content, but by virtue of their limited audience.
That's not to say that interfacing with loved ones on social media is always, necessarily icky. Say you've just become engaged (no, "I'm 124 sandwiches away" does not count). By all means, blast the news to your followers, who are sure to share in your happiness (or at least feel socially constrained to politely refrain from publicizing their annoyance). Showing digital affection in non-milestone situations is a more subtle art.
The occasional photograph shared on Facebook or Instagram can signal respect for your partner and your relationship's place in your community, so long as the photo in question was snapped consensually, and is not objectively gross (a potential exception is reserved for Mariah Carey, who should never stop tweeting her boobs at Nick Cannon as long as they both shall live). Favoriting a tweet or deep liking an Instagram photo ensures that your avatar will appear on your other's feed without alerting the whole wide world.
These strategies spare friends and strangers from being repulsed by your relationship, and they also ensure that some interactions are kept just between you. When in doubt, take it to Gchat, guys - it's getting kind of weird. Even Wozniacki appears to have learned the virtues of locking it down: After the latest round of speculation about her love life, she said, "from now on I just think that I will keep my private life private."
Hess is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She blogs for DoubleX on sex, science and health.