Voices: I had a ‘flirtationship’ with an actor on Instagram – but it didn’t go according to plan

It always starts the same way: someone you’ve never met in real-life starts sliding into your DMs...  (Getty)
It always starts the same way: someone you’ve never met in real-life starts sliding into your DMs... (Getty)

Is there anything more exciting than seeing a flame emoji in your Instagram DMs? Or just a straightforward “wow”? Maybe even a classic “so hot”? Perhaps not. But if you get these sorts of messages regularly, particularly from the same person, it might not be such a good thing. In fact, it could be a sign that you’re in – drum roll – an Instagram flirtationship.

I know, I know: do we really need another silly little term to define our disappointing dating lives? I’m going to argue that yes, we do. Because this particular trend is one that affects more of us than we might realise. I first came across it on a podcast. The Deux U podcast by celebrity gossip Instagram account, DeuxMoi (blame the Glastonbury hangover). In it, the anonymous host spoke about a message she’d received about an alleged celebrity couple being in an “Instagram flirtationship”. Instantly I knew what she meant; the phrase percolated in my head for a while until I realised this is something myself and my friends have experienced over and over again.

It always starts the same way: someone you’ve never met in real life starts sliding into your DMs. It can happen out of nowhere and nothing. The first message isn’t always necessarily flirty; in fact it’s often not. “This made me laugh”, is a common message. Likewise: “Omg me too”.

Casual, cute and fairly inconsequential, they’re tacit indications of interest that typically lead to some sort of back and forth. Soon, this person is messaging you regularly. They respond to almost every story you post, liking all the ones that feature photos of you and eventually, building up to sending you flame emojis. Once the flame emoji hits, you know you’re in business. It’s at this point you might start to wonder if this is the beginning of something. Will they ask you out? Should you ask them out? How do you go about it?

Well, don’t. Because if you send a message about meeting up, chances are they’ll tell you they’re busy, or ignore it and revert to safer territory of insipid chatter and emojis. That’s the thing about an Instagram flirtationship. It can only ever exist within the parameters of your DMs – and trying to take it beyond that is a mistake, one that will only lead to inevitable disappointment.

I made this mistake myself. Not too long ago, I was fresh from a breakup when an actor I’d been following on social media for a while messaged me. He was a fan of my podcast, he said. I was a fan of his films, I replied. Quickly, we got chatting. Firstly about our careers, and then about our lives, love, and families. He’d always be one of the first people to watch and respond to my stories. Soon, we were sending longer messages to one another on a weekly basis.

It felt like we were building something. The trouble was that this actor lived in the US. It would’ve taken quite a leap to push our little flirtationship out of social media – and I quickly learned this wasn’t a leap either of us was willing to make. Because then I visited New York and he was there at the same time. But he wouldn’t meet me. I made several attempts, and the response was always something along the lines of, “I’d love to! But I can’t tonight” without any suggestion of an alternative plan. I left New York deflated and confused, more so when he started liking all of my posts documenting the trip, and responding to stories with flame emoji again.

With this in mind, it would be easy to criticise the Instagram flirtationship as yet another symptom of our broken dating culture where nobody can communicate or commit. But I think that would be myopic – because an Instagram flirtationship does serve a purpose. It can be a fun and playful distraction, something to provide you with a quick burst of validation when you need it. It certainly did for me.

In our hyper-online society, it’s normal to have these sorts of flippant digital relationships. The trick is to quickly recognise them for what they are, and not conflate them with something deeper. That’s where you enter slippery ground. Friends of mine who have them (most do) call them their “Instagram boyfriends”. I’d advise using a similar moniker to remind yourself that they’ll probably never be anything more –and that that’s OK.