First comes Instagram, then comes love: Why Instagram is displacing dating apps

It’s starting to feel like there are more dating apps than there are people to date. There are apps for hookups, for romantic nights, for couples, for double daters, for twins, for dopplegangers – if you have a “type,” trust that the Internet will engineer a way for you to try and find it … er, them.

But what if all the Tinders, Flikdates, and OKCupids were an unnecessary construct? Many of these apps build off of preexisting social networks; what if they’re just adding an extra step to the whole thing? Maybe in these complicated times, less can lead to more. And what social network has a setup simpler than Instagram?

Elizabeth Wisdom and Dennis Lafargue would argue as much. The now-engaged and newly Internet famous couple met over the app, traded flirty comments and eventually numbers, and even documented their engagement on the app. When Lafargue made their relationship official, he even called Wisdom his “instalady,” saying “Instagram is the new”

Couples often document their more romantic moments on Instagram, but the engagement – and relationship – was much more intertwined with the app. Lafargue prepared a timeline of their relationship represented with Instagram photos; not just their moments together, but their own separate, first moments using the app and setting up their accounts. The gesture isn’t just reminiscing about the moments in the photos, it’s a celebration of the thing that brought them together: Instagram.

Wisdom and Lafargue are hardly the only couple to tell this story. Earlier this year, iCarly actress Jennette McCurdy and NBA star Andre Drummond connected thanks to social networks. Drummond used Twitter and Instagram to profess his interest in McCurdy, whose Twitter followers urged her to check him out. So naturally, she did her Internet homework first.

“I read the guys’ Wikipedia page … confronted by statistics and a bunch of basketball jargon. I gathered that he was gifted at basketball … and super, super tall,” she wrote in an op-ed earlier this year. “Not yet satisfied with my knowledge of this guy’s deal, I backtracked on his Twitter page a few months and checked out his Instagram … he appeared personable, youthful, and fun. And judging by the amount of me-related posts he had shared, it seemed he had been expressing his crush on me for quite some time. I found it sweet, gutsy, and flattering. It’s hard not to be impressed by a boy who will express his feelings for you in front of hundreds of thousands of people.”

Sadly, it was not a love that lasted – as evidenced by the many Vine videos McCurdy posted hinting at the breakup. But during their relationship, the two documented their time together on Instagram.

Poking through their Instagram accounts is like watching a highlight reel of the relationship. And the beautiful filters and sentiments, the ideal lighting and memorable locations, are simply hypnotizing. This is even more true clicking through Lafargue’s and Wisdom’s accounts. Photo after gorgeous photo, praising one another, it sucks you in. I can understand why people fall for each other on Instagram: Everything feels magic. These glasses aren’t rose-colored, they’re Walden-filtered.

Which, of course, can be the danger in falling for someone over Instagram: It lets us all present our lives in (literally) the best light possible, humblebragging about all the highlights while conveniently omitting the lows – the boring weeks, the “I feel ugly” days, the lonely moments. So when searching, or just finding, people to connect with on Instagram, we’re just seeing the aspirational versions of them.

Instagram gives us the ability to share a lot of gorgeous details: New haircuts, extravagant dinners, awe-inspiring vacations; but we skip over the important, broader characteristics. That we don’t want kids, or are obsessed with our exes, or never want to move more than five minutes from home.

That right there is why dating apps exist. They don’t allow you to skip over these things; you describe yourself (in words, not just pictures), you tell people what you’re looking for, you list your objectives. This should mean that tried-and-true dating sites are safer, and work better – so why is Instagram doing such a good job?

While there’s yet to be any specific research comparing Insta-dating effectiveness to that of traditional online dating sites, there’s no arguing this is a bona fide trend. There’s no shortage of online advice on how to use Instagram to find a significant other. Further proof are apps like Kisstagram (HotOrNot for Instagram) and InstaDating (no explanation needed) to make your intentions more official.

Yet obscured intentions might be part of the appeal. With a traditional dating app, you all know why you’re there – to find someone, to judge each other as a potential partner. It’s like going to speed dating versus a bar; you’re not hoping to happen upon someone, you’re specifically look for them. Instagram is more spontaneous, more happen-stance than that. Even if you are actively looking, no one but you has to know.

You could argue the same is true of Facebook – except that it’s not, and you’d be wrong. Randomly friending someone on Facebook is forward and foreign; doing it on Instagram is par for the course. You like what you see on Facebook, which is usually nothing more than a profile picture and maybe a few other bits and pieces; on Instagram, you like what someone else is seeing. This little barrier – he likes my photos, my creativity, my funny captions – makes us more comfortable. It’s much more coy. 

Not only are romantic relationships being made on Instagram, but friendships are too. “I’ve made a huge amount of friends through Instagram,” says photographer and creator of the popular hashtag project #storyportrait, Branden Harvey. “The first time I really made friends via Instagram was the time I randomly agreed to road trip to Seattle from Portland for a weekend of hiking, eating, and adventuring. I made some of my best friends on that trip. We all talk on almost a daily basis.”

Harvey’s current roommate, Ian Pratt, was a friend he met on Instagram. While photographing an event in Portland, Pratt approached Harvey and said the five little words we all love to hear (whether we admit it or not): “I follow you on Instagram.”

“He invited me to get breakfast at his house with a few other friends a few days later. We quickly built a strong friendship,” says Harvey.

This summer, he’s attending the wedding of his friends Carter and Brooke – a couple who his only interactions with have been via Instagram.

And as we’ve recently seen, the Instagram community will rally around a good love story – and Lafargue and Wisdom are hardly the only ones who found and documented their love with the app. Peter Cowans and Zitta John Cowans followed each other on Instagram for years, he living in the U.K., she in Oklahoma, developing feelings for one another from afar and eventually getting married this past October.

“It was two years of us both playing it really cool,” Peter tells me. Both he and Zitta recall how they would Like photos or leave comments, but that it was six months before they actually spoke. They’re currently trying to go back through their Instagram account activity, looking through hashtags and searches, to see which photo it was they “met” through.

“She was interested in my account because I didn’t take loads of pictures of myself standing in front of the mirror, and I was interested in her’s because she’s fucking gorgeous,” he confessed to me over FaceTime. The newlyweds, clearly enamored with one another and sharing a webcam, held hands the whole time.

Peter describes his wife’s Instagram account as genuine and fascinating. “I look at her life as something I’ve never envisioned or dreamed; something that beautiful and colorful.”

“Following her was like following a celebrity.”

Zitta explained the odd reality of an attraction through Instagram. “It’s this little crush, where there’s this person and even though you might date other people, it’s OK because it’s like this separate reality. This crush on the other side of the world.”

Eventually they struck up a long-distance romance. Their story resonated with so many followers that Peter created a second account documenting the wedding preparation – the day Zitta’s dress was finished, the day her ring came in, when they flew to Las Vegas – as well as other pieces of their life together.

Maybe all those aspirational images are actually making us become the people we Instagram to be.

The two say they’ve met many couples who also met over Instagram, and use the app to collect and share their lives. The support goes further: Living thousands of miles apart and just married, Zitta decided to start a GoFundMe campaign to try and raise money to see her husband. While friends and family donated, so did strangers who had followed their story. “There were four contributors we’ve never had communication with; one girl gave us $50,” says Cowans. The couple also auctioned off items from their wedding to fund their travels to meet each other, which Instagram followers bid on.

That sense of community is what is so paramount to Instagram’s success. It’s not just about the individuals who meet, or who find inspiration from one person’s photos. It’s about the vast, worldwide community that’s being created around the network.

“I think a couple of things contribute to Instagram being great at connecting people in real life,” says Harvey. “One is that it’s a visual platform filled with people who appreciate beauty and adventure. A lot of Instagrammers have that in common. Similarly, when you share a grand experience with somebody, you form a much stronger bond with them.”

And is it ever awkward, meeting so many strangers whose taste in shareable photos is the most you know about them? “Honestly, I can’t think of a single time I’ve had an awkward encounter with people I met through Instagram,” says Harvey. Perhaps that’s because they know when to get their faces out of phones.

“Sometimes while hanging out with other friends who use Instagram, we make a conscious decision to turn off our phones and choose not to discuss the app we all love so much. Our friendship goes beyond a simple iPhone app.”

Maybe all those aspirational images are actually making us become the people we Instagram to be. Maybe all these love stories and friendships spurred by the app happen because we show people the best pieces of ourselves and our lives, and then we work to epitomize them. Maybe seeing is believing, and we connect to, trust – and fall in love – with people through visuals better than we do contrived sentences in questionnaire form.

But what better way to explore this trend than to live it? I decided to contact Harvey, who I’ve followed for over a year now and who follows me on Instagram. I often shoot him a message when I’m working on a story about Instagram, but we’d never actually met up despite having roots in the Northwest and living in and around Portland. While our intentions aren’t romantic here, the process is the same: We followed and double-tapped approval of each other’s photos; then we emailed; then exchanged numbers. And then we had coffee. 

We, naturally, talked about Instagram – but I also found out he’s from the city where my cousin just graduated from vet school, and we both prefer Canons. We love to travel, but the west coast still feels like home. Meeting up wasn’t uncomfortable, or contrived – which is something online daters often complain about. Just two people who first saw bits and pieces of one another’s lives through their eyes before decided that a real life friendship (or more) might be just as Instagram-worthy. 

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