23rd September 2023

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

Do we have the same boyfriend? Head to social media and you might find out | Samantha Floreani

For those suspicious that their partner might be doing the dirty, there are hundreds of “Do We Have The Same Boyfriend” Facebook groups across Australia and New Zealand. The premise is this: people – mostly women – can request to join to post details about the person they’re dating to check if they’re simultaneously dating anyone else in the group.

Once inside, you can find a mix of bad dating stories (can relate), memes, and screenshots of cringeworthy dating app conversations. In the comments, things often get spicy. Across TikTok, users laugh about how the pages are more entertaining than reality TV.

I get it: dating can be a nightmare and infidelity is an awful thing to experience. Sharing these stories can be fun and cathartic, can help people feel less isolated and even sometimes be empowering. I’m a firm believer that people should be able to gather online to build communities and share experiences.

But scrolling through some of these groups you can find much more than solidarity in the dating trenches. Some coordinate “loyalty tests” in which a group member will follow and flirt with the original poster’s beau to probe their faithfulness. Others spiral into full-on internet sleuthing missions, recruiting open source intelligence detectives to the case. Some, after a particularly bad experience, share safety information to alert others about potentially dangerous individuals to be avoided. Occasionally, it dips alarmingly close to doxing – the act of sharing people’s personal information online, particularly with malicious intent.

Here’s where things get tricky. There is real value in being able to share information about harmful or dangerous encounters to collectively uphold each other’s safety. There’s also real value in being able to express support for each other – be it through virtual commiseration or couched in dark humour – in the face of disappointingly common problematic dating practices.

The unenviable task of the group moderators is to attempt to determine where to draw the line. For instance, if someone gets ghosted, dumped, or led on, is that reason enough to share another’s personal information online to thousands of strangers?

I’m not here to defend infidelity or poor dating behaviour, especially when it crosses into actively harmful or dangerous territory. I don’t doubt that some of the people – mostly men – being called out in these groups should be held accountable for their actions. There are even stories of these groups being used to support women in unsafe or violent situations.

So the question then becomes: how can we do community-based accountability and share important safety information in online spaces without inadvertently increasing harm, or defaulting to a punitive group policing mentality?

There is immense potential for digital technology to be able to facilitate community building, information sharing, and distributed forms of accountability. But can that be achieved on a platform like Facebook? I doubt it.

The dominant social media platforms are designed for profit though engagement, attention and invasive data harvesting. By design, they incentivise us to post the most inflammatory or provocative content possible. At the same time, they encourage us to perform lateral surveillance – a kind of interpersonal monitoring culture in which we’re all simultaneously watching and being watched online. Does this lead to genuine improvements in safety? I doubt this, too.

Then there’s the question of legality. It’s possible that posting to these pages could fall afoul of defamation law, or even the adult cyberbullying scheme under the Online Safety Act. Even in instances where the allegations may very well be true, posters could find themselves doubly harmed by being on the receiving end of legal action against them.

Still, it’s clear from the popularity of these groups that they are filling a need. Be it a thirst for salacious entertainment, a hunt for connection with like-minded people, or support that some may not otherwise have access to, tens of thousands of people are flocking to join and post. Venting about relationships, workshopping solutions to problems, or seeking advice from friends isn’t new, but transposing it on to social media transforms the scale at which this happens. The shift from sharing between friends or in a closed group chat to sharing with thousands of strangers also expands the scope of possible consequences in both positive and negative ways.

Could large-scale exposure of unethical or dangerous behaviour lead to a cultural shift in dating practices? It’s not out of the question. But could the race to act as police online amplify privacy-invasive surveillance practices from platforms and people alike, without meaningfully increasing genuine community or safety? With such large memberships and broad group purposes, the moderators are left with a hefty task.

In conversations with friends, scrolling through social media commentary, and reading reporting about the groups, more often than not they are met with dismissal – framed as petty, bitchy or trivial gossip. Aside from revealing some troubling misogynistic ideas about the merit of women talking to each other, such dismissals overlook a fascinating and concerning online trend. These groups, whether you believe them to be a net good or bad, are a window into what can happen when the surveillance and scale of popular digital platforms infiltrate how we interact, build trust, and form relationships with each other.