The Enduring, Intoxicating Appeal of the "Secret Crush"

Facebook Secret Crush is going to be huge because it's got history on its side.

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When I first heard of the Facebook feature “Secret Crush” — which was announced early this month at its annual F8 conference — I felt a sort of sick glee. Secret Crush, expected to launch in the United States by 2020, lets you select up to nine of your friends you like like and then, if they’ve selected you, too, Facebook reveals the match. After its introduction in April, people predicted it would cause chaos. They are probably right.

That’s because we all are willing martyrs when it comes to a secret crush. Facebook knows, like anyone who is past puberty, that the secret crush is a creature both inevitable and immortal. It’s a thrill and it’s madness. And if we examine the historical trends, future forecasts, and the inside of our own hearts, it’s obvious the secret crush will be around forever, which is why it’s so attractive to technologists.

“Online crushing has evolved, but the more things change, the more they stay the same,” Kristi Piechnik told me over Twitter when I put out a public call for secret crushes. “To this day, I wonder if the guy I’m into watched my Insta story on purpose or if he just tapped by.”

“To what degree is this man interested in my life? These questions need answers.”

Fortunately, the foundation of the secret online crush is the hunt for answers and information, which is why Facebook is such an ideal place for it to manifest.

The “Secret Test”

Research shows that when people begin a new relationship, or want to begin a new relationship, they try to battle their uncertainties and insecurities by looking for ways to reduce those feelings. To do this, they often use strategies to acquire information about their romantic interest. Academics call these strategies “secret tests.”

Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat make it extremely easy for people to conduct these secret tests. These tests can be initiated with a hopeful intent — like checking to see whether your crush has liked your picture — or designed to catch “bad behavior” — such as checking to see whether your crush has liked another person’s picture.

“I’ll never forget checking my Instagram story to see if my now-boyfriend, or his brother, or his brother’s wife, or anyone remotely in their circle, had seen it,” a friend told me. “That thought was huge in the early days because I thought it meant they were absorbing who I was — and contemplating whether I was a good fit for him.”

John Caughlin, Ph.D., is a University of Illinois professor who studies how people communicate successfully and what happens when technology is involved. When people want to disclose something sensitive, like a crush, he says, they sometimes participate in “incremental disclosure.” That’s the process of telling a person about something related to what’s on one’s mind, but not as sensitive, and seeing how they respond before proceeding further. If you were trying to flirt in the late ‘90s, incremental disclosure was asking over AIM whether that person you sort of knew from school liked anyone.

Scientists have recently documented how this plays out online. In a 2016 study on status updates, interviews with 57 adolescents between the ages of 15 and 18 showed that, on social networking sites, pictures and status updates were “the most important source of information about a potential romantic partner.” When teens wanted to indicate that they were romantically interested without flat-out revealing their crush, they would often engage in a bit of incremental disclosure by liking pictures or statuses “from several years ago.”

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While the secret crush affects all ages, its icon is the teen. They are extremely susceptible to the online secret crush because of two crucial factors. One reason is timely; they are very much online, with 71 percent of American teenagers using more than one social networking site, according to a 2016 study. The other is timeless; adolescence is when people start to experiment with romantic relationships.

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Kath Albury, Ph.D., a professor of media and communications at Swinburne University of Technology, reminded me that young people have to use online platforms like Facebook or Weibo as an alternative to the clubs and bars they’re too young to access. Meeting people as friends of friends online is a form of introduction that mimics what it’s like to meet at a party. Only, instead of getting someone a drink, you share a meme or a cute animal video.

We continue to use online platforms to pursue friendships, romantic, and sexual relationships into adulthood, Albury explains, because online spaces are now synonymous with social spaces.

“They are where we express our identity and interact with others who are doing the same thing,” Albury says. “It’s unsurprising that sexual and romantic attractions and flirtations are a part of these spaces.”

Fidji Simo, head of the Facebook App, introduces "Secret Crush" at Facebook F8 on April 30, 2019.

Romantic pursuit and technology were entwined long before the rise of social media. Technology historian Mar Hicks, Ph.D., author of Programmed Inequality and a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, explains that “very little time passed” between the rise of computer programming and its use in matchmaking.

“I always tell people that there are two things that folks seemed to want to do with mainframes very early on,” Hicks says. “The first was to compose music using the machines’ noises — what today we might call ‘chip-tunes’ but this was before chips — and the second was to create some kind of matchmaking program.”

Hicks explains that the popular entry point into the history of computer dating is Operation Match, a program developed by two Harvard students, Jeffrey Tarr and David Crump, in 1965. Although they weren’t the first to think up the idea — a woman named Joan Ball had already popularized computer dating in Britain — they were the first to set it up in the States.

Tarr and Crump designed dating questionnaires and an algorithm that would pair sets of answers to make a match. It was so popular that in its second year, roughly 70,000 college students across the United States sent them completed questionnaires, along with $3. They admitted that they came up with Operation Match in part because they wanted to use it themselves.

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Today, finding love online, whether it’s an explicit search on a dating site or a scan through your mutuals on an app, is culturally acceptable and widespread. But it’s been a 50-year journey toward acceptance. For example, before the ability to examine Myspace Top 8s or to study who liked which Instagram picture, Hicks remembers one way tech-savvy singles flirted during the Clinton administration. In the late ‘90s, college students had to use Unix computer operating systems to indulge their secret crushes. They used command line interfaces to access email, save files, and create websites.

“As part of that, you could put .plan and .project file that was world-readable to other users in your profile,” Hicks explains. “Folks could read these often cryptic, flirty, or attention-seeking snippets of texts and imagine it might be meant for them if they knew you in real life.”

You could also get a list of who was reading your profile.

“The command to look at a user’s profile was the ‘finger’ command, if you can imagine!” Hicks says. “So everyone was constantly fingering everyone else, and people were always trying to figure out who was fingering them at any given moment.”

Fingering gave way to Facebook poking, which beget Instagram orbiting. But the essence of the crush — and the quest to figure out if someone is crushing on you — has remained the same.

The role the internet plays in facilitating secret crushes and relationships will continue to grow because tech has always coexisted with real life, says Hicks. The jump from love letters to late-night phone calls wasn’t that large of a leap, and neither was the subsequent move to looking at your love interest’s Instagram story first.

Unlike other platforms for romance — like a bar or a dance or backyard barbecue — social networking plays a part throughout a relationship, not just at the onset. Tech is there from initiation to escalation; from relationship maintenance to breakup.

While evidence suggests that meeting online or offline doesn’t have much of an influence on long-term outcomes, Caughlin points out it does matter for short-term courtship. By interacting with an online profile, you find out a lot about a person very quickly without directly interacting with them — whether they have pets, what teams they like, if they post too many pictures with their sister, and so on. There’s also evidence that when people get to know someone from their online presence, a sense of intimacy quickly blooms.

“They sometimes feel particularly close to each other quickly, partly because they are getting information that is more carefully cultivated than what people might see in person, but also because they tend to idealize people, focusing on positive or desirable qualities and extrapolating from that,” Caughlin says.

This sudden closeness can lead people to feel like these relationships are particularly meaningful. The problem is that when that relationship moves offline, that unrealistic, idealized feeling fades. Crushes manifest in the intimate space carved out by tech because it’s a person’s potential that is so intoxicating.

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Crushes are so named because they can crush you. For all the good that it does, technology doesn’t make heartbreak any easier. As Maureen O’Connor observed for The Cut, all your exes can live in texts, and just as the internet can help ignite a crush, it can keep you from getting over one.

“I unfollowed an ex that broke my heart back in college, but every once in a while, I look up his profiles just to see what he’s up to,” a friend told me. “He’s engaged.”

Studies show that jealous lovers use social networking sites as a means of “partner monitoring.” Through these sites, they can see who their love interest is interacting with, and they themselves can cause jealousy with a carefully placed like. When you have a crush on someone, you can look through a person’s profile whenever you want. You can do that when the relationship is over, too.

The darker side of online pursuit is underlied by the accessibility of other’s profiles, allowing some to take advantage of that intimacy and others to get a creeping sense that something is wrong. In a 2015 study examining the once-mega-popular Snapchat, a focus group of 18-year-olds discussed its lows. One female interviewee expressed frustration over the misinterpretation of her snaps. When she posted a video taking her long hair out of a bun, boys assumed she wanted them to suggest making physical contact. In reality, she was just feeling cute.

Another female interviewee began to suspect her boyfriend was cheating on her because of the “best friend” feature — those are the people a user interacts with most on the app. She was right, and the other interviewees understood where she was coming from.

Clare: Just getting all deep on the matter, yeah, well the whole screenshotting thing is, like, how I found out my boyfriend was cheating on us. […] Basically when we first got together, like a year ago, he had this, like, girl on his Snapchat, like his top best friend and … I was, like, obviously, um, concerned as to why he was, you know, sending pictures to this girl, so, and then, um, she sent me a screenshot of a picture that he’d sent her, which was his genitalia, [funny voice, invoking laughter from other participants] um, and sent it to me, and obviously, just, like, told me, this is what’s going on here.

Hannah: Yeah, that’s another thing, though, isn’t it? Like, my friend, she had a boyfriend and he’d always be like, ‘Oh, I’m not Snapchatting people,’ and then she got a bit psycho girlfriend and was, like, looking at the score, and was like ‘I know your score’s been going up, so I know you’re speaking to people.

Facebook’s Secret Crush is linked to (and benefits from) this history of public online crushing, yearning, and clue analysis but exists in the more private space of online dating. You can see if your ex-boyfriend likes a thirst trap; you can’t see who they’ve selected as their nine Secret Crushes.

Here’s the official description from Facebook:

Connecting With Your Secret Crush

On Facebook Dating, you can opt in to discover potential matches within your own Facebook communities: events, groups, friends of friends, and more. It’s currently available in Colombia, Thailand, Canada, Argentina, and Mexico — and today, we’re expanding to 14 new countries: Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Guyana, and Suriname.

We’re also announcing a new feature called Secret Crush. People have told us that they believe there is an opportunity to explore potential romantic relationships within their own extended circle of friends. So now, if you choose to use Secret Crush, you can select up to nine of your Facebook friends who you want to express interest in. If your crush has opted into Facebook Dating, they will get a notification saying that someone has a crush on them. If your crush adds you to their Secret Crush list, it’s a match! If your crush isn’t on Dating, doesn’t create a Secret Crush list, or doesn’t put you on their list, no one will know that you’ve entered a friend’s name.

But Facebook Secret Crush is still a product linked to an age-old cottage industry that will explain the secrets of your beloved’s unknowable heart, which operates on the premise that there is definitely someone out there who has a crush on you. Back then, you might’ve paid someone directly to help you. Today, the transaction requires you to give up personal data that Facebook uses to sell more ads back to you. In high school, the answer to Does a Guy Like Me? would have filled my stomach with butterflies. As someone who’s almost 30, I wonder how many relationships will social media ruin, not ignite.

With Secret Crush, Facebook’s new product is the latest entrant in a long history of how people use technology to feed their secret crush.

The “opportunity to explore potential romantic relationships” within your extended social circle is so enticing for one reason: You’re probably already secretly crushing on somebody in your extended social circle. Only now, Facebook has opened up its 2.38 billion monthly active users to test the waters.