A few years ago, Sara Zeljkovic, a 25-year-old living in Toronto, started working to build her social media presence on TikTok and Instagram, assuming that having more followers was better.
Ms. Zeljkovic, freshly single after the end of an eight-year relationship, began posting more content, typically about beauty and travel, and gained traction, ultimately resulting in about 14,000 followers on TikTok and, she said, around 5,000 followers on Instagram. That’s when things changed.
While she was chatting with a man over drinks last year, the would-be date took issue with her follower count.
“He was like, ‘Oh, that’s such a red flag, you’re such a cool girl,’” she recalled. When he said it was “a shame” that she had so many followers, she added, “I almost spit my drink out.”
How does having a career that requires hypervisibility online — public relations, influencing, vlogging — affect a woman’s dating life? Is there a certain kind of man who is turned off by hustle, who finds a follower count in the thousands to be a deal breaker?
Having a sizable following on Instagram or TikTok can come with perks: internet fame, free products, sponsored trips. It’s little wonder that in 2019, about 54 percent of young Americans said they would become an influencer if given the opportunity, and nearly 90 percent said they would be willing to post sponsored content for money, according to a report by Morning Consult.
Much as the idea of dating a “podcast bro” can be a turnoff for some women, the prejudice can work against women who also have public online platforms. Among men who have described such feelings online, the reasons vary: Some are insecure, worried that she might have other suitors in her DMs. Others enjoy their privacy and would rather not have their lives be mined for content.
Tyrese Dominique, a social media manager in Boston, said that although he would have no issue dating a woman with a lot of social media followers, he sympathized with many of his friends who would.
“I understand it, because if they have their own insecurity and they know that they can’t stop themselves from having that insecurity and having it affect their relationship with that person, it’s best that they don’t even try to force themselves,” he said.
After receiving one too many snippy comments from men about having far too many Instagram followers, Ms. Zeljkovic spent about two days in July pruning her following, ultimately bringing the count down to around 1,600. She also made her profile private, explaining that she had been told it was “a turnoff if a girl has an open profile.”
She said a culmination of factors led to her decision, including one time when she shared her Instagram handle with a man, and he was immediately scared off: “He was like, ‘Oh, like, you’re too big time for me.’”
“After I got home that night, I was just so fed up of hearing this,” Ms. Zeljkovic said. “Like, this was already eight or nine times I gave a guy my Instagram, and he made a comment.”
Christina Mantas, a community outreach coordinator, said that having more than 4,000 followers on Instagram has been enough to deter men. She has kept her Instagram public for about the last five years to network and to promote events she hosts for the various nonprofit organizations she works with. She said that her social media profile had become an issue while dating.
“There are some guys that will take me on a really nice date, and then they want me to post about it — like a public thank you of some sort — and I’m not comfortable to share that I’m spending time with them yet,” she said. “And then other guys freak out completely because they don’t want to be on my Instagram page.”
On a recent scroll through the dating app Hinge, Ms. Mantas, 36, came across a man who said he was looking for a woman with 1,000 Instagram followers or fewer. She said another man had told her that because of her frequent travels and food content, he wouldn’t be able to adequately provide for someone with her standards.
For Shari DuBois, a rapper and songwriter in Philadelphia, not immediately trading social media handles with dating prospects is one way she has managed to avoid the problems that can come with being a single woman with thousands of followers online.
Currently, Ms. DuBois is seeing a man she met on Facebook Dating, but she has not made him privy to her Instagram or TikTok, where she has 10,000 and 12,000 followers.
In her last two relationships, social media became “a bit of an issue.” So now, she goes out of her way to not exchange social media accounts with new men she meets so that they can first get to know her.
Some people who see the number of followers she has might assume she is receiving hundreds of thirsty DMs a day, she said. “That’s not the case,” she added. “I think people are also under the assumption that, like, everything is going to be content.”
However, Ms. DuBois admits that she’d prefer a man who didn’t have a high following on social media. For example, she “celebrated” the fact that her ex-boyfriend had 200 followers.
“I guess maybe some of the same assumptions that they might have for me, I may have for them,” she said.
Ms. Zeljkovic, who is currently in Serbia visiting family, recently started monetizing her TikTok content, which is still public. She said she sometimes felt waves of regret for going private on Instagram and for downsizing her following, adding that she might reverse course eventually.
“Right now, while I’m still single and trying to date and traveling back in my home country and stuff, it’s better to keep it like this until I get someone on lock,” she said.
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Gina Cherelus is a reporter for The Times’s Styles desk who covers a range of topics including culture and trends. More about Gina Cherelus
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