We can thank Elizabeth Hurley and Shane Warne for the latest reminder of just how human rich people are: following this week's revelation of their affair, careful parsing of their Twitter accounts over the last six months revealed that they've been flirting with each other since the summer … And just like regular people, they are really awkward.
"Sammy sends you a special lick," Hurley tweeted Warne in November, "and says he'd like to put his silky head on your shoulder." Though the Daily Telegraph assures us that this is in fact "thought to be a reference to her spaniel", it was all over the moment that Hurley sent the message: no amount of clarification can lessen how mortified we feel to have shared this 140-character moment of romance.
It's mortifying because we empathise. If one of us can claim that he or she has not communicated towards someone they have romantic feelings in a ghastly manner, then I say: you, my friend, are lying.
To flirt with success is hard enough without involving social media. It's a game without any real rules: one thing to read a book purporting to explain how it works; quite another to "touch the inside of his forearm!" or "be mean to her, she'll totally fancy you!" and not feel preposterous. At its core, the greatest flirting art is the ability to detect when the object of your affection will be receptive to your sweet nothings – and knowing when to stop when it's clear that they think you're quite creepy. The line between these two states is awfully fine.
Engaging in flirty banter over Twitter or Facebook can seem less risky than the in-person approach. First, social networks reduce the barrier to entry: you don't need to make eye contact; you might not even need to be drunk. Second, your followers become your alibi: if the person with whom you are enamoured responds the digital equivalent of looking askance, you can pretend that they are being crazy to think you were flirting with them. You were simply being your usual, witty self. Why else would you do it in public? Face: saved.
Until it comes back to haunt you. Before we all decided to keep actual conversation to a minimum, considering our attempts at flirtation after the fact was rarely an issue – sure, you could replay a conversation in your head and think "oh, why was I such a fool as to allow that awful man to seduce me with his boring anecdotes about his gap year?" but you wouldn't have to think about how many other people were watching the exchange and sniggering at it from behind their computer screens. You also wouldn't have to worry about coming across it on a blog. Yes, we think we are being subtle and clever with our spaniel references. No, we are not: everyone knows what we're doing. Including, eventually, your new partner who will lovingly examine the archive of your Facebook wall or Twitter feed and behold your previous, failed attempts to find love.
I'm not saying that we must switch off our computers and smartphones and go back to old-fashioned courtship rituals – like talking on the phone and writing love letters with quill pens or meeting up in person. Though we could. Rather, I suggest we should all learn from our fellow humans Liz and Shane and remember that with the great romantic power of social media comes great responsibility. Anything you wouldn't want to shout through a loud speaker at someone you adore in a room filled with your friends, colleagues, and mum should not be expressed in a public forum. A direct message is so much more romantic.