Love and Relationships

Decoding the social media ‘soft launch’: Why do we do it?

Patty Bufi

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Decoding the social media ‘soft launch’: Why do we do it?
A conveniently cropped photo below the neck, with a subtle peek of a hand – what is driving everyone to participate in today's covert, non-committal online trend?

MANILA, Philippines – A sneaky snapshot of a meal on a table for two, with a subtle peek of a hand, with a picture of a mystery man/woman conveniently cropped below the neck. Seen this on your Instagram feed lately?

We’re talking about the “soft launch,” a recent social media slang term that has sneakily crept its way into our modern dating vocabulary. It isn’t a “hard launch” yet, which is an official relationship revelation. So how exactly did the “soft launch” emerge, and what’s driving everyone to participate in this covert, non-committal trend?

Before its connotation with relationships and pop culture, the term “soft launch” referred to a preview of a new consumer product to a restricted audience before its official release. Companies would use soft launches to test the waters and gauge customer reactions before going all-in on a nationwide rollout.

By the same token, we see many of today’s budding relationships following a similar trajectory. From a series of sly subtweets to that long-awaited grand reveal, it now seems that we’ve entered the age where love has been reduced to a publicized checklist.

Why even ‘soft launch’ someone?

Why are people so inclined to dip their toes in the water before cannonballing into a new romance?

In a time when direct-to-the-point dating is hard to come by and ghosting has become too common, it can be daunting to show your significant other’s face only to jinx the relationship and have it come crashing down soon after. A soft launch allows you to test the waters first.

As someone currently in a happy and long-term relationship, Max* shared with Rappler that he “soft launched” his girlfriend back when they were not yet officially dating.

“It was too soon to know if we were going to be serious,” he shared. “We both had mutual friend groups, and didn’t want to risk anything just yet.” 

But why even post anything to begin with, right? When asked, he said he was interested in what his friends had to say about the relationship, almost as if seeking their validation. “Plus, everyone does it. It’s not like I had anything to lose at that point, and it led us to where we are now,” he continued. 

On another note, Max added that for others, soft launches may make it easier to get away with “‘situationships,” a term coined for the will-they-won’t-they type of connection where you and your partner are more than friends, but not in an exclusive relationship either.

He said that many of his friends who get into these types of partnerships often prefer to keep the identity of their partner secret, save for their inner circle. In that sense, it could very well be possible that the soft launch has become a new covert tactic for many to flex their not-so-significant-other, sans the real commitment.

Gone are the days when one introduces their new flame to friends and family without an online heads-up. A more artfully low effort way to gauge their loved one’s reactions is through a carefully curated post. What better way to prolong those grilling interrogations and potentially judgmental stares?

The perks of the soft launch include the ability to re-introduce an old fling without making it glaringly obvious. You might never escape those hateful comments in the group chat, but at least you’ll find comfort in never having to be actually confronted.

Kate*, who described her love life as an epitome of Olivia Rodrigo’s hit song bad idea right?, shared the tumultuous yet thrilling time when she reconnected with an ex-boyfriend.

“My friends immediately recognized him from my soft launch,” she said. “I pretended it was a different guy, [and] thankfully some of them bought it.” 

Is caution killing Cupid?

With this “no harm done in testing the waters” mindset growing, is simply diving into committed relationships no longer the norm?

A 2019 study by Pew Research Center shows that a staggering 48% of young adults view social media as an important way to show how much they care for their partner. If that were really the case, how are soft launches any reflection of this heartfelt appreciation? Sure, some of these blossom into a lasting partnership, but how many can prove that to be true? It begs the question if such posts are simply performative for some – or worse, an easy way out.

The soft launch may also speak to a larger trend of superficial self-curation on social media. A 2023 study by BMC Psychology suggested that photo editing behavior may contribute to feelings of self-perception as an object and basing one’s worth on appearance.

In the same manner, does the soft launch, an implicit performance for validation, lean towards the same artificial type of curation?

Psychologist Van Sela from MindNation weighed in, telling Rappler that the “soft launch” may have deeper psychological implications.

“Both soft launches and curated social media posts may stem from low self-esteem, a need for validation, and fear of rejection,” Sela said. He emphasized that before entering relationships, individuals should cultivate self-worth independent of others’ opinions, rather than seeking validation through such superficial means.

“The soft launches and curated posts serve as mechanisms for seeking approval, which can negatively impact self-esteem and sense of belonging,” he added, suggesting that these behaviors present an idealized facade disconnected from reality, providing only temporary boosts in self-worth while failing to address underlying insecurities.

Ultimately, Sela stressed the importance of authentic confidence before committing to partnerships, “so we don’t treat relationships as just a test before taking the plunge.”

For everyone orchestrating these soft launches, we have a message for you. Before you hit post, take a moment to check your motives. Are you genuinely looking for a connection, or just fishing for likes and validation? However, with the right person (and intention), your next soft launch could very well be your last. –

Editor’s Note: The names of the interviewees were changed to protect their identity and privacy.

Patty Bufi is a Rappler intern.

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