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Culture //

Spectator love and embarrassment online

The meaning behind your love letters.

When I first started at university, a second-year friend told me to follow USYD Love Letters on Facebook. I was new to Facebook at the time, so it was essential student reading. If you’re a social anthropologist studying how university students think about love and dating, there’s a lot to unpack there. Some of it’s funny, most of it’s harmless, a lot of it’s cringey.

USYD Love Letters (now USYD Love Letters Revived) has over 20,000 likes on Facebook. Most, if not all, students on campus are amusedly aware of its existence. Most posts and accompanying comments are plainly inside jokes, interspersed with sincere applications or advertisements of oneself to the online community. Posts often follow the same formula:

To (subject of adoration) + you are so (amazing / hot / cute) + but would you notice me? + plea for coffee / a date / permission to fantasize

It doesn’t take long to see the practical flaw in these posts. On the basic level of finding love (excluding advertisements that could actually yield a result) these posts are pointless. And the submitters know this. So why do they still contribute them, aside from getting a rise out of their mates? And why do students lap it up? The students who submit love letters want the basic gratification of having their feelings heard and acknowledged. It’s a temporary spark of love-nourishment. The students who receive them, however, may get little out of the experience, other than temporary embarrassment or an awkward laugh with their friends who tag them in the comments.

This type of anonymously submitted content represents the illogicality of the initial stage of attraction. It demonstrates the kind of impulsiveness that inspires someone to submit their feelings to a Facebook page, rather than ever approach the subject of their affections, and it allows something interesting to happen. The submission and publication of these love letters voyeuristically allows the entire Facebook community of students to enjoy the untelevised, awkward, real embarrassment of young adult attraction whittled away into its most raw, bite-size form.

A scroll through USYD Love Letters shows paragraphs upon paragraphs of internal monologue that we don’t usually get access to, outside our own heads. To see a nameless random throw out, into the digital ether, the proposition of a date to a cute girl in his economics class validates our own internal, sometimes nonsensical, feelings and decisions when it comes to love and crushes.

On a darker level, these pages set the submitters up for failure. Comments are rarely encouraging (nor should they necessarily be), creating an environment which goads anonymous submitters into divulging their feelings in the internet’s safe space, while the rest of us watch, laughing, from behind our computer screens.

The last 13 months have thrown new light on our sources of entertainment, distraction and escapism. USYD Love Letters, and other pages like it, existed before the pandemic and will probably continue to exist afterwards. However, what they show is the emergence of love and dating as a spectator sport. As opposed to the facade of reality TV, the encounters we see on USYD Love Letters are often quick, transient and unfulfilled. If you pour your heart out online, even anonymously, you subject yourself to mockery. For passive consumers of this content, love, failure, and cringe is the point of it all.